Not for the first time—or the second or third—the Chicago Tribune‘s John Kass maintained in his weekend column that the “news media leans ridiculously far to the left” and that the “tone of the coverage of President Donald Trump is over-the-top hostile.” What Kass brought to the column that was new was the authority of Harvard University. He cited a new study by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy reporting that in Trump’s first 100 days in office, “Trump’s coverage . . . set a new standard for negativity. Of news reports with a clear tone, negative reports outpaced positive ones by 80 percent to 20 percent.”
Kass is welcome to his opinion, which isn’t groundless. But if he thinks the Shorenstein study seconds it he should go back and reread the study.
Kass blurs the difference between “negativity” and “hostility”—which is a word Shorenstein didn’t use. As a for instance, recall Trump’s first days in office, when he claimed his inauguration was attended by vast throngs of well-wishers that photographs clearly showed didn’t exist. News stories pointing this out were negative by Shorenstein’s standards, but if they were also hostile, it was only by Kass’s. He wasn’t simply reading his colleagues’ copy; he was trying to read their hearts.
The Shorenstein study describes negativity as a matter of tone—something established by whoever is doing the speaking or by whatever is being reported on. A headline that serves Shorenstein as an example is “GOP withdraws embattled health care bill, handing major setback to Trump, Ryan.” Of course that headline might have read “Trump-Ryan alliance holds despite bump in road to visionary health-care reform,” but over-the-top hostility to Trump isn’t the reason it didn’t.
“Have the mainstream media covered Trump in a fair and balanced way?” the study asks. Shorenstein’s answer is more nuanced than Kass’s:
“That question cannot be answered definitively in the absence of an agreed-upon version of ‘reality’ against which to compare Trump’s coverage. Any such assessment would also have to weigh the news media’s preference for the negative, a tendency in place long before Trump became president. Given that tendency, the fact that Trump has received more negative coverage than his predecessor is hardly surprising. The early days of his presidency have been marked by far more missteps and miss-hits, often self-inflicted, than any presidency in memory, perhaps ever.”
The study paints Trump as his own worst enemy:
“What’s truly atypical about Trump’s coverage is that it’s sharply negative despite the fact that he’s the source of nearly two-thirds of the sound bites surrounding his coverage. . . . So why is Trump’s coverage so negative even though he does most of the talking? The fact is, he’s been on the defensive during most of his 100 days in office, trying to put the best face possible on executive orders, legislative initiatives, appointments, and other undertakings that have gone bad. Even Fox [whose coverage, on balance, was slightly negative] has not been able to save him from what analyst David Gergen called the ‘worst 100 days we’ve ever seen.'”
In Kass’s view the media consists of “ruling class” elitists mired in a mess that’s mostly of their own making, sucking up to Barack, sucking up to Hillary, but hammering Donald, and ultimately alienating half the country. He has no actual advice for it, nor does he try to make a case that Trump deserves better than 80 percent negative coverage.
(I also wonder if Kass fully grasps that Obama has left the White House. The best lines in this latest column are ones he’s been honing for eight years: the media adored Obama the way “a small child looks up to a beloved parent, or a dog to the master who gives it biscuits. It was as if the media was hugging a magical unicorn.” Such sparkling metaphors find Kass at the peak of his powers. Yet the world has moved on. Perhaps out of kindness we should leave him to his revery.)
It’s not as if the Harvard study offers journalists much advice either. Kass tried to shame the media, the Shorenstein study merely warns it. “The sheer level of negative coverage gives weight to Trump’s contention, one shared by his core constituency, that the media are hell bent on destroying his presidency,” it says; but a counterattack could lead to a “long-running battle” between the press and the president that “would probably, fairly or not, weaken the public’s confidence in the press.”
So what to do? Give Trump credit when it’s due, says the study, and pay more attention to policy issues, such as the effects of all those executive orders Trump issued when he took office. But mainly, stick to your guns.
“If a mud fight with Trump will not serve the media’s interests, neither will a soft peddling of his coverage,” the study concludes. “Never in the nation’s history has the country had a president with so little fidelity to the facts, so little appreciation for the dignity of the presidential office, and so little understanding of the underpinnings of democracy. The media’s credibility today is at low ebb, but the Trump presidency is not the time for the press to pull back. The news media gave Trump a boost when he entered presidential politics [by paying so much attention to him]. But a head-on collision at some point was inevitable. It’s happened, it isn’t pretty, and it isn’t over.”