The Nightly News Nightmare: Network Television's Coverage of U.S. Presidential Elections, 1988-2000

By Benjamin, Louise | Journalism History, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

The Nightly News Nightmare: Network Television's Coverage of U.S. Presidential Elections, 1988-2000


Benjamin, Louise, Journalism History


Farnsworth, Stephen J., and Robert S. Lichter. The Nightly News Nightmare: Network Television's Coverage of U.S. Presidential Elections, 1988-2000. Lanham, Md: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003. 228 pp. $22.95.

Conducted by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA), this book analyzes the last four presidential elections through careful examination of 5,847 network news campaign stories for those elections. This is part of a total CMPA content analysis of more than 22,000 campaign items from the last four presidential elections, and all are employed in this book to make the argument that network television news coverage has worsened over time.

The authors focus on four key dimensions to show this disintegration: the increasing focus on the horse race, or "who's ahead," rather than on matters of substance within the election; the increasing problems of accuracy and fairness in coverage; the growing focus on reporters and anchors instead of candidates; and the declining amount of campaign coverage. The collected data also permit comparisons of network news with other media outlets, such as PBS and major newspapers, and non-mediated coverage, such as candidate websites and the carrying of speeches on C-SPAN. While the picture of network coverage is bleak, Stephen J. Farnsworth and Robert S. Lichter predict that a new amalgam of competing voices will emerge, and "network television evening news shows, as America has known them since the 1960s, must evolve or they will likely die like the dinosaurs before them."

The authors trace the four elections through six chapters. The first presents an overview of the CMPA project and this particular study. The second compares news coverage from ABC, CBS, and NBC during the last four presidential elections, and the third deals with the increasing amount of time reporters and anchors devote to their own comments rather than to candidate coverage. …

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