In a Harvard study last month, it was reported that in President Trump’s first 100 days, about 80% of the mainstream press coverage reflected negatively on the new president. The amount of negative news was unprecedented. With Trump and the press, it’s not “the good, the bad and the ugly,” it’s just “the bad and the ugly.”
On Friday, the New York Daily News ran a front page that read “LIAR” in massive type over a photo of the president. USA Today’s headline was similar: “Comey calls Trump a liar.” A longtime Washington public relations man, Allan Schlosser, said, “No wonder Trump is retreating to his Fox News cocoon. Everywhere else you look, the coverage is overwhelmingly bad for him.”
Trump has been complaining about his negative press for months, “Look at the way I’ve been treated lately, especially by the media. No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly,” Trump said while speaking to the U.S. Coast Guard graduates.
Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s media columnist, asked herself this question in reference to Trump’s negative press: “Is that terribly unfair?”
Sullivan’s “carefully nuanced” answer was: “Hell, no.”
This is her rationale: “When we consider negative vs. positive coverage of an elected official, we’re asking the wrong question.”
Sullivan elaborates in her article, “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 lousy 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 the FBI director who was investigating his administration?”
The Washington Post media columnist says there are other questions that should be asked, questions that focus on fairness, attention, 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?
If these questions were seriously considered by the mainstream media, it would provide more balance to the pull that every journalist must feel: Controversial Trump stories drive ratings, clicks and profits. The president is absolutely right about this, he is a ratings machine. Harvard professor Thomas E. Patterson, who wrote the study mentioned above, said on public radio’s “On the Media,” “The press is focusing on personality, not substance.” And that reflects “not a partisan bias but a journalistic bias,” the tendency to seek out conflict.
So what do you think? Is Sullivan right that “fair or unfair” is not really the question we should be asking?
Credit: The Washing Post