All three major candidates had most success in projecting their message about character on MSNBC. Obama and Clinton received roughly equally positive narratives (70% for Obama and 72% for Clinton). The tilt was not as heavily for McCain (53%) but that was still better coverage than he received on either of the other two cable channels.
The Clinton campaign had MSNBC to thank for a greater portion of statements disputing the concept that she is unlikable, 22% on MSNBC versus 13% on CNN and 12% on Fox News.
For McCain, two factors contributed to his more positive image. First, MSNBC gave more attention than the other cable channels to his appeal to independents and moderates (22% versus 13% on CNN and 11% on Fox News.) In addition, MSNBC focused less on criticisms of him as not reliably conservative. Just 39% of MSNBC’s assertions about McCain were on this topic compared to 49% on Fox News and 46% on CNN.
The biggest factor for Obama’s positive coverage on MSNBC was less coverage of the assertion that he is too inexperienced to be president. Only 7% of the Obama themes on MSNBC made this claim compared with 17% on Fox News and 19% on CNN.
In our study of the first three months of the campaign in 2007 and again in the primary season of 2008, we found that MSNBC has been consistently more positive to all of the candidates than any other cable channel.
Fox News was the harshest of the three channels on the presumptive Republican nominee. More than half (55%) of the prominent personal statements about McCain were negative, the vast majority of which (49% overall) questioned his conservatism.
In its criticism, Fox News devoted more overall attention to McCain compared with the other cable channels, nearly the same attention it gave the two leading Democrats, 36% for McCain, 37% for Clinton and 39% for Obama. Both CNN and MSNBC, on the other hand, devoted far less of their coverage to the McCain campaign than they did to Clinton’s or Obama’s.
Fox News was also more positive in its portrayal of Obama’s major personal narrative than either McCain or Clinton. Fully 69% of the assertions about Obama personally were positive, a number that rivals what he received on MSNBC (70%).
Fox News did offer more positive than negative assertions about Clinton, but less so than the other channels (54% positive versus 70% on CNN and 72% on MSNBC). In particular, Fox News gave more attention to the image of Clinton as unlikable and divisive than either of the other networks, (22% versus 13% on CNN and only 4% on MSNBC).
If MSNBC was the most positive channel for each candidate, and Fox News was the harshest on Clinton and McCain, then CNN fell somewhere in between.
Coverage of Clinton’s personal narrative was nearly as positive as on MSNBC, an overwhelming 70% of all assertions studied. McCain’s personal message was almost evenly balanced (49% positive and 51% negative), versus a negative tilt on Fox (55% negative) and a positive one on MSNBC (53% positive)
Obama, on the other hand, found CNN to be much tougher on his campaign than either of the other channels. In particular, CNN spent less time reaffirming the notion that Obama representing hope and change (19% of Obama themes versus 28% on Fox and 26% on MSNBC). The network also spent more time questioning his integrity and honesty (11% versus 6% at both MSNBC and Fox.)