The Media’s Pro-Trump Bias?!
The rules of American journalism haven't caught up with the reality of this Presidency.
Tim Miller makes a case for “THE MEDIA’S UNDENIABLE PRO-TRUMP BIAS.” It’s not a good one. Or, rather, it’s a category error.
His central premise:
In MAGAland, the conceit that the media is biased against President Trump is the one creed that unites all factions. It is considered so self-evident that Trump supporters will dismiss my effort to present a counter argument as farcical trolling, not worthy of engagement.
It is true that on a personal level, national political journalists tend to be socially liberal and not only dislike Trump, but are ensconced in bubbles where nobody imagined voting for him. But this type of personal ideological bias distorts coverage of Trump much less than the avalanche of bullshit Trump and his allies unleash everyday. A mixture of fundamental human nature and incentives in journalism that reward recency, access, and “balance,” pressure reporters into treating President Trump with far more leniency than he deserves.
I don’t fundamentally disagree with this. Indeed, I’ve made this argument myself, many times.
The rules of American journalism, at least at the elite level, make covering a politician who is a bullshit artist extremely difficult. Trump has mastered distraction, dominating the news cycle with his tweets and gaffes. But, first, that’s not a pro-Trump bias. And, second, reporters aren’t in the business of dispensing justice but rather presenting facts so that readers can make informed judgments.
Take for example, his rally in Nashville, TN this week. Over the course of a typically meandering and unhinged speech he propounded and repeated several bald-faced lies, including his second favorite lie (the first is “No collusion!”) that Mexico is going to pay for a wall on the southern border. This lie touched off an international incident in which the president of one of our largest trading partners tweeted a formal rebuke at our own. Trump incited grievances against minority groups, bragged about his hand size, invented fake people who demanded policies that their real-life incarnations oppose, attacked John McCain who sits at home dying of brain cancer, cursed, attacked Jay-Z for cursing more than him, leveled absurdly false attacks against Democrats that lie well beyond the pale of normal political discourse, and, finally, advanced an insane conspiracy theory that Barack Obama infiltrated his campaign with a spy. Most of the above links come from Daniel Dale, a reporter for the Toronto Star who uses his Twitter feed to comprehensively fact check Trump’s speeches. But even someone who dedicates his professional life to documenting Trump’s lies understands that simply cataloging them is insufficient. “One thing I still haven’t figured out well,” Dale added, “and I don’t think anyone really has, is how to capture Trump’s level of rally unhingedness in a regular article.”
And the evidence bears Dale’s point out. The Tennessean topped its article about Trump’s speech as if it were any standard campaign event: “At Rally for Blackburn Senate bid, POTUS calls Phil Bredesen ‘Tool’ for Democrats.” USA TODAY took a tongue-in-cheek approach that largely gave Trump a headline he’d want, “Trump Vows To Rebuild USA With His Big Beautiful Hands.” The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal didn’t give the speech any mention on their front pages, which wouldn’t be remarkable if Trump were giving an ordinary political stump speech, but reflects a depressing level of desensitization to what he offers instead. The president of the United States gathered supporters to incite racism, to spread lies and propaganda, to slander his political enemies, and the most important newspapers in the country didn’t think anything of it.
It’s unimaginable that any other politician would receive that type of coverage after delivering such a loathsome speech. The worst gaffe Mitt Romney made in 2012—the only one, I’d argue, that deserved sustained scrutiny—was his now-infamous remark that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government, believe they are victims, and, thus, will never vote for Republicans. Imagine if Trump had slipped Romney’s remark, verbatim, between his call-and-response screed about “animals,” and the story about the imaginary San Diego mayor who wants him to build a border wall. Would the comment that the media made a defining issue in the 2012 campaign have even made it into the newspaper the next day? Would cable producers have bumped the wall-to-wall coverage of Roseanne for even a single segment?
Miller actually understates the Trump-Romney comparison here. Romney’s unfortunate remark, after all, was made in a closed-door session with a small group of supporters and went public only because some worker surreptitiously taped and leaked it. Trump’s remarks were in a prepared, public speech with full knowledge that there were reporters and television cameras present.
But here’s the thing: Romney’s remark was in fact much more newsworthy than Trump’s screed. Sure, it was a comparatively benign comment. But it was off-brand. Romney was a rich guy trying to sell himself as a Regular American. The “47 percent” line painted him as out-of-touch. Further, it continued to haunt him not so much because of dogged journalism but because the Obama campaign seized on it and made that a central part of their message.
Further, the Romney story came in the midst of the horse race that is a presidential campaign. That inherently makes it bigger “news” than the day-to-day slog of a four-year presidential term.
