New presidents and their executive branch teams endeavor to make a good first impression. To that end, incoming presidential administrations carefully organize their public affairs staff, select issues they wish to emphasize, and try to present the president in ways that will maximize public support and approval of the new chief executive (Han 2001; Kumar 2002, 2003; Lowi 1985). While some media stories develop as a result of administration efforts to set the political agenda, including the presidential tax plans of 1981, 1993, and 2001, there are limits to what can be accomplished through executive branch media management initiatives. Often-skeptical reporters may or may not accept the framing of a story proposed by the executive branch (Cook 1998; Iyengar 1991; Kurtz 1994). More importantly, unanticipated events, including the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, dramatically affect presidential popularity and can come to dominate media coverage of a significant part of a presidency (cf. Gregg and Rozell 2003; Iyengar 1991; Kernell 1997; Woodward 2002).
The content of news reports can expand or limit the ability of presidents to pursue their policy agendas (Abramson, Aldrich, and Rohde 1982, 2002; Booth 2002; Campbell and Rockman 1996; Ceaser and Busch 2001; Kumar 2003; Sabato 2002; Sabato, Stencel, and Lichter 2000; Woodward 2002). Presidents whose administrations are viewed as effective are likely to enjoy the high public approval ratings that help with passing legislation (Gregg and Rozell 2003; Kernell 1997).
For most people most of the time, public perspectives on the presidency are formed largely through a news media led by the "big three" broadcast television networks of ABC, CBS, and NBC (Farnsworth and Lichter 2003; Graber 2002). Although their influence has declined over the past quarter century, the networks, along with the many news organizations around the country that follow their lead, are the lenses through which most citizens view their government (Cook 1998; Graber 2002; Sparrow 1999). Newer media sources, including 24-hour cable news, the Internet, and a revived talk radio, have not displaced the old; instead, they offer a wider range of choices for news consumers, many of whom continue to rely heavily on the evening network newscasts (Davis 1999; Davis and Owen 1998; Farnsworth and Lichter 2003; Seib 2001).
This study examined network television news coverage of the federal government during the first calendar year of the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. For Bush, we also divided the results into coverage before and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. (We excluded the military services, whose role in government is distinctive enough to require its own analysis.) The three presidencies examined here comprise the three most recent partisan transfers of power involving the executive branch. Partisan changes of power involve substantial policy and personnel shifts, and therefore represent more comparable periods for comparison than a same-party change of power. They are also periods of heightened attention to the White House, as partisans look to the future with either optimism or dread.
Although presidents do not take office until January 20, presidents-elect become the focus of governmental coverage well before the inauguration ceremony. We therefore included stories about the incoming administration starting January 1 (but excluded the coverage of the outgoing administration). This approach enabled us to examine the status of proposed agenda items and the reception given to Cabinet nominees and other appointments as a new administration made its transition into power.
A comparative study of first-year coverage of the three most recent partisan changes in the executive branch enables us to chart changing trends in the volume and tone of network news reports during three different decades. …