After President Donald Trump met with members of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots at the White House Wednesday, the New York Times posted a story noting that fewer players attended the event than met with President Barack Obama in 2015.
The Times tweeted two photos to illustrate this point. One showed Trump surrounded by a group of players on the White House lawn. The other showed Obama with a much larger group of people.
As the Patriots Twitter account later pointed out, the images were misleading. Obama’s photo included many coaches and other staff members who were seated off camera when the Trump photo was taken.
Not one to pass up a chance to criticize the “failing” New York Times, Trump pounced.
“Failing @nytimes, which has been calling me wrong for two years, just got caught in a big lie concerning New England Patriots visit to W.H.,” he tweeted.
As the 100th day of Trump’s presidency approaches, some on the right have cited the photo flap as the latest incidence of a reflexively negative media bashing a president they have never covered fairly.
The conservative Media Research Center analyzed evening newscasts on ABC, NBC, and CBS from January 20 to April 9, including more than 1,000 stories involving the new administration. Excluding soundbites from clearly partisan guests, they assessed 1,687 evaluative statements about the Trump administration.
They concluded that 89 percent of the statements were negative. More than 60 percent of the negative coverage involved one of five topics: Trump’s travel ban executive orders, Russia’s interference in the election, the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the crackdown on illegal immigration, and Trump’s unsubstantiated tweets about President Obama wiretapping him.
The MRC compared this to Obama’s first 100 days, in which its analysts found coverage was overwhelmingly positive. They also argued that Obama’s family received much more glowing coverage than Trump’s.
Some media experts dismissed the partisan slant of the study and questioned its methodology. The premise of comparing coverage of Trump and Obama like this is inherently flawed.
“It’s hard to compare administrations to administrations in terms of coverage because the things that happen are different,” said Nikki Usher, author of “Making News at the New York Times” and an assistant professor at George Washington University.
Obama took office amid a financial crisis and spent much of his first 100 days taking steps to repair the economy. His biggest legislative effort, a $1 trillion stimulus package, passed.
Trump’s most dramatic executive order remains mired in court challenges and the massive health care reform effort he backed was embarrassingly yanked from the House without a vote.
That said, coverage of Trump clearly has been critical in his early days.
“There is 100 percent no question that the Trump administration is facing a lot of critique from people in Washington, and I think that is from Republicans and Democrats,” Usher said.
According to Tobe Berkovitz, a former political media consultant and professor of advertising at Boston University, the scrutiny Trump faces now is an extension of the battering he took from the press throughout his campaign.
“Trump came into office perceived by the mainstream media to be the devil and Obama came into the office perceived by the mainstream media to be the savior,” he said.
“There’s been I think from day one more of an adversarial relationship between Trump and the media,” he said.
He acknowledged Trump bears some responsibility for that and may need to change the way he approaches the press to build some trust.
“When the president is antagonistic of you and dismissive, I think it does play into how you cover things,” he said.
Experts say the president and his aides have at times brought negative coverage on themselves with many false claims, contradictions, and controversial comments. In comparison, Obama did not send early morning tweets accusing his predecessor of felonies and provide no evidence to back them up.
“Certainly there are a lot of unforced errors that have happened in the first 100 days,” said Nicole Hemmer, an assistant professor of presidential studies at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia and author of “Messengers of the Right,” a history of conservative media.
Most recently, there was confusion over an aircraft carrier that the White House said was headed toward North Korea when it was not. The administration has struggled to explain the inconsistency, leading to criticism, mockery, and concern in South Korea.
Trump’s reliance on Twitter as a primary form of communication is partly to blame.
“If you are articulating policy in 140 characters, you lose a hell of a lot of nuance,” Usher said.
Berkovitz observed that Trump has taken a much different approach to damage control from previous presidents as well, in that he does very little to control damage.
“Trump is a master at generating negative press with his tweets but he’s also even more of a master of keeping a bad story going,” he said. “Trump blasts oxygen into stories.”
The president’s tendency to respond to every perceived slight and to refuse to back down even when proven wrong is part of what appealed to voters about him. It may be unsurprising that this has not changed since entering the Oval Office, but it does keep the media focused on negative stories for days at a time.
Berkovitz also pointed to Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who kicked off his relationship with the White House Press Corps by badgering them about the crowd size at the president’s inauguration with several inaccurate claims and has faced many doubts about his credibility since then.
“I can rarely think of a press secretary who right out of the box took such a pummeling from the press corps,” he said.
Coverage has not been all negative. Trump’s first address to Congress was widely praised as a presidential moment. Aside from the Senate drama over invoking the nuclear option, his introduction of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch was well-received.
The most glowingly positive media attention has come in response to the administration’s biggest military actions in Syria and Afghanistan. Liberal media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Media analyzed cable news and major newspaper editorial page coverage of the missile strike and found very little negative commentary.
“At the core, journalists of America are Americans who care about America,” Usher said, and they tend to shift toward memorializing and documenting warfare rather than critiquing it.
Hemmer noted that the missile strike against Syria received broad bipartisan support. Also, particularly for television news, the strike provided great video and photo elements.
“Missiles flying often make for good copy,” she said.
Berkovitz said the missile strike came in response to a horrific gas attack and images of women and children suffering grievously.
“The visual setting it up was so unambiguous that almost any response would have been seen as just,” he said.
According to Irvine, some of Trump’s early actions to keep his campaign promises merit better coverage than they received. One area he pointed to was immigration, where he feels the stories have gotten “twisted” with the perception that Trump is targeting individuals for deportation instead of just enforcing existing statutes.
“He hasn’t really changed policy except to say, ‘I want to enforce the law,’” he said.
The coverage of the First Families under Obama and Trump is particularly difficult to weigh.
“It’s apples and oranges,” Hemmer said. “It’s not like Sasha [Obama] was sitting in on Cabinet meetings.”
The Obama girls were kept from the spotlight and the media’s critical gaze. Trump’s daughter and son-in-law are two of his most trusted advisers. His sons are managing his massive international business empire while attending White House events.
“When you make your children advisers and give them offices in the White House, they are fair game,” Berkovitz said.
Usher suggested the breathless coverage of the Trump administration is at times less a result of any conscious bias than a lack of historical perspective.
“I think that there can be a kneejerk ‘holy cr*p’ because people have short memories,” she said, observing that many young reporters in D.C. have not covered the first 100 days of a presidency before.
“I do think that there has been this tendency toward Trump exceptionalism in news coverage,” Hemmer said.
Americans have noticed the tension between Trump and the press, and they are not wild about it.
A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 83 percent of Americans believe the relationship between the White House and the press is unhealthy. About three-fourths say these tensions are getting in the way of access to important political news and information.
“I think he has forever changed and altered this dynamic,” Irvine said.
The Pew poll did not assess whom voters blame for the rift or what they would like to see done about it. Trust in the media overall is historically low, though, as is Trump’s approval rating in most polls.
Berkovitz worries that rift will only grow wider over the next three or seven years, and while Trump will leave office after his term, the political media will need to find a way to survive.
“It’s sort of this death spiral for both politics in America and the American media,” he said.