By contrast, nothing in Trump’s Nashville speech is even mildly surprising. It’s the sort of thing he’s been saying since, quite literally, the speech that launched his successful 2016 campaign almost three years ago. Dog Bites Man is not news; Man Bites Dog is.
Miller seems to understand that:
Trump is employing a strategy that might be familiar to coaches of inferior middle school basketball teams: Foul your opponents on every play, because, by human nature, referees are not equipped to blow the whistle on every play for fear of seeming biased. They are going to let some plays go by. In politics, journalists are the referees. And because they give Trump a pass on so many of his fouls, he avoids scrutiny that politicians who play by the rules would be subjected to regardless of ideology.
He’s right. Trump has played the game well and desensitized the media and the general public to treat things that would have been outrageous if done by a traditional politician as “Trump being Trump.” I’ve complained about that many times.
Still, the fact of the matter is that reporters continue to report. Every single outrage that Miller points to are known to Miller because they’ve been reported by the media that Miller says is biased against Trump. And, while the may well be numb to it, the American public is generally aware. Trump had the lowest approval rating, by far, of any modern President at the one-year mark. While his popularity has rebounded a bit, he’s still at 10 percent net disapproval in a hyper-partisan environment where 35 percent of Americans would approve of Charles Manson if he were their party’s President.
Miller points to a series of lies and outrages committed by Trump, all of which were dutifully reported by the press. He’s frustrated that, because of the industry’s bias for new news, they get bumped off the radar screen quickly as the coverage moves on to the outrage of the day, hour, or minute. I agree that this has played to Trump’s advantage. But that’s simply the nature of daily reporting. And it’s not as if there isn’t daily, longform coverage—like Miller’s!—that look back at various aspects of Trump’s highly unusual presidency.
Miller apparently expects reporters to be time travelers or savants:
During the campaign, this dynamic played out in ways that allowed Trump to avoid the most basic vetting journalists rightly expect all leading politicians to submit to. Every four years, presidential nominees authorize their doctors to divulge their otherwise-confidential health information so that voters have confidence they won’t elect someone in poor health to run the government. Recently, Trump’s former personal doctor revealed that Trump pressured him into releasing a letter, which Trump himself dictated, declaring Trump would be the healthiest president in history. The contents of the letter were facially absurd—an insult to sentient people everywhere. Trump should have been hounded for releasing an obvious forgery, for misleading the media and the public, and for hiding his true medical history. Instead, headlines unskeptically declared Trump to be in excellent health and reporters chased “stories” about Trump allies who were peddling a conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton had serious health issues, based on no evidence.
This conflates a lot of things. Journalists constantly hounded Trump to release his taxes. The New York Times published stolen tax documents. Rachel Maddow spent hours teasing yet more stolen tax documents. Most everyone treated the “healthiest president in history” stuff as a joke at the time. But Miller wanted more:
This doctor thing might seem dumb but it’s an example of how Trump abuses the press with lies & why I have the unconventional view that coverage is actually biased in his favor. The headline in 2015 should’ve been “Trump Dictates Phony Doctor Letter, Hides Records.” Instead: pic.twitter.com/nWL8e7djuJ
— Tim Miller (@Timodc) May 2, 2018
First, it’s absurd to fault news outlets for December 2015 reports that failed to acknowledge things we learned in May 2018. “Trump Dictates Phony Doctor Letter, Hides Records” would have been gross journalistic malpractice. Indeed, it would have been slander. And, despite the benign headline, the AP story Miller cites was hardly “unskeptical.”
Donald Trump released a glowing letter from his physician Monday declaring that the Republican presidential candidate will be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency” if he wins in 2016.
The letter from Dr. Harold Bornstein of Lenox Hill Hospital, identified as Trump’s personal physician since 1980, was released after Trump promised to disclose his medical records amid questions about the billionaire businessman’s health.
Trump, 69, has acknowledged eating a less-than-healthy diet — heavy on McDonald’s — and said his primary form of exercise consists of speaking at campaign events.
“I love steak and hamburger and pasta and french fries — all the things we shouldn’t be eating,” he said during an interview this fall on Bloomberg’s “With All Due Respect.”
That third sentence borders on mockery. I’d argue it’s editorializing, not reporting. But it was a perfectly reasonable—and almost universal—reaction to the report. While we didn’t know at the time that Trump had personally dictated it and bullied Bornstein into releasing it, all but the most ardent Trump loyalists knew it was laughable. Indeed, most of us laughed.
