WRAP-UP: TV’s Negative, Nasty, Lurid & Obsessive Coverage of Trump’s Trial

May 30th, 2024 10:32 AM

Jury deliberations have begun in Manhattan D.A. Alvin Bragg’s prosecution of former President Donald Trump. Regardless of the verdict, Trump’s Democratic opponents have already received a massive media bonus from the flimsy legal case. Unlike the jury in the courtroom, millions of citizens have seen the evidence only as depicted by the liberal news networks — an often skewed version that seemed more designed to embarrass and antagonize the Republican presidential candidate than to scrutinize the merits of the case against him.

Key findings of a study by the Media Research Center:

♦ ABC, CBS, and NBC have doled out more than ten hours (640 minutes) on the case.

♦ Out of 110 evening news stories, only three hinted that D.A. Alvin Bragg was a partisan Democrat.

♦ Guilty until proven innocent? Viewers heard the word “criminal” used 111 times in relation to the presumptive GOP nominee, slightly more than once per story.

♦ Burying Michael Cohen’s perjury conviction: 96 percent of TV’s Cohen coverage during the past six weeks omitted Cohen’s perjury conviction.

♦ Hiding Judge Merchan’s conflicts: None of the network evening newscasts informed viewers of any of the several conflicts raised against Judge Juan Merchan, including one donation to Joe Biden and another to the group “Stop Republicans.”

In just six weeks, ABC, CBS, and NBC have doled out more than ten hours (640 minutes) on the case across their flagship morning, evening, and Sunday political talk shows to interfere in the 2024 election. ABC has delivered the most coverage, an exhaustive 257 minutes that accounts for 40 percent of the overall tally. NBC’s news shows have supplied 222 minutes of trial coverage, while CBS churned out 161 minutes.

While the networks have pushed the Trump trial to the top of the news, that’s not the case with an ongoing case of Democratic corruption. Since our report last week, there’s been zero additional broadcast coverage of liberal Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ)’s bribery trial; the tally remains stuck at a piddling seven minutes and 56 seconds.

A detailed analysis of the three evening newscasts:

A deep dive into the networks’ nightly coverage — which accounts for 244 minutes of the broadcast total — can be used to extrapolate how biased journalists leveraged the left-wing Democratic D.A.’s pursuit of a weak legal case to tarnish the former President and 2024 frontrunner with weeks of negative, tabloid headlines. Our analysts reviewed all 110 ABC, CBS and NBC evening news stories that discussed Trump’s New York trial from April 14 (the day before it began) through the start of deliberations on May 29.

■ A Nonpartisan Prosecution? Out of 110 evening news stories, only three hinted that D.A. Alvin Bragg was a partisan Democrat. The CBS Evening News never permitted this point to be made during the trial, while ABC let it slip just once, in the form of a soundbite from Trump on the May 12 World News Tonight, when the former President was heard calling Bragg a “radical Democrat District Attorney.”

On the NBC Nightly News, there were exactly two references to Bragg as a Democrat. “Mr. Trump lambastes the case as a Democratic conspiracy to hurt his re-election chances,” reporter Laura Jarrett summarized on April 15. A week later (April 22), anchor Lester Holt teed up reporter Hallie Jackson: “Hallie, this is a partisan prosecution in the opinion of Mr. Trump?” Jackson replied, “Yeah, that’s what his campaign has been saying.”

There were three stories (one on NBC, two on ABC) that directly referenced lead prosecutor Matthew Colangelo, but none explained he had left a high-ranking job at Joe Biden’s Justice Department to join Bragg’s prosecution of Trump. Similarly, there were six stories which identified prosecutor Joshua Steinglass and two others that named Susan Hoffinger, but no explanation that the duo were veteran Trump antagonists, having helped Bragg previously prosecute the former President’s businesses in another case.

Instead, the networks presented the case as a strictly law enforcement exercise, referring almost always to “the prosecutors/the prosecution” (216 times) or “the state” (7 times). On May 6, CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell introduced the case as “the People of the State of New York vs. Donald J. Trump,” thoroughly disguising the reality that this was not “the people” at work, but rather partisan Democrats.

