STUDY: Media Loved Interviewing Trump’s 2020 Opponents, But Not Biden’s 2024 Rivals

News & Politics

In 2020 and 2024 respectively, GOP President Donald Trump and Democratic President Joe Biden each faced three longshot primary challengers, but the media coverage of these campaigns was vastly different, a NewsBusters study has found.

Analysts analyzed all programming on ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, CNN, and MSNBC of Trump challengers from April 15, 2019 to March 18, 2020, and of Biden challengers from March 4, 2023 to March 6, 2024, and found that the Republican challengers of former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh, and former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford got 115 interviews during the campaign. By contrast, the Democratic challengers of 2020 candidate and self-help author Marianne Williamson, environmental lawyer and anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips received only 25.

During the 2020 Republican Primary, MSNBC interviewed a Republican 62 times. Throughout the 2024 Democratic Primary, it only gave four interviews to Biden’s challengers. CNN came in at a 47:16 Republican-to-Democrat ratio. For PBS, the ratio was 4:0. The three main networks were more even. NBC had a 1:1 ratio, while ABC and CBS actually featured more Democrats at 1:3 and 0:1, respectively.

Weld led all candidates with 64 interviews, followed by Walsh with 32, and Sanford with 18. The three Republicans also appeared jointly on the September 23, 2019, edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe. On the Democratic side, Phillips led with 19 interviews, while Williamson got four, and Kennedy received two.

The media also agreed with the GOP challengers’ assessment of their party’s incumbent.  On February 9, 2020, MSNBC Live host Ali Velshi asked the pro-abortion Weld, “What levers have thinking, principled Republicans got at this point to try to wrest control from a Republican Party in which 94 percent of the people support Donald Trump?”

Referencing Trump, on April 19, 2019, MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle told him that “the only way you beat a bully is to face off against him.”

During Trump’s first impeachment, CNN’s Brian Stelter told Walsh, “I was thrilled you could join me because you’ve been calling this out, saying that this alternative reality is something that the Americans need to understand.”

On the aforementioned joint Morning Joe appearance, none of the regular cast seemed to care that Weld suggested that Trump be executed for treason.

Four years later, the tone shifted as Phillips was grilled if he was hurting Biden. On January 23, 2024’s edition of CNN This Morning, Poppy Harlow asked him, “So do you think that this bid, what you’ve done, has made President Biden stronger? Because that was one of your goals, if it’s not going to be you, make him stronger. Have you succeeded in that?”

Additionally, the type of coverage varied greatly, even if the time counts were not wildly different. The Republicans received 14 hours, 55 minutes, and 6 seconds of time devoted to their campaigns, while the Democrats received 10 hours and 57 minutes.

On the GOP side, the amount of time each candidate received was correlated to the length of their campaign. The percentage breakdowns came in at 45 percent for Weld, 34 percent for Walsh, and 21 percent for Sanford. 

However, during the 2024 Democratic cycle, RFK Jr. received a vastly disproportionate amount of coverage as anchor after anchor warned their potentially disillusioned liberal audiences that, despite the family name, Kennedy was and is a dangerous anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist and Russia apologist, the left, including 2020 Williamson, and the media’s prior record of vaccines and Russia notwithstanding. For instance, on June 20, 2023’s edition of CNN Tonight, Abby Phillip asserted, “As expected, he made a lot of wild and, frankly, dangerous claims” on The Joe Rogan Experience.

The percentage breakdowns for Democrats were 71 percent for Kennedy, 21 percent for Phillips, and just eight percent for Williamson.

None of the six challengers ever had a realistic chance of dethroning their party’s incumbent, but the difference between how the media treated Trump’s challengers and how they treated Biden’s was a proxy for how they treated the two men themselves.

NOTES AND METHODOLOGY: All programming on ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, CNN, and MSNBC from April 15, 2019-March 18, 2020, and March 4, 2023-March 6, 2024 was analyzed. Coverage was defined as anything related to the issues of the campaign, but not polling analysis, primary election night vote counting analysis, or passing acknowledgments of the campaigns’ existence. Timeframes for Weld, Walsh, Sanford, Kennedy, and Phillips were from campaign launch dates through the day they suspended their campaigns. Williamson’s end date was defined as Super Tuesday or March 5, 2024. Kennedy’s count was based only on his time campaigning as a Democrat.

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