Miller closes with this:
But here’s the thing: If the leader of the country is lying 100 percent of the time, then the coverage of his comments needs to be 100 percent negative. Trump uses the sense that coverage of the president needs to be balanced to avoid accountability. It’s why pundits lavish praise on him anytime he gives a speech that doesn’t include conspiratorial race-baiting, and have been quick to praise him for a nascent diplomatic entreaty with North Korea that, by any relative measure, has been messy and ad hoc at best.
Covering Trump is no doubt more challenging than covering past presidents. Some days reporters rise to the occasion and some days they don’t. But few reporters, and no major media outlets, have concluded that a president who lies systematically should be covered in a systematically different way than his predecessors. He routinely calls the maxim that there are two sides to every story into question. At the very least, he demands a level of fact checking that previously would have been considered absurd or gratuitous, and necessitates keeping “old news” in the headlines, even as new outrages pile up.
Trump has declared the media the enemy of the people, and the media has responded with no fresh tactics. He is fighting a war that uses the media’s own rules against it, and he is winning in a landslide.
Here’s the thing: What Miller proposes isn’t journalism—or at least not reporting. He’s essentially calling for the media to become a wing of the Democratic Party. That would, ironically, play into Trump’s hands.
Having long given up regular consumption of television news, I can’t much comment on what the mainstream networks are doing. But the coverage of all of the dominant print outlets, including the Republican-leaning Wall Street Journal, is decidedly anti-Trump. I’ve read more coverage of the North Korea saga than most and have seen rather little in the way of “praise.” Again, the reason Miller gets the impression that it “has been messy and ad hoc at best” is because that’s how the press has, quite correctly, covered it.
Miller seemingly wants the news section of the papers to do more than report the news. Even though said reporting has allowed Miller and me—along with 53 percent of the American public—to disapprove of Trump’s performance, 61 percent to think he’s usually dishonest, he wants them to change the rules.
There is precedent for Miller’s model. Ben Bradlee did precisely this in making the Watergate scandal the Watergate scandal. Because the story was unfolding so slowly, Bradlee ordered reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to write near-daily pieces to keep the story alive, mostly features that tied together what had previously been reported, often including speculation and inference. It put the Washington Post into the big leagues and changed the nature of investigative reporting forever. But it also helped create the idea that the mainstream media was essentially an arm of the Democratic Party.
I share Miller’s frustration that Trump’s corruption and lies are treated as the new normal—even if, objectively, they’re in fact the new normal. But, again, the public seems to understand that this is where we are and, by a sizable margin, don’t like it.
To the extent that Trump’s negative approval constitutes “winning,” I’d argue that it’s the fault of the Democratic leadership, not the press. It’s their job, not that of the news media, to hammer home the anti-Trump narrative. The press has doggedly been reporting the facts. They are damning. It’s up to the opposition party to persuade the citizenry to do something about that.
I have been having this discussion with some my fellow lefties over the past few years. Repeatedly.
“How come the press isn’t covering this story?”
“How did you find out about it?”
Sums it up. Just a few days ago I (probably) po’ed a few of the jackals over at BJ when I poo-pooed a few of the more…. speculative comments. The Republicans (and trump in particular) have mastered the art of playing the press. I mentioned the continued chairmanship of Devin Nunes on the House Intel community as a failure of DEMs to weaponize his clownish behavior. If Adam Schiff behaved the same Republicans would be pounding on him every day. But the DEMs allow themselves to get distracted by trump or Ryan’s or McConnell’s latest action/statement/tweet and the truly egregious is allowed to get swamped by it.
DEMs need to learn how to walk and chew gum at the same time. There is only 193 of them in the House and 49 of them in the Senate. I think they can manage it
Tim Miller is absolutely right. The media do have a Trump bias.
Matthew Yglesias, however, explained it better:
That is the media’s foremost bias and it is unmistakable.
Miller wants the media, as well as media consumers, to recognize this truth:
To say that this is the same as “calling for the media to become a wing of the Democratic Party,” is missing the point completely.
If someone only spews bullshit, calling out that person for who he is, is simply reporting the truth.
It goes without saying that this is exactly what reporters are supposed to do.
James, I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said here. I would add there is another way that Trump I the beneficiary of bias from the press, but it’s not pro-Trump. It’s pro-ratings. People like Kelly Ann Conway should not be a guest nor even more than a passing tidbit on a serious news source. (I exempt Fox from this. Whatever they are, it’s certainly not a serious news source.) She does nothing but lie and obfuscate. Yet, because she attracts ratings, she’s a regular guest and given lots of airtime.
“No collusion!” is not a lie. Saying Mexico is going to pay for the wall is not a lie.
