Last week, when CNN reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had left a couple of meetings with Russian officials off his application for a security clearance, Representative Jeff Duncan (R-SC) falsely claimed that the broadcaster had later retracted the story. In a Facebook post, Duncan, who is not known for having the keenest intellect on Capitol Hill, wrote, “The media was never this critical to President Obama, the recent Harvard study proves that the media has applied a completely different standard to President Trump.”
Duncan, like many on the right, sees a recent study of the mainstream coverage of Trump’s first 100 days in office released by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy as solid proof that the media treat Trump unfairly. It looked at news reports “in the print editions of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, the main newscasts of CBS, CNN, Fox News, and NBC, and three European news outlets,” and found that 80 percent of Trump’s coverage by those outlets was negative—significantly higher than the shares for Barack Obama (41 percent negative), George W. Bush (57 percent), and Bill Clinton (60 percent) at this point in their presidencies. Conservative publications greeted the report with headlines like “Harvard Study Confirms Media Bias Against Trump” and “Harvard Report: There Is A Huge Anti-Trump Bias In Corporate Media.”
The obvious response is that the vast majority of stories about famine, natural disasters, and genital warts are negative, and that doesn’t imply a bias on the part of those writing them. Trump’s young presidency has been a train wreck, his White House has been mired in largely self-inflicted scandals, and his legislative agenda has so far gotten nowhere in Congress. And Trump, unlike his predecessors, has a penchant for impulsively tweeting dubious claims and inflammatory nonsense. The study also found that the sheer volume of Trump coverage—he was the subject of four of every 10 news stories in the outlets studied—dwarfs that of previous administrations.
But that’s not the real story. The real story is that Trump’s negative coverage is being driven not by liberals or Democrats but by law-enforcement sources and pissed-off Republicans.
It’s important to understand the study’s methodology. According to its author, Harvard scholar Thomas Patterson, “Tone is judged from the perspective of the actor,” the actor being, in this case, Donald Trump. A story is coded as negative when “the actor is criticized directly”—for example when Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer told a reporter, “Eleven weeks into his administration, we have seen nothing from President Trump on infrastructure, on trade, or on any other serious job-creating initiative”—or when “an event, trend, or development reflects unfavorably on the actor.” So negative stories are either stories that quote someone griping about Trump, or stories about developments that cast a negative light on his performance.