The Kavanaugh Confirmation Through the Eyes of Television
The confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court captivated the nation over more than four months, at one point dominating overall airtime on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. What can we learn about the evolution of major political stories through a closer examination of how the major cable news channels covered this story?
Using data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive and analyzed by the GDELT Project, the total airtime of CNN, Fox News and MSNBC from June 1, 2018 through Oct. 14, 2018 was divided into 15-second intervals. The timeline below shows the percentages of those blocks by outlet that mentioned “Kavanaugh” each day over that time frame, showing the progression of the story as it unfolded. (It’s worth pointing out that this measurement approach has a limitation, in that extended periods of confirmation hearing coverage involved comments from the nominee and his questioners in which the word “Kavanaugh” was not uttered and thus not recorded in this graph. As a result, the percentage totals undercount coverage of the hearing. Nonetheless, as a relative measurement, particularly regarding comparative cable outlet coverage and subsequent discussion and commentary on the story, they are instructive.)
The first glimmers of coverage began June 27, as speculation arose that Judge Kavanaugh could be nominated, ramping up over the following days through July 10, the day after President Trump formally announced the nomination, as the press digested the news and the nominee had his first meetings with senators.
The next major surge in coverage came from Sept. 2 through the Sept. 4 start of his confirmation hearing as the news channels began debating the impact he would bring to the court and digested the steady stream of information emerging about his background.
The first day of the hearing garnered only 10 percent of that day’s airtime (again, this is an artificially low representation of the day-long, gavel-to-gavel coverage) on the three channels, with “Kavanaugh” references dropping precipitously over the subsequent days of hearings. This rapid decline is typically a positive sign when it comes to confirmation hearings in that it means nothing unexpected has emerged that might change senators’ views.
On Sept. 12 an anonymous complaint emerged that accused the judge of committing sexual assault in his high school years. Surprisingly, this did not substantially change interest in the confirmation. It was not until Christine Blasey Ford was named publicly two days later that the confirmation took on new meaning, redefined from a simple judicial nomination into an extension of the #MeToo movement.
It is worth reflecting on the fact that as the story emerged over Sept. 12-13 of the existence of a letter detailing allegations against Kavanaugh in high school and especially as those allegations crystalized on the 13th into claims of sexual assault, the major television news outlets paid surprisingly little attention. Even the publication of many of the details of the alleged assault was not enough to attract substantial media interest. It was not until the name of the accuser became widely known on the 15th that the allegations were suddenly a major story. This offers a useful commentary on our media today: An anonymous allegation of assault receives little attention, but once the story is humanized with a name it becomes news.
By the time of the Senate’s final vote on Oct. 6, the outcome had become a foregone conclusion and the media was already losing interest in the story. By Wednesday of the following week, the story was over and the media had largely moved on.
Perhaps the most remarkable element of the timeline above is how bipartisan the coverage was across the three channels, with CNN, Fox News and MSNBC nearly in lockstep over more than four months. It is rare to see a political story that receives nearly identical attention across the ideological spectrum.
Looking at online news coverage of the story in the timeline below (the Y axis reports the percentage of online news stories monitored by GDELT that mentioned “Kavanaugh” anywhere in the article), the results are nearly identical to television (correlation is 0.95). This suggests the results above were not an artifact of television or unique to these three stations, but rather indicative of how media as a whole covered the Kavanaugh story.
Putting this all together, the timelines above show the degree to which the Kavanaugh confirmation process captivated the nation, accounting for at least a quarter of television news airtime at its peak. Unlike many political stories, the confirmation process received nearly equal attention across the ideological spectrum. The importance of the human factor in capturing the attention of the media can be seen in the fact that the sexual assault allegations garnered little coverage until there was a name and a face attached to them. Finally, these timelines show us that even the biggest political stories generating wall-to-wall coverage eventually fade away just as quickly.