I recently came across a blog post making what I think is a pretty important distinction between biased media coverage and negative media coverage.
A common complaint of President Trump and others in the GOP is that a high percentage of media coverage of him is “negative.” The official GOP Twitter account often tweets about this, sometimes citing a statistic from a Harvard study stating that over 90% of media coverage of Trump is negative. This, the President and his allies complain, is evidence of bias. In this post I argue that “negative” coverage itself isn’t necessarily “biased,” and is often perfectly fair. However, it is often easy to confuse negativity and bias, and it is similarly easy for them to overlap within the reporting of a story. As a result, many casual media observers feel like media sources have become recently more biased against Trump because of a seeming increase in negative reporting about him.
When is negative reporting simply unbiased reporting of the facts, and when is it bias? Almost 100% of stories about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults are negative, but no one says it is because newspapers are biased against Weinstein himself. Almost 100% of stories about drunk drivers are negative, but no one says it is because the local news anchors are biased against drunk drivers. We intuit that the reporting is appropriate because the sexual assaults and the drunk driving themselves are bad things. Often, when the news reports that someone did a bad thing, it’s because the thing was actually bad.
With their accusations of “fake news” and complaints that equate critical coverage with bias, Trump supporters are trying to de-legitimate reports on this President and this administration. That in itself isn’t new–partisans of all sorts engage in spin intended to counter bad publicity.
I think there are aspects of this pushback that are new, however. One is fairly obvious: this is the first President in my lifetime who is seemingly incapable of generating good news. This administration is so ignorant of governance, not to mention venal, incompetent and mean-spirited, that the negative coverage isn’t a consequence of emphasizing the bad stuff and ignoring the good. There isn’t any good.
The second element that is new is demographic. The President’s critics are, by and large, educated people–both Democrats and Republicans. (I can’t think of any other President who has repelled so high a percentage of his own party’s elder statesmen and intellectuals.) His defenders tend to be people whose arguments–on Facebook, Twitter and right-wing publications–disclose a lack of even superficial familiarity with history, the Constitution and democratic theory. There are obviously exceptions to this broad characterization, but a case can be made that Trump appeals to people who share both his ignorance and his racist and sexist animus.
As the author of the quoted blog put it,
What does it mean when an historically conservative and/or Republican writer writes a piece that is “negative” about Trump? Does it mean that the conservative/Republican is now a liberal/Democrat? I argue that the answer is no, and many such journalists/writers have argued the same themselves.
Principled conservatives have recoiled from an administration that is anti-science, anti-democratic, anti-free-market, and anti-rule-of-law. Principled liberals who were prepared to work against a traditional Republican agenda have instead confronted a President whose only fidelity to that agenda has been its alliance with big money and its Southern Strategy.
No wonder genuine journalists from credible news organizations aren’t writing positive articles.