The New York Daily News front page on Friday morning screamed “LIAR” in huge type over a photo of President Donald Trump.
USA Today’s banner headline seconded the motion: “Comey calls Trump a liar.” On cable channels, in broadcast news and even in the sedate Wall Street Journal, Friday morning was one of those days for Trump in the mainstream news media.
In the words of the Judith Viorst children’s book title, it was for Trump another terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
“No wonder Trump is retreating to his Fox News cocoon,” said longtime Washington public relations man Allan Schlosser. “Everywhere else you look, the coverage is overwhelmingly bad for him.”
But that’s nothing new. Last month, a Harvard study reported that in Trump’s first 100 days, about 80 percent of mainstream press coverage reflected negatively on the new president. And the sheer amount of negative news was unprecedented.
Conservative media were quick to laud the study, labeling it proof of liberal media bias – and even better from their point of view, emanating from a cultural-elite bastion like Harvard.
Trump, of course, has been playing the victim card for months.
“Look at the way I’ve been treated lately, especially by the media,” he complained in a commencement address last month to U.S. Coast Guard graduates. “No politician in history – and I say this with great surety – has been treated worse or more unfairly.”
Looked at through this lens, Trump’s press coverage has been a political nightmare. Isn’t that terribly unfair?
Here’s my carefully nuanced answer: Hell no.
That’s because when we consider negative vs. positive coverage of an elected official, we’re asking the wrong question.
The president’s supporters often say his accomplishments get short shrift. But let’s face it: Politicians have no right to expect equally balanced positive and negative coverage, or anything close to it. If a president is doing a rotten job, it’s the duty of the press to report how and why he’s doing a rotten job.
The idea of balance is suspect on its face. Should positive coverage be provided, as if it were a birthright, to a president who consistently lies, who has spilled classified information to an adversary, and who fired an FBI director who was investigating his administration?
Certainly not. That’s why efforts like a New York Times op-ed’s pitch to “say something nice about Donald Trump” is so absurd, even if meant as tongue-in-cheek to begin with.
It’s reasonable, however – in fact, crucial – to consider some different questions: those involving fairness, focus and overkill.
When news organizations get something wrong, do they acknowledge and correct it quickly? Or do they just move on and hope nobody notices?Do journalists allow the president and his administration to respond to criticism and give his response prominent placement?Do news sites give serious, sustained attention to policy issues as well as publishing innumerable hot takes about the personality-driven dust-up of the moment?Harvard professor Thomas E. Patterson, the study’s author, sees trouble on that last point.
“The press is focusing on personality not substance,” he said recently on public radio’s “On the Media” program. And that reflects “not a partisan bias but a journalistic bias,” the tendency to seek out conflict. (No mystery there – it’s more interesting.)
“It’s the press in its usual mode, and that erodes public trust,” Patterson said.
And then there’s the dirty little secret that every journalist knows – Trump stories drive ratings and clicks. The word “Trump” in a headline vastly increases its chances of getting attention. (We’re all guilty; see above.)
Say what you will about the president, he continues to have one thing dead right: Donald Trump is a ratings machine.
Thus, home pages of news organizations or hour upon hour of cable news are relentlessly focused on the president – not always because of solid newsworthiness.
“Journalists would do well to spend less time in Washington and more time in places where policy intersects with people’s lives,” the Harvard study reasonably suggests. “If they had done so during the presidential campaign, they would not have missed the story that keyed Trump’s victory – the fading of the American Dream for millions of ordinary people.”
And that’s a far better subject for self-scrutiny than trying to force more positive coverage of the president.
We’ve got plenty of things to improve on. Giving Trump gratuitous strokes is not one of them.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was The New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of The Buffalo News, her hometown paper. Reach her at Margaret.Sullivan@washpost.com.