June 13, 2016

Instead of bashing the press as dishonest, Donald Trump should get on bended knee and thank it, if you buy into a new Harvard study on election coverage.

Journalists were “unmindful that they and not the electorate” were Donald Trump’s target during the so-called “invisible primary” leading up to the first votes being cast in New Hampshire and Iowa, according to the study.

Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy unveiled on Monday the report, which seems a bit narrow in focus even if broad, and possibly accurate, in condemnation of coverage.

It maintains that the yearlong period leading up to the initial votes diverged from precedent when it comes to two “basic indicators of news coverage [that] would have predicted Trump’s heavy coverage.”

First there is a candidate’s standing in polls. Second is one’s ability to raise money, which tends to be seen by journalists and the political establishment as a metric of inherent and potential strength. Neither of these indicators explains Trump’s coverage, according to the report:

When his news coverage began to shoot up, he was not high in the trial-heat polls and had raised almost no money. Upon entering the race, he stood much taller in the news than he stood in the polls. By the end of the invisible primary, he was high enough in the polls to get the coverage expected of a frontrunner. But he was lifted to that height by an unprecedented amount of free media.

It then asks a decidedly rhetorical question: what was the fascination with Trump for the press? The answer: “Journalists are attracted to the new, the unusual, the sensational — the type of story material that will catch and hold an audience’s attention. Trump fit that need as no other candidate in recent memory. Trump is arguably the first bona fide media-created presidential nominee. Although he subsequently tapped a political nerve, journalists fueled his launch.”

In a conclusion sure to be disputed by some reporters, it contends that journalists “seemed unmindful that they and not the electorate were Trump’s first audience. Trump exploited their lust for riveting stories. He didn’t have any other option. He had no constituency base and no claim to presidential credentials.”

The notion of no-constituency base may also inspire some qualms among reporters. They may contend, albeit in a certain hindsight, that there was a base in a celebrity-craving nation, especially White working-class members, possessing distinct economic grievances and drawn to Trump’s anti-establishment stance.

The Harvard paper is arguably Old Media-skewing in its methodology. It assesses that pre-primaries period via stories by eight organizations: CBS, Fox, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

There’s thus no dissection of cable news campaign coverage, which has expanded in dramatic fashion, or social media, all the more so given Trump’s bombastic, prolific and seemingly effective use of it. None of the new digital news dynamos are critiqued, either. But the lack of cable news analysis in the study seems especially unfortunate when Harvard makes the case for unmindful coverage. Many reporters, especially on the print side, might point a finger at cable news for giving Trump inordinate time and being often uncritical.

But it seeks to pre-empt some journalists’ response to criticism that they “fueled the Trump bandwagon.” First, it refutes the notion that reporters were in “watchdog” mode and that bad Trump news coverage outpaced the good. Second, it derides the claim that the cable news networks were a prime handmaiden of Trump via blanket coverage, while others were more restrained.

Its data concludes that Trump coverage was “favorable in all of the news outlets we studied. There were differences from one outlet to the next but the range was relatively small, from a low of 63 percent positive or neutral in The New York Times to a high of 74 percent positive or neutral in USA Today. Across all the outlets, Trump’s coverage was roughly two-to-one favorable.”

On the Democratic side, it doesn’t buy into the notion of Bernie Sanders as an essentially forgotten (by the media) candidate until very late in the game. It finds that after a predictably modest amount of coverage, and characterization as a long-shot, coverage picked up and was “tonally” more positive than that of Hillary Clinton.

The study concludes with looks at what it deems the “metanarratives,” or general storylines about candidates, that surface in the pre-primaries period.

Whether the metanarratives that emerged during the 2016 invisible primary will persist is a yet unanswered question but the outlines of these early narratives was unmistakable.

Trump was a “shoot-from-the-lip bully, given to braggadocio and insulting and outrageous comments,” while supposedly touching the frustrations of middle-and lower-class white prospective voters. Meanwhile, Clinton “was the candidate best prepared for the presidency as a result of her experience and detailed knowledge of policy issues.”

Where she fell short was in how that characterization “competed with more frequently employed negative ones — that she was difficult to like, overly calculating, and hard to trust.”

The study of campaign coverage in 2016 is not the first and surely won’t be the last since the contest, especially Trump’s rise, will be a feast for analysts and academics for years to come.

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New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
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