Networks Trashed Trump With 90% Negative Spin in 2018, But Did It Matter?

January 15th, 2019 6:50 AM

At the midpoint of Donald Trump’s first term, the establishment media’s obvious hostility shows no signs of relenting, but polls show this negative coverage has had no discernible impact on the public’s attitudes toward the President.

Since January 20, 2017, the Media Research Center has analyzed every moment of coverage of President Trump on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts, seen by approximately 23 million people each night. Highlights:

■ As it was last year, the Trump presidency was the biggest story of 2018, accounting for almost 87 hours of coverage, or 28% of all evening news airtime. But that’s down from 99 hours of coverage in 2017, perhaps a sign the networks are wearying of treating every Trump tweet as deserving of crisis-level coverage.
■ The tone of coverage remains incessantly hostile: 90% negative, vs. just 10% positive (excluding neutral statements), matching the historically bad press we documented in 2017. Yet despite the media’s obvious disapproval, public opinion of the President actually improved slightly during 2018, from an average 40% approval on January 1 to 42.7% approval on December 31, according to RealClearPolitics.

■ For the second year in a row, the Russia investigation was the single most-covered topic amid the networks’ Trump coverage, garnering 858 minutes of airtime. Since January 20, 2017, the Russia probe has received 2,092 minutes of coverage on just the three evening newscasts.


Negative spin: To determine the spin of news coverage, our analysts tallied all explicitly evaluative statements about the President or his administration from either reporters, anchors or non-partisan sources such as experts or voters. Evaluations from partisan sources, as well as neutral statements, were not included.

As has been the case since the President took office, the tone of network coverage has been exceptionally hostile, ranging from 82% negative in April 2017 (after Trump was praised for a missile strike punishing Syria for a chemical weapons attack) to 96% negative in February 2018 (when the news agenda focused on the Russia investigation, demands for gun control, and a White House aide accused of domestic abuse).

Remarkably consistent: The 90% negative spin we calculated roughly matches what the Pew Research Center, not a conservative group, found in their study of coverage of Trump’s first 60 days in office. They found 62% of network stories were negative, vs. 5% positive and 33% neutral. If you remove the neutral stories and look at just the stories with a clear spin, Pew’s bottom line looks like ours: 93% negative spin, vs. just 7% positive.

Harvard media scholar Thomas Patterson looked at coverage of Trump’s first 100 days in office. He found NBC’s coverage was 93% negative, CBS’s 91% negative; ABC was not included. His study also found highly negative coverage from leading newspapers and CNN, while only Fox News offered balanced coverage (52% negative vs. 48% positive).

The highly-partisan media earn partisan reviews: The media’s confrontational stance seems to have earned them greater respect among Democratic voters, of whom 76% say they trust the media (up from 51% in 2016), according to the most recent Gallup survey. But a meager 21% of Republicans say they trust the press, a near-record gap of 55 percentage points in how the press is viewed by voters of each party. (The record was a 58-point gap in 2017; prior to the age of Trump, this partisan gap never exceeded 40 points.)

TV’s Trump agenda: More than half of the Trump coverage on the broadcast evening newscasts in 2018 focused on just five topics: the Russia investigation (858 minutes); immigration policy (643 minutes); the Kavanaugh nomination (435 minutes); dealing with North Korean nukes (410 minutes); and the Michael Cohen/hush money investigation (341 minutes).

As the chart shows, the network spin on all of these topics was fiercely negative, ranging from 80% bad press on North Korea, to 99% negative on the Cohen/hush money story.

What about the shutdown? The partial government shutdown was the top Trump topic in December, garnering 67 minutes of airtime that month, or about one-fifth of the total Trump coverage. (Note that this figure also includes negotiations prior to the start of the shutdown on December 21). And at least in December, nearly 97% of the evaluations of Trump’s handling of the impasse were negative.

In ordinary circumstances, this onslaught of negative publicity would cause the politician on the receiving end of it to reverse course. But the establishment media have been so reliably negative towards this President, for so long, that the effect of their criticism now seems to be virtually nil. As noted above, Trump’s job approval ratings actually rose slightly last year, despite all of the negative coverage.

The media elite have clearly waded into the political fray to wage war against this President. But have they accomplished anything beyond cementing their reputation as political partisans, not objective journalists?

Thanks to MRC’s Bill D’Agostino for his valuable research assistance for this report.