Trump is a drug — and the media is addicted

New Harvard study shows that media coverage of Trump's first 100 days is 3 times higher than other presidents'

By Sophia A. McClennen
Published May 27, 2017 10:00AM (EDT)
 (Getty/Alex Wong/jakkapan21/Salon)
(Getty/Alex Wong/jakkapan21/Salon)

One of the highlights of Stephen Colbert’s first episode as host of “The Late Show” was a bit called “All You Can Trump Buffet.” Colbert opened by mocking the media’s obsession with  Trump: “I promise you, just like the rest of the media, I will be covering all of the presidential candidates — who are Donald Trump.” Riffing off of Trump’s claim that he would no longer eat Oreos since Nabisco had moved its plant to Mexico, Colbert alternated between watching media coverage of Trump and pigging out on Oreos.

“One is enough. That is the only Trump story I’ll be treating myself to tonight,” Colbert said, hiding the Oreos under his desk. “Well, maybe just one more,” Colbert went on as he ate an Oreo and showed a clip of Trump and Fusion host Jorge Ramos. Eventually he gave in and poured the whole bag of Oreos over his face while clips of Trump played on. Colbert told viewers he knew that binging on Trump was bad for him, but he couldn’t resist.

That first episode aired on Sept. 8, 2015, well before Trump was the GOP frontrunner, and it proves that Colbert had already nailed a critical problem in media coverage of Trump. Like bystanders staring at a car wreck, the media simply could not take its eyes off of Trump.

There is no way to underestimate the massive damage that the media’s obsession with Trump played in the outcome of the election. In fact, by June 13, 2016, shortly after Trump won the GOP nomination, Harvard’s Shorenstein Center verified that Colbert’s depiction of the media as Trump-addicted had been prescient.

They released a study that showed that the media had given Trump far more attention than his primary race warranted given his early polling numbers.

“Trump is arguably the first bona fide media-created presidential nominee,” they claimed.

The Shorenstein Center further suggested that this unbalanced coverage was likely due to the fact that Trump offered good entertainment value: “Journalists are attracted to the new, the unusual, the sensational — the type of story material that will catch and hold an audience’s attention.” They found that Trump got far more coverage than any of the other candidates — and that most of that early coverage, regardless of the outlet, was positive.

Their next study, which was released one month after the election, found that once Trump was the nominee his coverage turned mainly negative, as it also was for Hillary Clinton. They also found that coverage was “extremely light on policy,” a fact that likely favored Trump. More coverage was on the “horserace” of the election than it was on what the candidates actually stood for.

But more importantly, they found that even in the lead-up to the vote, coverage of Trump was much higher than that of Clinton. “Week after week, Trump got more press attention than did Clinton. Overall, Trump received 15 percent more coverage than she did.”

They also found that Trump defined Clinton more than she defined him. Often if Clinton was covered in the news, the voice describing her was Trump’s and not hers. And yet, when the focus was Trump, he was again more likely to be the voice behind the message.

That data certainly goes a long way to substantiate the claim that the Clinton campaign had to deal with a lot of mansplaining.

Now, more than 100 days into the Trump presidency, the Shorenstein Center has come out with their latest study, and it confirms that the media’s Trump obsession is still going strong.

Since he took the oath of office, Trump has been the topic of 41 percent of all news stories and has received three times the amount of coverage as that of previous presidents. Even more interesting, Trump was also the featured speaker in nearly two-thirds of his coverage.

Despite cries of liberal bias, the Shorenstein Center also found that Republican voices accounted for 80 percent of what newsmakers said about the Trump presidency, compared to only 6 percent for Democrats and 3 percent for those involved in anti-Trump protests.

Since the inauguration, Colbert’s “All You Can Trump Buffet” has turned into a true gorge-fest.

The latest Shorenstein Report explains that beginning in 1963, when broadcast networks expanded television news to 30 minutes, news coverage began to shift to covering more of the presidency than of Congress. In fact, it is typically true that the president receives about one-eighth of all news attention — coverage that exceeds that of all 535 members of Congress combined.

