If you are one of President Trump's 52 million Twitter followers, or even if you are not, there is a good chance you've heard about studies that show the president's news coverage is overwhelmingly negative. Trump has tweeted multiple times about such statistical reports, some of which come from right-leaning sources such as the Media Research Center, while others originate from nonpartisan groups like the Pew Research Center and Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
We've written about the analyses in The Washington Post, too.
Trump appears to be cherry-picking figures when he claims 90-plus percent of his media coverage is negative. Studies by Pew and Shorenstein have found negativity rates in that range — but only among news reports with clear tones. Both organizations have found that about one-third of reports are neutral, meaning the true frequency of negative reporting is considerably lower.
Still, the consistent conclusion of media analysts is that Trump gets more bad coverage than good — and more bad coverage than his recent predecessors.
Tim Miller, the communications director of Jeb Bush's 2016 presidential campaign and the self-described “token Republican” at Crooked Media, argues in a counterintuitive article on the liberal website that the imbalance in Trump coverage is not inherently problematic. On the contrary, Miller contends, the problem is that journalists' inclination to pursue balance deters them from being as negative as they should be:
Here’s the thing: If the leader of the country is lying 100 percent of the time, then the coverage of his comments needs to be 100 percent negative. Trump uses the sense that coverage of the president needs to be balanced to avoid accountability. It’s why pundits lavish praise on him anytime he gives a speech that doesn’t include conspiratorial race-baiting, and have been quick to praise him for a nascent diplomatic entreaty with North Korea that, by any relative measure, has been messy and ad hoc at best.
Trump does not lie 100 percent of the time, though he has made 3,251 false or misleading claims as president, according to The Washington Post Fact Checker. Miller's point — a sound one — is that the media should not seek balance for their own sake but rather should portray Trump's actions as they are.
A president is not entitled to coverage that is half-positive and half-negative; he deserves whatever split his governing warrants.
Yet, as Miller sees it, “a mixture of fundamental human nature and incentives in journalism that reward recency, access, and 'balance,' pressure reporters into treating President Trump with far more leniency than he deserves.”
In the summer on Fox News, which made “fair and balanced” its slogan for two decades, “Special Report” anchor Bret Baier said that “on the news side of Fox, we try very hard to provide balanced coverage of this administration.” Baier pointed to the Shorenstein study and said, “Harvard found 'Special Report' was 52 percent negative to 48 percent positive about the administration — in other words, balanced.”
The implication was that such balance is, on its own, a journalistic virtue. Baier held up his program's balance as a reason Trump should grant an interview. Trump still has not appeared on Baier's show.
A challenge of covering Trump is his propensity to trample on what ought to be purely good headlines. On Friday, for instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate has fallen to an 18-year low of 3.8 percent. As The Washington Post's Philip Bump observed, the black unemployment rate is the lowest ever recorded and is as close to the white unemployment rate as it has ever been.
How could the media possibly find fault?
Well, Trump appeared to be so excited by the excellent jobs figures that he dropped a hint about them on Twitter before their public release.
The Post's Damian Paletta noted that Trump “broke with decades of protocol” when he commented prematurely on the jobs numbers. What's more, Paletta wrote, “Bloomberg News data also showed that the value of the U.S. dollar moved sharply higher after the Twitter post,” meaning “traders were probably making investment decisions based on signals they took from Trump’s post.”
The usual protocol — that members of the executive branch not comment on jobs numbers until at least one hour after their release — is designed to prevent the kind of market influence Trump seemed to exert on Friday.
Once again, the media must decide how to weigh Trump's flouting of political norms and a positive development on his watch — and, perhaps, stave off a sense that the president might have been right when he tweeted in February that there are “so many positive things going on for the U.S.A. and the Fake News Media just doesn’t want to go there.”