■ Guilty until proven innocent? On April 15, ABC’s Aaron Katersky branded Trump “the first President in U.S. history to stand trial as a criminal defendant.” The same night, CBS’s Norah O’Donnell touted “the first criminal prosecution of a former President of the United States.”

Of course that’s true, but only because of the partisan Bragg’s decision to indict Trump last year. Nevertheless, the networks enthusiastically hammered the point night after night. From April 14 through May 29, viewers heard the word “criminal” used 111 times in relation to the presumptive GOP nominee, slightly more than once per story; the term “felony” was heard an additional 18 times. Separately, NBC Nightly News used the more accurate phrase “low-level felony” nine times to describe the “Class E” (lowest level) charges against Trump, a distinction that the other broadcast networks never made.

And, our analysts found, the phrase “hush money” — a tabloid term to describe a legal non-disclosure agreement — was used 113 times in these six weeks. In any other legal context, such repeated use of loaded language — “criminal,” “felony,” “hush money” — would be seen as creating a presumption of guilt around a defendant whom the legal system would consider innocent until proven guilty.

NBC was the only network to provide any airtime to key points that would have given viewers important context, including how the previous Democratic District Attorney in Manhattan (Cy Vance), as well as federal prosecutors had looked at the same material and declined to press charges. NBC’s Laura Jarrett stated this fact twice on Nightly News, once on April 15 and again on April 22.

Jarrett also undermined the prosecution's claim during opening statements that Trump’s conduct was “election fraud, pure and simple.” But, the NBC reporter countered: “Mr. Trump is not facing conspiracy or campaign finance violations, something the defense sought to highlight today.”

While all of the networks quoted the arguments of Trump and his lawyers, Jarrett was the only correspondent who herself challenged elements of the prosecution’s case in advance of deliberations — and then for only 44 seconds (out of 244 total minutes of trial coverage).

■ Burying Michael Cohen’s perjury conviction: As would be expected, the networks’ coverage spent a significant portion of their airtime discussing former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s role in the case. From April 14 through May 29, the networks spent 75 minutes on Cohen, out of 244 total minutes, or roughly 30% of the evening news coverage.

Yet despite Cohen’s central role in both the case and the coverage, network reporters barely mentioned his previous conviction for perjury. This inconvenient fact received just 94 seconds on the CBS Evening News, 80 seconds on the NBC Nightly News, and a pathetic 10 seconds on ABC’s World News Tonight.

“One major challenge for prosecutors is getting the jury to believe Michael Cohen,” CBS’s Robert Costa admitted on May 13. “He’s a convicted felon who spent time in prison and admitted lying to Congress.”

It was a “major challenge,” yet 96 percent of TV’s Cohen coverage during the past six weeks omitted this crucial fact. If the chief accuser of a Democratic politician had been a previously convicted liar, it’s not far-fetched to assume that such information would rate much more coverage than was the case with Cohen’s accusations against Trump.

■ Hiding Judge Merchan’s conflicts: None of the network evening newscasts informed viewers of any of the several conflicts raised against Judge Juan Merchan, including one donation to Joe Biden and another to the group “Stop Republicans,” both in 2020. “While the amounts here are minimal, it’s surprising that a sitting judge would make political donations of any size to a partisan candidate or cause,” CNN legal analyst Elie Honig commented last year.

The closest any viewers came to learning about the questions surrounding Merchan’s bias came when Trump was shown speaking outside the courtroom, as on the April 18 CBS Evening News: “You’ve got a D.A. that’s out of control. You have a judge that’s highly conflicted.”

Yet throughout the trial, reporters never explained the conflicts that Trump referred to. The last time any network newscasts did was weeks earlier on April 2, when NBC Nightly News reporter Gabe Gutierrez provided one sentence of context explaining why Merchan’s gag order had been expanded to include “relatives of court staff.” Why? Because, Gutierrez noted, “Mr. Trump on social media attacked the judge’s adult daughter, who is a political consultant for Democrats.”

