The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump was right. He got incredibly negative press coverage.

President-elect Donald Trump. (Gerry Broome/AP)

One of Donald Trump's hobbyhorses during the presidential campaign and even now that he has emerged as the president-elect is how deeply negative the media coverage of him was during the 2016 race. Turns out he was right, according to a new study out of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

“His coverage was negative from the start [of the general election] and never came close to entering positive territory,” writes Thomas E. Patterson, the Bradlee professor of government and the press at Harvard. “During his best weeks, the coverage ran 2-to-1 negative over positive. In his worst weeks, the ratio was more than 10-to-1. If there was a silver lining for Trump, it was that his two best weeks were the ones just preceding the November balloting.”

The negativity of the coverage was broadly consistent across each of the outlets the Harvard study included. CBS had the most negative coverage and Fox News Channel the least negative, but the differences between the two were not vast.

Not only was Trump's press coverage uniformly negative, it was also more negative in tone than Hillary Clinton's. In the general election, 77 percent of the coverage of Trump was negative as compared with 64 percent of the Clinton coverage. (For the entire campaign — including the primary — Clinton had the more negative coverage — 62 percent to 56 percent.)

Of course! Trump and his allies will shout. This proves the point we've been making all along: The media was/is biased against him!

Sure, that is one conclusion. But I think it's an overly simplistic one that misses Trump's agency in all of the negative press his campaign got. Again, quoting from the Harvard study:

Trump’s policy issues got less coverage during the general election than did a series of controversies that began with his attack on the Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan after they had criticized him in a speech at the Democratic convention. That was followed by controversies involving the Trump Foundation, his refusal to release his tax returns, his avoidance of paying federal taxes, his allegation that the system was rigged against him, and his refusal  (“unless I win”) to say that he would accept the election outcome. Trump’s most heavily covered controversy was triggered by the release of a video that captured him on microphone bragging about groping women without their consent, saying that “when you’re a star, they let you do it.” It was made public in early October, driving Trump’s negative coverage from the 70-percent range into the 90-percent range.

Any candidate — Democrat or Republican — who said and did the things Trump said and did during the fall campaign would have received lots of press attention, most of it negative. To not cover things like this in a critical manner would mean that the media wasn't doing its job. Is there a “positive” way to cover Trump's decision to engage in a days-long verbal fight with the parents of a Muslim American soldier who lost his life in Iraq? Or Trump's refusal — a complete break with tradition — to release his federal tax returns? Not really.

To do and say what Trump did in the general election and then complain about the negative tone of the coverage is sort of like being surprised that you attract bears after you smeared yourself with honey in the middle of the forest. Actions have consequences.

You can be sure that Trump won't focus on that nuance when reporting these numbers. He will note that even Harvard(!) has a study that totally vindicates his contention of media negativity and bias. And the people who support him, already poised to believe the worst about the media, will take it as proof positive that what Trump has been saying all along about the media being the most dishonest people is now proven to be right. That, of course, isn't the whole story.