In this week’s politics chat, we talk about a new study of how the media is covering President Trump. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Hey, everyone! Pew Research Center came out with a super interesting report this week examining how the media is covering the Trump administration and how that coverage differs by the political leanings of each outlet. Between that report and President Trump’s early Thursday statement asking why the Senate Intelligence Committee doesn’t investigate “Fake News Networks,” it seems like a good moment to ask some questions about how we’re doing.
- Are media outlets too focused on Trump, and thus missing issues like Puerto Rico or misrepresenting issues by viewing them through a Trump lens?
- Is the press too negative toward Trump?
- Is the media too desperate to cover Trump in old models?
Rather than throwing stones without any self-reflection — [cough] Nate [cough] — let’s also grade ourselves on each of these!
So, to start us off with No. 1, here’s an interesting table from the Pew report showing what “triggered” Trump administration coverage:
perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): It strikes me, at first glance, that Trump might not be an outlier on this — the president is often covered through what he says and does. Pew doesn’t have a historical comparison for these numbers, but I would guess that a lot of former President Obama’s coverage was driven by his speeches/initiatives — maybe not his tweets, since they were dull.
micah: So, I don’t think the question is how it’s changed, but whether the balance is right.
Basically, about half of all stories are reactive.
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief):
clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Yeah. That’s right. I subtweeted the group lunch.
harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): What trash.
clare.malone: Perry, take us back on message.
perry: Trump is doing and saying a lot, so I’m not myself concerned that coverage is driven by him. He is a unique president, breaking a lot of rules.
natesilver: I’ve come around to the idea that there’s nothing wrong in principle with the news cycle being driven by Trump’s tweets or off-the-cuff statements. It’s just that there isn’t much effort to distinguish which ones are important from which ones aren’t.
clare.malone: Is this where we tell our readers about journalism business models and how it’s more expensive to do reporting that involves investigation? Because honestly, I think that has to be taken into account.
But also, yes, there are stories that are maybe being neglected. Russia is more long-burning, and I think people are looking into it, but there’s fewer and fewer stories about Trump’s business interests overseas, for instance.
micah: Yeah, I mean, look … this is tricky and gets into cost, as Clare notes, but in general, I think a lot of outlets, including FiveThirtyEight, are too reactive.
perry: If we learned that most coverage is driven by Trump’s weekend tweets, that is not ideal. But him giving a speech at the U.N. or withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement is big news. Full stop.
micah: Here are the shares of stories that included a Trump tweet, according to Pew, by the ideological leanings of the outlet:
harry: What’s interesting here is also how little of the coverage on right-leaning outlets (or outlets with right-leaning audiences) is driven by Trump.
Why would that be? Is more Trump bad for Trump? I’d argue that.
natesilver: Maybe we should ask — which stories should be covered more?
micah: I’ll start with our own house: We have a small team, so it’s difficult, but I wish we did more on what the federal agencies are up to. (Department of Justice, HUD, etc.)
perry: If I had these nine months over again, I would probably have covered Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency more, what Tom Price was doing to break the Affordable Care Act more, and less on Steve Bannon v. Jared Kushner. In general, the agencies are undercovered and the White House is overcovered.
perry: So Micah and I are saying the same thing.
But IDK, it sounds like you all are pretty comfortable with a mostly Trump-focused media?
harry: He’s the president.
perry: One of my old colleagues (Alec MacGillis of ProPublica) did an excellent story on Ben Carson at HUD. Agencies are really hard to cover. This gets to Clare’s point about journalism models: A well-written story about identity politics may get more readers than a HUD story while taking 10 percent of the time.
And how the president speaks is important too.
natesilver: Yeah, the real answer might be that stories that don’t involve the White House have been undercovered. Like, we’ve published significantly fewer stories on criminal justice this year than we did a year or two ago, and most of the ones we’ve published have had a Trump lens, I’d assume.
micah: That’s correct.
clare.malone: And ProPublica is a really great, really unique place that cross-publishes content with other, bigger outlets. That’s why Alec has time and space and funding to do those big, great stories.
natesilver: In terms of Trump-related stories, I think North Korea needs to loom a bit larger in the conversation about him.
clare.malone: The nature of North Korea being a hermit state is part of the problem, of course. It’s a lot more smoke signals reporting.
There’s also Iran stuff.
natesilver: North Korea is not that easy a story to cover, necessarily, for a lot of reasons. But people need to know the stakes of the decisions that Trump makes, and North Korea illustrates those stakes — up to and including nuclear war. Sometimes, when reporters are equating his tweets about North Korea to his tweets about the NFL, that gets lost.
clare.malone: SNL, when it came back last week, had a good line in its opener about how Trump’s tweets are distractions.