To review, a lie is stating something that is…
A. Demonstrably false.
B. Known to be false by the person making the statement.
This is kind of an important point because it gets to the essential flaw in Miller’s whine, both in concept and execution. Miller is offended that Trump even exists. To Miller, it’s impossible for someone like Trump to be President…and yet he not only is President but has so far done a non-catastrophic job of it. When confronted by the impossible becoming possible, you can either adjust your understanding or retreat from reality. Miller has chosen the latter.
I mean, the media has been more aggressive and critical of Trump than any President in our lifetime. Maybe you can argue that Nixon or Clinton got worse treatment at the absolute low-point of their administrations, but sustained for two years by the entire political establishment in the modern 24/7 media environment? The suggestion that the media being tougher on Trump is going to solve anything is clinically insane.
The problem with the media and Trump doesn’t exist now. The problem with the media and Trump was at the very beginning of his campaign when they lavished attention on the Birther-in-Chief because it was good for ratings and they thought it would hurt the GOP and the problem continued on when they refused to acknowledge Trump’s success or honestly try to understand it.
Miller doesn’t understand Trump. He doesn’t want to understand Trump. He just wants Trump to go away, like the monster in the closet who vanishes when Mommy comes into your room.
Tip: If you ever find yourself thinking Matt Yglesias is making a good point, step away from your computer/device because you’ve lost touch with reality.
Matty wants the media to argue with every word Trump says, including “a” and “the. That, of course, is how you end up defending the divine spark of Humanity in a murdering, raping criminal organization and produces an unending stream or journalistic “mistakes” which are oddly all mistaken in ways negative to Trump.
For the record, “No collusion” is the easiest to demonstrate as a lie. Members of Trump’s campaign team, including, Manafort, Don Junior and Kushner, have admitted they colluded with the Russians, and at least two campaign officials have pleaded guilty to lying about their Russian contacts.
“Subscribe to the NYT,” they said. Although, I’m not sure if they want the media to become a wing of the Democratic Party so much as they want to let the Democratic Party off the hook for screwing up so badly.
Devin Nunes is not a formidable adversary, but he dunks on Schiff all the time. We need to put our bigs in and limit Schiff’s minutes.
Here’s the thing, we did. We couldn’t prove it, but most of us knew it was BS generated by Trump. You call this mockery, but what part of it isn’t reporting known facts.
We aren’t asking the supposedly liberal MSM to side with Democrats, we’re asking them to side with facts and reason, with objective reality. If that happens to favor Democrats, well that’s your Republican Party’s fault, isn’t it? And once again, it ain’t just Trump!
@gVOR08: We simply didn’t know that Trump dictated the letter. There may have been suspicion along those lines, but that’s not the same thing. And my point about the AP report is simply that, contrary to Miller’s characterization, it did not accept the claims, it openly mocked them.
Didn’t Trump himself dictate Donny Junior’s misleading statement on the meeting in Trump Tower with the Russian lawyer?
I agree. There is a lot of ways that letter could have been written, and the AP took the right stance: mock it, but don’t assume facts not in evidence.
@CSK: He did. So we know he lied to cover up collusion of his campaign officials. It doesn’t prove on its own that he was in on the collusion at the start. (Side note: I think there’s a strong probability that Mueller has at least strong circumstantial evidence that he was.) But Nixon didn’t actually burglarize the Watergate hotel on his own. He got nailed for orchestrating the cover up, then lying about it. It would be entirely safe to report that Trump lied to cover up collusion on the part of his family and campaign manager. It would be a step too far to report that it proved he was in on the collusion from the start.
So why does the press allow Trump to lie unchallenged when they report on his farcical “No Collusion!” rantings? Why do they allow him to magically redefine collusion into nothingness and then accept his definition? Probably for the same reason they allowed the farcical “Enhanced Interrogation” dodge to become their term for torture. In the end, they don’t have the stomach to call out a sitting president for a crime.
Talk about “butt hurt”…you need to see a proctologist…
I beg to differ with the truth being a wing of any political party.
His point, IMO, was that the press has allowed themselves to be bullied into a very shallow form of journalism. They so fear being labeled as biased they allow rankest of BS a platform. I believe there is some truth to that. I suggest watching a portion of either Anderson Cooper’s or Don Lemon’s nightly political “panels”. Not for long, and certainly not to the point of it inducing vomiting…maybe no more than five of six minutes…tops.
You will find they always include a CNN paid pundit to defend Trump, who has nothing to work with but garbage and seems to be being paid by the word. As Newt once observed: “You can’t debate a man who lies all the time” (paraphrased from memory). The net product is not news. I believe the press feels trapped. They are, but only by their own top priority: Ratings. “There is no such thing as bad coverage in show business.”
