How negative was press coverage of President Trump's first 100 days in office? Far more than that of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton, according to a new report from the Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
The Harvard scholars analyzed the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and the main newscasts (not talk shows) of CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC during Trump's initial time in office. They found, to no one's surprise, that Trump absolutely dominated news coverage in the first 100 days. And then they found that news coverage was solidly negative — 80 percent negative among those outlets studied, versus 20 percent positive.
The numbers for previous presidents: Barack Obama, 41 percent negative, 59 percent positive; George W. Bush, 57 percent negative, 43 percent positive; and Bill Clinton, 60 percent negative, 40 percent positive.
Accusations of bias aside, it's simply a fact that a number of negative things happened in Trump's opening 100 days. The Russia investigation, for example, was a source of endless criticism from Democrats and other Trump opponents. The travel ban executive order led to intense argument and losses for the administration in the courts. The healthcare debacle created more negative coverage because it was a major screwup and a setback for both Trump and House Republicans.
That said, the coverage of some news organizations was so negative, according to the Harvard study, that it seems hard to argue that the coverage was anywhere near a neutral presentation of facts. Assessing the tone of news coverage, the Harvard researchers found that CNN's Trump coverage was 93 percent negative, and seven percent positive. The researchers found the same numbers for NBC.
Others were slightly less negative. The Harvard team found that CBS coverage was 91 percent negative and 9 percent positive. New York Times coverage was 87 percent negative and 13 percent positive. Washington Post coverage was 83 percent negative and 17 percent positive. Wall Street Journal coverage was 70 percent negative and 30 percent positive. And Fox News coverage also leaned to the negative, but only slightly: 52 percent negative to 48 percent positive.
Ninety-three percent negative — that's a lot by anybody's standards. "CNN and NBC's coverage was the most unrelenting — negative stories about Trump outpaced positive ones by 13-to-1 on the two networks," the study noted. "Trump's coverage during his first 100 days set a new standard for negativity."
The Harvard study had plenty of criticism for Trump. "Never in the nation's history," the authors wrote, "has the country had a president with so little fidelity to the facts, so little appreciation for the dignity of the presidential office, and so little understanding of the underpinnings of democracy."
But the authors made clear that journalists are very much part of the problem. "At the same time, the news media need to give Trump credit when his actions warrant it," the study said:
The public's low level of confidence in the press is the result of several factors, one of which is a belief that journalists are biased. That perception weakens the press's watchdog role. One of the more remarkable features of news coverage of Trump's first 100 days is that it has changed few minds about the president, for better or worse. The nation's watchdog has lost much of its bite and won't regain it until the public perceives it as an impartial broker, applying the same reporting standards to both parties. The news media's exemplary coverage of Trump's cruise missile strike on Syria illustrates the type of even-handedness that needs to be consistently and rigorously applied.
The Harvard team is undoubtedly now studying coverage of Trump's second 100 days. (They issued reports on key periods in the presidential campaign, as well.) The question is, will anything change?