We haven’t talked about that framing as much since the campaign, since now tweets are White House statements. But maybe we should more.
micah: If half of all our stories are spurred by Trump, aren’t news outlets a bit at his mercy? Like, many outlets (including FiveThirtyEight) were late in covering the devastation in Puerto Rico because, in part, Trump didn’t focus on it at first.
We are at Trump’s mercy, yes. But isn’t he a bit at the media’s too? I have a hard time thinking Robert Mueller is appointed or the health care bill dies without the high media scrutiny.
natesilver: We haven’t covered the Russia story very much, but I don’t know if that’s a feature or a bug.
harry: I’m not Alec or a policy reporter in any real sense. But I can say our plan was to cover state legislatures a lot more had Hillary Clinton won the White House — we would have had divided government in Washington and little would likely have gotten done. (Although, little has gotten done with unified government.) That said, the fact is that Trump is the president. He says a lot of very unusual things as president. That deserves coverage. (I think not covering Russia that much is a feature, to be honest.)
natesilver: On Mueller/Russia, there certainly is a lot of news, but it also feels like left-leaning outlets spend a lot of time “connecting the dots” when there isn’t much news.
perry: Criminal justice. State politics. Police shootings. Yeah, there are a ton of issues I think I would have covered more if Clinton were president. But I don’t think we are covering irrelevant stuff. I would defend the coverage of the national anthem controversy even.
micah: One more thing from Pew on this:
perry: Yeah, Obama was covered in a similar way: heavy emphasis on politics and a few issues. This is maybe a bug of political journalism.
harry: As Perry notes, a larger percentage of the Obama news stories were about his “political skills” than for Trump.
clare.malone: Don’t you think some of this is people who are used to covering campaigns trying to find stories during nonelection times? And they don’t want to cover policy?
natesilver: I definitely won’t apologize for seeing things through a political, rather than policy, lens. I do think, though, that the media needs to consider the underlying scope and magnitude of the issues at play.
micah: OK, on to question No. 2: Is the coverage of Trump too negative?
Here’s what Pew found compared with other recent administrations:
clare.malone: Well, this might have to do with the fact that he is doing a worse job, almost objectively, of running a normal, relatively smoothly functioning administration.
Look at how many resignations, how much turnover.
micah: Very true. But like … those numbers are pretty stunning.
natesilver: I’m torn on this question. On the one hand, sure, if you’re covering a baseball team that went 62-100, the coverage has got to be very negative.
On the other hand, I think sometimes there’s a pile-on effect. It’s not that particular stories should be covered more positively, necessarily, but that the media won’t let go of relatively minor stories for days and days and days.
clare.malone: The “bad reputation” probably does then lead people to not give the White House the benefit of the doubt on things that might be more normal.
perry: Obama passed a huge stimulus bill early in his term. He was popular. I can’t recall a ton of major firings. There was no investigation of whether the Chinese had hacked John McCain’s email and released it to the public, or whether David Axelrod was involved in covering that up.
micah: How do you think we fare by this measure? (Negative vs. positive.)
natesilver: Ehh. tbh, Micah, we’re probably a little bit more pile-on-y in these chats and the podcasts. And not as much in the features we publish.
micah: Yeah, that seems right.
perry: I guess what I might say is that I don’t see this as necessarily evidence the press is doing something wrong. It might be. But I’m not so sure.
harry: Of note: Even the right-leaning outlets have been more neutral than positive. I don’t know if there is a lot of positive news for Trump.
natesilver: The press could focus more on the economic numbers, which have been relatively good lately. I think Trump has a legitimate gripe there.
perry: I would love to see the Obama 2011 or 2014 coverage data, when he was struggling.
micah: Yeah … as a site we’ve taken the stance that presidents have very little control over the economy and usually deserve far less blame and credit than they get. But we’re somewhat of an exception in that regard.
perry: I really disagree with Nate there. I think we should do as much as possible to stop suggesting presidents create economic growth or cause recessions.
micah: But Perry, wouldn’t outlets be covering good economic numbers more if Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton were president?
In other words, I agree that they shouldn’t pretend any president controls the economy, but I feel like they do and perhaps in this case are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons?
In any case …
perry: I do want to talk about that negative number. Do you think that number is by itself a problem for media credibility?
Is that bad for our profession, no matter if we may think it is justified? Trump now has an official data point that the media covers him in a more negative way than Obama.
micah: Yeah, I think it’s problematic.
natesilver: It could be a problem if people are only hearing bad news about Trump from the “mainstream” media, sure. That doesn’t mean it should be a problem, in an ideal world. But it could be a problem in the real world.
Let’s say, for the sake of this conversation, that’s it’s perfectly calibrated: 62 percent of coverage is negative and 62 percent of Trump’s actions are bad.
