Donald Trump dominates the elite media’s news coverage, with much of the coverage negative, “setting a new standard for unfavorable press coverage of a president,” according to a new study of the press via Harvard University.
The study from the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy exhibits a firm if still intriguing grasp of the obvious when it comes to a certain slice of press coverage.
Indeed, as tends to be the case with such dissections, it analyzes coverage by those media that academia (and the press itself) tend to be most drawn to: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, the primary newscasts of CBS, CNN, Fox News and NBC. It includes Europe’s Financial Times, BBC and Germany’s ARD.
There’s nothing about a vast array of other outlets, especially news outlets, that tend to have far greater audiences, especially in local markets. How much time have they devoted to Trump and what’s been the editorial thrust?
Still, to the extent that a narrow slice sets influential news agendas, the report is useful as it scrutinizes coverage of Trump’s first 100 days and finds he was “the topic of 41 percent of all news stories — three times the amount of coverage received by previous presidents.”
“Trump has received unsparing coverage for most weeks of his presidency, without a single major topic where Trump’s coverage, on balance, was more positive than negative, setting a new standard for unfavorable press coverage of a president,” reads the report by Thomas Patterson, a respected government and press analyst.
“Fox was the only news outlet in the study that came close to giving Trump positive coverage overall, however, there was variation in the tone of Fox’s coverage depending on the topic.”
Patterson’s larger historical analysis offers the helpful reminder that bashing the media is not a new phenomenon for a president. There’s a long history and, while the report argues that Trump is different by being so public and so obviously relishing a fight, it notes how others, notably Richard Nixon, threatened the press with serious injury (in Nixon’s case, the never-executed threat of yanking broadcast licenses).
The report portrays a media that was initially solicitous to Trump, later more critical and, now, distinctly combative. And, all along, he was fascinating and clearly a positive influence on ratings and circulation, especially on the digital side of elite newspapers.
“Our studies of 2016 presidential election coverage found that Trump received more news coverage than rival candidates during virtually every week of the campaign. The reason is clear enough. Trump is a journalist’s dream.”
“Reporters are tuned to what’s new and different, better yet if it’s laced with controversy. Trump delivers that type of material by the shovel full. Trump is also good for business. News ratings were slumping until Trump entered the arena. Said one network executive, ‘[Trump] may not be good for America, but [he’s] damn good for [us].'”
The report serves as a window, too, onto the mentality of journalists — in ways that might ruffle Fox News and other exemplars of conservative conventional wisdom in portraying the “mainstream” press as driven by liberal bias.
“Although journalists are accused of having a liberal bias, their real bias is a preference for the negative.”
Patterson harkens to the Vietnam War and Watergate eras in arguing that an anti-political mindset overrode personal political ideology and has remained in place.
“Journalists’ incentives, everything from getting their stories on the air to acquiring a reputation as a hard-hitting reporter, encourage journalists to focus on what’s wrong with politicians rather than what’s right.”
And there’s this interesting empirical tidbit: “Of the past four presidents, only Barack Obama received favorable coverage during his first 100 days, after which the press reverted to form.”
Trump coverage has accelerated what had been a norm, it appears, setting what the report deems “a new standard for negativity.” And that’s despite the disproportionate amount of the time that Trump himself is quoted, which is seemingly unusual in a world in which politicians tend to bitch that their low esteem partly reflects the press not airing or giving space to their own declarations.
Reliance on Trump’s own comments aside, “Of news reports with a clear tone, negative reports outpaced positive ones by 80 percent to 20 percent. Trump’s coverage was unsparing. In no week did the coverage drop below 70 percent negative and it reached 90 percent negative at its peak.”
The report also takes subject categories, such as immigration and the economy, to assess how they’ve been handled.
There are some differences — immigration was overwhelmingly harsh, economic coverage not nearly as much — but one common denominator is that while most of the elite press was negative, Fox News was less so (interestingly, The Wall Street Journal resembled the others more than it did Fox).
At the same time, the elite media caricature of Fox as unremitting Trump shill gets its comeuppance under this more empirical lens (that also includes interesting results on the dominance of Republican newsmakers in commenting upon Trump).
Yes, Fox gave Trump favorable coverage but not overwhelmingly so. By this analysis, the “split was 52 percent negative to 48 percent positive.” Liberals’ assumption that Fox is handmaiden to the White House Press Office needs more than one asterisk.
No surprise, Fox coverage differed as a function of the topic at hand, with some very negative, some very positive. And, “As was true at the other outlets, Fox’s reporters found few good things to say about the public and judicial response to Trump’s executive orders banning Muslim immigrants or the collapse of the House of Representatives’ first attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare.”
“Fox’s reporting on Trump’s appointees and Russian involvement in the election was also negative in tone.”
The report ultimately demurs from concluding if the press has been unfair. But it seems to strain to straddle a fence that includes its own deep suspicions (perhaps typical in academic halls these days) about Trump and the arguable implication that negative coverage is warranted.
“If a mud fight with Trump will not serve the media’s interests, neither will a soft peddling of his coverage. Never in the nation’s history has the country had a president with so little fidelity to the facts, so little appreciation for the dignity of the presidential office, and so little understanding of the underpinnings of democracy.”
Yes, it agrees, the credibility of the press is low. But, it also underscores, “the Trump presidency is not the time for the press to pull back” even while conceding, “the sheer level of negative coverage gives weight to Trump’s contention, one shared by his core constituency, that the media are hell bent on destroying his presidency.”
It concludes with brief reference to one seeming legacy of 2016 campaign coverage: the press missing the concerns of “Main Street.”
“The lesson of the 2016 election has been taken to heart by many journalists. Since Trump’s inauguration, the press has been paying more attention to Main Street. But judging from the extent to which Trump’s voice has dominated coverage of his presidency, the balance is still off.”
Of course, that might also apply to elite academics, too.