As Donald Trump’s blatantly unpresidential behavior grows increasingly difficult to defend, his supporters, and even Republicans who don’t like him but dislike his liberal attackers even more, have mostly responded by attacking the messenger: the news media, also known as “fake news” and “the lying press.”
Conservative complaints of bias in the mainstream media go a long way back. Roger Ailes, the media mogul who died last week, capitalized on the grievances when he created Fox News, offering content that appealed to a more conservative audience. Those complaints are not as unfounded as many liberals believe. But they are also inflated into an irrational hostility that exaggerates media bias and turns it into a convenient excuse.
For many conservatives, a study just released by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard will confirm perceptions of bias. It found that news coverage of Trump by major media (CNN, CBS, NBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, as well as three European outlets) was relentlessly negative. Fox was the only exception, with its coverage leaning positive. Overall, the coverage Trump got in his first 100 days was rated 80 percent negative and 20 percent positive — compared with 41 percent negative and 59 percent positive for Barack Obama at the start of his presidency.
That doesn’t automatically prove bias. One could argue that Trump deserves the bad press, with numerous missteps, such as the “Muslim ban” fiasco and false claims of massive voter fraud, and the coverage varied by issue. (It was fairly positive after the Syria airstrikes.) Further, the reported figures are skewed because they omit coverage rated as neutral in tone, which accounted for about one-third of the total — an important fact buried in the small print in the Shorenstein Center study, and left out of many reports in the right-of-center press. So, that 80-20 breakdown actually means 52 percent negative, 33 percent neutral and 15 percent positive.
What’s more, while Obama’s coverage was strongly (but by no means uniformly) positive, that does necessarily translate into favoritism for Democrats got a honeymoon. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush received similar treatment from the media in their first 100 days (for both, about 60 percent of non-neutral coverage was negative).
Still, as studies have found, most journalists working for the major media skew left, particularly on cultural and social issues. This imbalance manifests itself in often unconscious biases and assumptions — including a tendency to see liberal Democratic politicians in a more positive light. Noah Rothman, a writer for the conservative magazine Commentary, has made a solid argument that such bias affected the coverage of the 2012 scandal involving charges that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative activist groups for extra scrutiny. While the alleged abuses were strongly condemned at first, later on the media were willing to give the IRS the benefit of the doubt and accept innocent explanations.
But it’s quite a leap from subtle biases to claims, increasingly common on the right, that the media lie. Yes, sloppy stories happen, but they are typically followed by corrections. Try explaining that to a hard-core Trump defender whose response to unflattering news is to jeer at the folly of trusting the press.
The result is not only an often cult-like worship of Dear Leader, but also a willingness to trust alternative media that promote hoaxes and conspiracy theories — such as the notion that Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, killed in a robbery last year, was fatally shot for leaking emails compromising to Hillary Clinton. The media need to work on correcting their biases. But conservatives need to temper grievances against the media with common sense and reality checks.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.