Somebody once pointed out they gave more air-time to empty podiums awaiting Don Trump to show up than they gave to Hillary during the campaign, and I suspect that to be no exaggeration. Trump is entertaining and Hillary is not. The more outrageous a politician is the more coverage they get. Michele Bachmann thereby became the best fund raiser that the GOP had for quite some time. This theory also fits with Ted Cruz’s rise to prominence. The D’s could certainly play the same game and in time surely a few of them will.
I believe the press changing their current ways would not unavoidably make them a wing of any party, but the Joe Friday approach to facts may well bankrupt them. I would say 90% of their time is spent on political gossip, and that couldn’t happen without the approval of their bean-counters.
Trump has earned a presumption that anything he says is false. An honest press would report this, and act on it. Including startled admissions and retractions when it turns out that something he says is accidentally true.
James, given the whole letter thing about North Korea, how can you spin that as the Democrats’ fault?
MBunge accuses you guys of firing off on every little thing the man does, but you decide that it’s really all on the Dems?
I don’t know. I know that you guys are getting trolled a lot by Balloon Juicers hoping to turn this blog into another Balloon Juice, but please resist that as you have so far. However, connecting this one point to Democrats is not the place to do it. Sure, Dems are not that great at messaging (except for Obama for the most part), but come on. To say that what Trump did today wrt the NK summit is somehow the Dems’ fault would be crazy. I know you didn’t say that, but what Trump did today is yet another example of what you wrote about. So, the news reports are that Trump lied, and it’s up to the opposition party to play it up and not the press?
I don’t think so.
My position is a little more nuanced than that. I distinguish between the reportorial and editorial sides of the press. In my view, the former should be in the business of telling us Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. The latter, by definition, is in the business of opinion and analysis. I expect the editorial and opposite-editorial pages of the New York Times and Washington Post to call out Trump as a liar and make the case that he’s unfit to be President. But I want the news side of the house to stick to the facts and let readers draw their own conclusions.
At the same time, yes, I blame the Democrats for poor messaging. There’s simply no way Trump should have been elected President to begin with. And it’s up to them to beat the drums as to why he should be voted out in 2020, if not impeached before that.
Opinion, yes. Policy recommendation, yes. But analysis? How can you separate analysis from the facts? Especially when you include Why as part of what is in the reportorial bailiwick. By your own definitions above, “Trump is lying and here’s why” is reporting, not editorial.
Sure,there is plenty of blame to go around, but here is my ranking:
#1 Trump voters
#2 The Republican Party leadership, whose leaders over the past 50 years have made crucial decisions that led, inevitably, to a racist corrupt moron securing the party’s nomination
#3 The Republican Party tank and file, who chose to cower under the covers rather than fight for their country and who, post election, have done exactly the same.
#4 Donald Trump, for being racist corrupt moron for inciting the worst of the mob instincts in his electorate
#5 Fox News, for deliberately misleading and inciting their viewers, and whose daily cornucopia of lies continue to this day
#6 The rest of the main stream media for hyping nothing burgers about HC to the rafters while treating Trump and his toadies as entertaining goofs who boost their ratings and so gave them a platform to spout their nonsense unchallenged, day after day after day.
#7 HC for not running a better campaign
#8 Bernie and his Bros and their angry baby act. He probably cost HC 2-3 points by not accepting he lost the primaries by every single measure, and instead acted the aggrieved whiner disparaging HC and the Democratic leadership and stoking anger that he had been robbed.
Should Bradlee not have done what he did? If a Democrat did what Nixon did and Bradlee kept that story alive, would that create the idea that the mainstream media was essentially an arm of the Republican Party? It’s a real pity that the media isn’t more nice to Republicans…those meanies must just make Republicans like Nixon and Trump do what they did/do…
Hmm…so all those Republicans who voted for him in the primaries, they bear no blame? The Republicans in Congress right now who aren’t holding him accountable, they bear no blame? If the Dems don’t take control of Congress in the fall, the Republicans are blameless in not impeaching the president? I’m just trying to figure out the rules here…
@An Interested Party:
I have mixed feelings. It worked out well but he basically turned the Post into an oppo research arm of the DNC. The story eventually materialized thanks to Mark Felt, so it vindicated the effort.
No, because that narrative would have been harder to sell. The elite media is naturally pro-Democrat, for a variety of reasons. But Watergate removed the veil of neutrality.
I’ve written dozens of posts blaming the GOP for Trump. I’m responding here to a specific charge: that Trump is “getting away” with his misdeeds because of a press corps with a “pro-Trump bias.” My argument is that it’s up to the press to serve up facts and up to the opposition party to marshal the argument for removing the elected President.
And what responsibility do the Republicans have here?