We still have one-third to four-tenths of the population that approves of Trump on any given day and are likely to feel put off by the overwhelmingly negative tenor of coverage.
But I don’t know how to fix or whether we should even try.
natesilver: The other issue is that the efforts to correct for this can be really clumsy. Like, I think 80 percent of the “Trump is pivoting!!!!” stories and 90 percent of the “Trump’s base still loves Trump!!!!!!!!!!” stories are driven by an effort to appear “fair,” and those are usually really shitty stories.
clare.malone: That’s where you have to cover more regional stories, not “do nicer stories about Trump.”
micah: Tone becomes really important too.
clare.malone: Lots of people voted for Trump because they thought national political perceptions of their lives were way off — that their realities were different from what national politicians were telling them they were. So, we should probably cover good things that are going on at those more state levels, along with talking about problems happening there.
perry: I actually think that the negative coverage of Trump comes in part from the media being based largely in big, racially diverse cities like New York and Washington and being biased in some ways toward multiculturalism, acceptance of Muslims, people who are transgender, Black Lives Matter protesters, etc.
That shapes how, say, the travel ban is covered.
clare.malone: I think that’s true, Perry — there are certainly implicit moral judgments about these policies that are coming through in news stories.
If not outright lines that say “this Trump activity is dangerous and un-American!”
natesilver: The immigration/Muslim ban is an interesting example here, for sure. It was covered as very major news at the time. I’m not sure that when people look back on Trump’s presidency, it’s going to be higher than like the 12th most important thing, though.
harry: 12th? It may not be higher than 25th. Granted, it was right at the beginning of the presidency.
micah: It was one of the first clear Trump policy actions.
clare.malone: mm, I dunno, Nate. It was a chaotic rollout the first week he was in office and it did really set a tenor.
perry: I think it was important, so I might disagree with Nate. But I think the tone of that coverage is different from how Trump’s tax plan is covered.
micah: It is often hard as an editor or reporter to separate when an action goes against an almost universally agreed-up good — transparency, equality — vs. when it goes against a political belief.
natesilver: I’d argue that Charlottesville was also covered differently than it would have been if it were more diverse in different ways. On the one hand, there were like 20 news cycles about whether he was apologizing in the right way. That became ridiculous, at some point, and maybe there would have been less focus on that if the media were more dispersed geographically. On the other hand, the media seemed much more shocked by Trump taking a “both sides” position on Charlottesville than they should have been, given his past history with comments about race. And there likely would have been less of a shock if the media were more racially diverse.
harry: Well, the media seems very interested in his personality and conduct, so that shouldn’t be too surprising.
micah: Question No. 3: Is the media too desperate to cover Trump in old models and therefore missing stories?
For example: There’s been some debate about whether the news media should cover Trump’s mental state more. This was (mostly) not an issue for recent presidents.
perry: OK, so mental health. I’m just very leery of, after covering Trump as negatively as this data shows, that the press should move toward “he has an undiagnosed mental illness.”
micah: Right, so is this an example of a story the press is not used to covering and so therefore isn’t covering?
perry: He might have some mental illness. But I remember watching a cable news panel discussing that, and immediately being uncomfortable. This was in the midst of the controversy over his comments about the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. Trump was making comments that I thought perfectly aligned with his ideology, so it seemed odd to attribute them to his health.
micah: As we’ve written, psychiatrists are generally advised not to publically diagnose a public official they haven’t personally examined.
natesilver: I wouldn’t advocate for diagnosing Trump, per se. But I think there should be more coverage/consideration of his “mental fitness” rather than “mental health.” How often is he making thoughtful, rational decisions as opposed to rash, emotional ones?
clare.malone: Christie Aschwanden and I wrote a bit about whether candidates were too old to run for president back during the campaign. We looked at life expectancy based on some actuarial charts. The story came right after Hillary Clinton’s health scare, and there was some implication that as we age, things naturally start to go wrong.
I think that was a totally appropriate thing to cover during the campaign.
Whether the president has a mental disorder, well, I would be eager to talk to a physician who’d examined him and was willing to break doctor/patient confidentiality because they had concerns.
I do think it’s dangerous territory when we start to speculate in print without proof.
harry: I’d argue that if a woman said half the things Trump did, lots more people would call her “crazy” or “stupid.” (I’d also think there was no chance in heck she’d be elected.)
micah: I’m sorta torn between these two positions: I both think a president’s mental fitness is fair game, and I’m pretty confident the media would do a terrible job covering it.
natesilver: Look, let me put it more bluntly: The guy tweets and says crazy shit all the time. I know “crazy shit” isn’t a scientific term. But shouldn’t the media at least account for the possibility that he’s tweeting crazy shit because he’s actually “crazy”?
clare.malone: But wouldn’t everyone just be speculating? Now, if staff members start to confide to reporters that they’re worried, that’s a different story. This was a concern on Ronald Reagan’s staff in his second term.
micah: And then we end up in a world where people are making political judgments using the language of science — without the actual science.
natesilver: It’s not a court of law, though! You don’t have to prove things beyond the shadow of a doubt!