And yet, “even by that standard,” they explain, “Trump’s first 100 days were a landmark.”

Despite the fact that the Shorenstein Center has been documenting the media’s extraordinary obsession with Trump, news covering their most recent report almost entirely ignored that revelation. Instead, attention was focused on their second key finding about Trump news in his first 100 days: that it was overwhelmingly negative.

In fact, the finding of Trump’s negative coverage was extensively covered by Fox News, especially because the Shorenstein study showed that Fox News was the one mainstream outlet to provide “balanced” coverage. Overall Trump received 80 percent negative coverage of his first 100 days, and yet on Fox News negative coverage logged in at a mere 52 percent.

This led Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson, who had previously disparaged the work of the Shorenstein Center, to gloat. For Carlson, the fact that Fox News had more “even” coverage of Trump proved that Fox was a more egalitarian and less biased network than other cable news. Erik Wemple called the Carlson story a “Shorenstein celebration.” For him, Carlson’s excitement simply proved that Fox News is nothing more than “hypocrisy in action.”

Of course the proof of Fox’s hypocrisy is not news after all. And, for what it’s worth, the finding of news media’s negative bias is not news either. The Shorenstein Center reports that beginning with Vietnam and the Watergate era news reporting turned negative and never really recovered. Journalists tend to focus on what is wrong with a president, not what is right; this helps boost ratings and reputation.

This means, they argue, that if the media has a bias, it is toward the negative, not toward the left. And that bias is driven by the fact that the negative sells better; it hooks viewers who are mesmerized by scandal, sensation and hype.

While it is true that Trump has had more negative coverage than previous presidents, it is less clear why that shift happened. Is it because the press has a vendetta against Trump, as he would like us all to believe? Or it is because his administration has been one dumpster fire after another?

In case you were wondering which conclusion has more basis in fact — it is the dumpster fire.

According to the Shorenstein Center, even accounting for the press’s penchant for the negative, Trump’s administration has brought on the negative reporting all by itself: “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.”

We have an unsettling confluence of key factors: Just as the media is increasingly obsessed with sensationalism and biased toward the negative, we elect a Trump administration that is massively inept, aggressive, scandalous, self-aggrandizing and stupid.

But perhaps the most unsettling finding of all is that while the coverage has been negative, it has still focused obsessively on Trump himself. The Shorenstein Center explains that “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.”

News coverage has spent too much time covering Trump’s every move and every tweet — especially those tweets where he attacks the media. In fact, the media loves covering Trump’s meltdowns over his negative media coverage. Trump attacks the media, then the media negatively covers the attacks, then the cycle just repeats itself. It’s a vicious circle that drives ratings and depresses the public.

Meanwhile substantive policy coverage wanes. Focusing on the White House and Washington power plays may make for entertaining TV, but that strategy doesn’t help inform the public on matters of policy in ways that can help citizens be meaningfully engaged.

In fact, this new Shorenstein report only proves that Jon Stewart was right to beg the press to get over its breakup with Trump and stop obsessing about him. Stewart made a cameo on “The Late Show” in late February where he asked the press to "get its groove back."

"Let's face facts," Stewart said, addressing the media."You kind of let yourself go a little bit these past few years, put on a few pundits, obsessing 24 hours a day, seven days a week, about this one guy: 'What's Donnie up to? Did he say anything about us? You think he's gonna come on our show?'"

Stewart admitted that he understood that it may hurt to see their ex "swiping far right," but he reminded the press that a breakup can also be a chance for self-reflection and improvement.

"Take up a hobby," Stewart advised. "I recommend journalism!"

Over 100 days in, Stewart’s advice still hasn’t caught on and there is no reason to think that it will anytime soon. And that’s because, despite all of the negativity, ratings for cable news in the Trump era are on the rise. It’s the audience for the news that’s part of the problem, too. The more viewers reward this soap opera, the more we can expect the drama to continue.

That means that the only way for the media to deal with its addiction to Trump is for all of us watching to finally accept that we have a problem, too. The addiction intervention may well need to start at home.

Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics.

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Donald Trump Donald Trump 100 Days Harvard University Media Stephen Colbert