FiveThirtyEight posed a really interesting question Thursday morning: “Is the overwhelmingly negative tenor of Trump coverage a problem for the media, even if it's 100 percent warranted?
— Micah Cohen (@micahcohen) October 5, 2017
The impetus is a recent Pew Research study showing coverage of President Trump's first 60 days was about 12-to-1 negative — much more negative than for other recent presidents. It is not the first study to show this, and last time I made the case for why such negative coverage was warranted.
I stand by that. Trump has done an unprecedented number of controversial, norm-breaking things, and he's told an unprecedented number of often-blatant falsehoods. Whatever you think of his presidency or personal qualities, he's demonstrated a willful disregard for facts, and he seems to subsist on reality-TV-esque manufactured controversies. Because of those things, the coverage is unavoidably going to appear more “negative” than “positive” — no matter how you define those words.
But that's not the same as asking whether this is helping the media. I'll say four things:
- I do worry it is hurting the media with a large portion of the country, possibly irreparably so.
- I'm not sure that can really be avoided — at least to a large degree.
- The new political and media paradigm in the United States undoubtedly feeds and rewards negative coverage of Trump.
- We all need to be super careful.
I've wrestled with this question regularly. My job means writing about Trump a lot, mostly analytically. And most of the things I write about Trump would undoubtedly be coded as “negative” by these studies. When Trump does something controversial, the question isn't about whether to write something, but what can I say that hasn't already been said dozens of times? My beat also includes holding politicians accountable and parsing their words. Trump is a gold mine of content for me.
Checking Twitter in the midst of a controversy often serves to reinforce “negative” angles. One of the odd realities of the Trump presidency is that lots of — and maybe even most — top conservative thinkers and right-leaning journalists will often join Democrats in their outrage over the latest Trump apostasy. Whereas social media might once have been a good place to see what both sides are arguing, on Trump it has become more of an echo chamber, with even conservatives reinforcing the belief that What Trump Just Did Is Very Suspect.
That's not to say the echo chamber is wrong. If you look at Trump's actions, and his policies like the border wall and the travel ban, in most cases a majority of Americans disagree with him. Those defending Trump usually boil down to about 75 percent of the Republican Party base — or about 35 percent of the country — mostly not including the “establishment” class.
GOP lawmakers and Trump aides will also speak out in almost unprecedented ways. Even if you don't believe that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson actually called Trump a “moron,” you've got Trump's top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, starkly and publicly criticizing his Charlottesville response. And the same day the “moron” story broke, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) suggested the administration would be in chaos if not for Tillerson and a couple generals. These things don't just happen, and they betray the real concerns there are about Trump among those who can most closely observe him operate.
If the media didn't cover this discord and controversy, it would be abdicating its role. If it didn't fact-check the thousands of untrue things Trump says — literally — it would be rightfully criticized for failing to do its job as a watchdog of American government. The thousand untrue things account for a huge portion of "negative” coverage, but there's really no other way to do it other than to call out controversies and falsehoods.
But that doesn't mean this whole back-and-forth doesn't hurt the media. And it doesn't mean the media can't take it too far, barraging the White House with negative coverage because it isn't in touch with Trump's base and doesn't carve out time between Trump's self-inflicted controversies to see the positive.
Trump's presidency has taken a rift between the mainstream media and the conservative base and turned it into a chasm, and I've become convinced it's more strategic than most realize. If you look closely at the controversial things Trump does and says, he'll almost always leave himself and his base some plausible deniability. He says something without technically saying it. He's constantly inviting the media to read too much into his innuendo and inviting the people who already believe he's great to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The sum total is that Trump supporters who were already concerned about the “liberal media” now see an avalanche of negative coverage of their president, and it only reinforces their belief that we are out to get him. We can point to Trump's clear falsehoods, but if we have no credibility left with Trump supporters, they'll assume we're dishonestly spinning something he said.
“Fake news” is a perfect mantra because it invites his supporters to dismiss what we say out of hand, without even arguing the specifics. I can say confidently that about 95 percent of criticisms I personally receive from Trump supporters don't actually take issue with anything I've written. They're just personal insults, accusations of bias and chants of “fake news.”
There are no easy answers here, and the media has a role to cover more than just the he-said, she-said of politics. If an administration is riven by infighting and a commander in chief who doesn't inspire confidence in those around him, that is a massive story that must be covered constantly. If a special counsel is trying to ascertain whether the president himself obstructed justice or his campaign colluded with a foreign government, that is also a massive story. If that commander in chief seems to have no real grasp of or respect for the truth? Massive story.
But if one-third of the country already believes you are irredeemably biased, those stories are only going to cement that belief. All you can do from there is try to make your reporting and analysis as fair and honest as possible, and hope that one day those people give you a chance again.
I'll do my best, but I'm not optimistic.