I just think the taboo about not speculating about the president’s mental health is being taken way too far — and leading people to try to rationalize too many of his actions.
perry: Is being erratic and unfocused and kind of mean on Twitter a mental health issue?
Or a jerk issue?
clare.malone: Jerk issue.
natesilver: If it’s the sort of behavior that might also lead him to, like, nuke North Korea in a fit of pique, I’d argue it’s pretty important to cover!
clare.malone: I mean, half of political twitter is mean-spirited.
natesilver: Five quarters.
harry: Ladies and gentlemen, a statistical expert.
clare.malone: I don’t know, I think some of this is a bit of a futile debate.
perry: So Trump can’t be trusted on North Korea because he is perhaps incapable of calmly and rationally considering such an issue. I think Nate has moved me to think about this in a “state of his mind” kind of way. That seems right.
micah: Are there other instances where we need new models/techniques/approaches to cover Trump?
perry: I think my general concern with the current model is that it assumes: 1. that he is taking actions because that is how other presidents would approach an issue; 2. that he is doing things out of some smart analysis of politics; 3. that his staffers/advisers speak for him in any real way.
harry: Well, I still wonder if we have the right approach re: Twitter vs. “official” statements from the White House.
micah: I’m sick of the “how to treat Trump’s tweets” debate!
natesilver: I mean, this whole chat reflects ways in which “traditional” models are broken. Although, I’d say less “traditional” models than contemporary ones. Traditional reporting isn’t broken so much as the model centered on “winning the day” by building vapid narratives, which is a fairly modern invention.
harry: I guess my point is that Trump at a number of moments has undermined stuff members of his own administration have said. It’s not clear to me who is actually initiating actual policy.
How do you cover that?
micah: Right, so generally, I don’t think anyone, us included, has figured out how to treat statements (of any form) coming from this White House (Trump and everyone else).
It’s not clear what’s policy and what’s not. Or what will be followed up on and what won’t.
natesilver: I don’t think anybody has. I don’t think North Korea has any idea what to make of it either, for example.
perry: Like, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis this week said he supports the Iran deal. I have no idea what that means for this administration. It would have meant something if Ash Carter or John Kerry said something like that during the Obama administration.
micah: And, not to go backwards, but that’s what makes me really nervous about the White House being the impetus for such a high percentage of coverage.
micah: Like, we don’t know how to read what the White House is saying, but we’re organizing most of our coverage based on what it’s saying.
natesilver: Can I make one slightly different point? We haven’t discussed race all that much in this conversation. But it’s interesting that mainstream journalistic outlets are more-or-less happy to accuse Trump of abetting racial resentment as a political tactic but would be very reluctant to actually call Trump a racist.
perry: I largely follow that approach myself.
harry: I’m not surprised by that at all, Nathaniel.
clare.malone: I think we’ve talked a bit about this — if not in chats, then offline — that describing a person’s racist actions is far enough. That you might lose people being willing to read along with your reasoning if you outright call him a racist. That you can leave that judgment up to the readers once you’ve presented them with the evidence.
micah: Yeah, I find the whole debate about what’s “in someone’s heart” pretty frustrating — isn’t it their actions that matter?
natesilver: I’m not sure I agree. It matters what makes Trump tick.
perry: Columbia Journalism Review just wrote a piece saying people should call Trump racist. So Nate is not taking a crazy stance here.
natesilver: To Clare’s point, we play it pretty carefully around this subject too. Not as carefully as other outlets. But we go 50 percent of the way there.
clare.malone: Readers aren’t stupid, is basically what I’m trying to say. Think critically, America!
harry: Lots of Americans think Trump is racist.
natesilver: At the same time, it’s important for journalists not to communicate in code.
clare.malone: I don’t think we do. But yes, I agree that there’s a danger that exists there with not calling things as we see them.
micah: Our philosophy, at least in theory, is to call words and actions “racist” when they are — rather than “racially charged” or something. As Clare said, though, we stop short of calling a person racist.
natesilver: We’re actually good about that, yeah. But other outlets take a very coded, jargon-y approach at times, especially when writing stories based on anonymous sourcing. You can decode those if you want — see Perry’s guide on anonymous sourcing — but I’m not sure if those stories are really serving the audience.
In any case, I’ll just say this: The media has lots of problems in how it covers Trump. We’ve just scratched the surface here. But these problems are also hard to solve and figuring them out in real time is tough.