That’s the last time any evening news viewer actually heard about the younger Merchan’s work as President of Authentic Campaigns, with clients such as California Democratic Senate candidate Adam Schiff, a longtime Trump nemesis, and even current Vice President Kamala Harris’s 2020 presidential campaign.

Instead of focusing on these conflicts, the networks presented Merchan as an unbiased voice of authority. Most of the time (57% of stories), Merchan wasn’t even referred to by name, merely as “the judge,” cloaking him in the institutional respect that the role presumes

■ Heavy on the sleaze: Instead of scrutinizing the case against Trump, the networks (especially ABC and CBS) reveled in the tawdry, tabloid testimony against him — even though they had been previously reported years earlier, and had little to do with the question of business records at the heart of the case.

On 91 occasions (sometimes more than once per story), evening news viewers heard allegations that Trump engaged in extramarital sex. Most, but not all, of these references were accompanied by a perfunctory, one-sentence reminder that Trump had denied all such charges.

The word “porn” was used 47 times, compared with 35 instances when the slightly-less vulgar “adult film” modifier was used to describe Stormy Daniels’ profession. Fourteen times, viewers heard that another accuser, Karen McDougal, was a “Playboy” model.

The networks regurgitated old and negative claims against Trump, even if they were not permitted in court. In advance of the trial, Judge Merchan forbade playing clips of the infamous Access Hollywood tape — first shown eight years ago — in order, the judge wrote, “to avoid undue prejudice.”

Yet ABC’s World News Tonight ran such prejudicial clips six times during the trial, while the CBS Evening News aired such material twice. “I just start kissing them,” those tuning in to CBS on April 25 heard Trump allegedly telling Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush.

“When you’re a star, they let you do it,” ABC viewers heard Trump boast all six times the Access Hollywood tape was mentioned on World News Tonight. “They let you do anything.” NBC Nightly News was once again the most restrained, running the video just once with sound (April 21), and then only an innocuous clip of Trump saying “nice to see you” to a woman outside the trailer.

Four times, the CBS Evening News dug up clips from their network’s six-year-old 60 Minutes interview with Stormy Daniels, including a segment in which Daniels alleged she had “unprotected sex” with Trump and how she supposedly directed the future President to “turn around and take off his pants,” and “gave him a couple of swats.”

In that same May 7 newscast, CBS News legal expert Rikki Klieman explained it was all irrelevant: “There is no legal significance to the salacious details” in Daniels’ testimony — and none, presumably, in the inflammatory quotes resurrected by CBS for the trial.

■ A six-week long negative ad: This wave of tawdry allegations, plus a prosecution presented as nonpartisan, added up to heavily negative coverage of the former President. Between April 14 and May 29, our analysts tallied 230 negative statements about Trump related to the trial, vs. just seven positive statements (mostly soundbites from pro-Trump rallygoers who rejected the idea that the case might shake their support).

This translates to 97% negative coverage (methodological details below), which would be  historic negativity if it wasn’t nearly identical to these networks previous coverage of Trump in other contexts.

Don’t think this steady drumbeat of negative anti-Trump news doesn’t matter: An April poll by NBC News found that while Trump had a narrow (46% to 44%) national lead, voters who say they primarily get their information from “national network news like NBC, ABC or CBS” said they preferred Biden in a landslide (55% to 35%).

And, according to NBC’s poll, nearly one-third of voters (32%) say they depend on the “national network news” for their information. For the last six weeks, those voters have been treated to a festival of Trump-bashing, as the networks amplify the worst allegations against the former President.

So even if the trial doesn’t give liberals the Trump conviction they’ve yearned for, it’s still been an election-year bonanza for Democrats, who’ve enjoyed watching their nemesis getting pilloried by the press.


METHODOLOGY:  We calculated the spin of Trump’s trial coverage by tallying all clearly positive and negative statements from non-partisan or unaffiliated sources — in other words, reporters, anchors, voters. We excluded evaluative comments from Trump himself, his staff and identified surrogates, as well as all identified Democrats. It also excludes “horse race assessments” about the candidates’ prospects for winning or losing.