A report from Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy analyzed news coverage during the 2016 election found that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump received coverage that was “overwhelmingly negative in tone and extremely light on policy.”
While supporters of either candidate can find plenty in the analysis to argue that their candidate was treated unfairly by the press, both candidates had such major negatives that this is not unexpected. While Clinton did receive more negative coverage, this was largely driven by a coverage of a scandal in progress. Both old news and news driven by Donald Trump’s bizarre acts did him almost as much harm.
Some are complaining about the amount of coverage of Clinton’s scandals, but Democrats should not be surprised that this would be the result of nominating a candidate in the midst of a major scandal. It was as if the Republicans had nominated Richard Nixon after the Watergate scandal broke. Clinton is the one who violated the rules in effect, and then repeatedly attempted to stonewall the press and lie about her actions. Therefore I am not impressed with the claims that there is a false equivalency between Clinton’s negatives and Trump’s. Democrats should have know better to nominate a candidate with the negatives of Hillary Clinton, which have been well known for quite a long time.
When both candidates are unfit to be president, that is precisely the message which should come from the media coverage. Arguments over which scandals are worse are secondary.
My complaint about media coverage pertaining to the email scandal is not the amount of coverage but that the media concentrated too much on the question of indictment for mishandling classified information, leading some Clinton apologists to mistakenly equate a lack of indictment with exoneration. While the more dramatic aspect, this was not the major issue.
This was far more a matter of government transparency, with the classified information only being one portion of the scandals. Rather than concentrate so much on the question of whether Clinton would be indicted, which I never thought was going to happen, more attention should have been paid to the State Department Inspector General Report which showed how Clinton violated the rules, tried to cover-up her actions, and failed to cooperate with the investigation.
It is typical for the media to concentrate more on negative aspects of candidates and on the horserace. In most years I would be more critical of the media for this, but this year the candidates are largely to blame. Donald Trump was generally contradictory and incoherent on most policy matters. Clinton would chose her policy views based upon what was most politically expedient that day, and avoided the media as much as possible. I would have liked to see the media cover issues more, but the media dislikes complex issues at any time. They are even less likely to discuss them when the candidates are rarely doing so in a coherent manner.
The media’s concentration on negative news does distort how some issues are seen. As the report noted: “Although the nation’s economy has steadily improved since the financial crisis of 2008, one would not know that from the tone of news coverage. Since 2010, news stories about the nation’s economy have been 2-to-1 negative over positive.” This did benefit an outsider and “change” candidate, but here too, the Democrats have only themselves to blame. They had a far stronger candidate in Bernie Sanders to capitalize on such feelings, but preferred to rig the system for the most anti-change establishment candidate possible.
The report also points out that “negative news erodes trust in the press, which is now at its lowest level in the history of polling.” This leads to consideration of a Morning Consult survey which looked at trust in the media, and broke it down on party lines. The results are summarized in this table:
The major differences here are in how credible Fox is seen to be, with The Wall Street Journal showing a comparable but less severe partisan divide. Any consideration of the credibility of The Wall Street Journal should take into consideration the tremendous difference between its news pages and the opinion pages, which take far greater liberties with the truth.
There is far more agreement that I might have predicted with other news outlets. Democrats trust MSNBC more then Republicans, but the difference is not all that great.Both Democrats and Republicans rank Huffington Post and Breitbart fairly low, with some degree of the expected partisan difference. I find it encouraging that only 26 percent of Republicans find Breitbart to be credible, placing it below MSNBC, NPR, and Huffington Post. It is notable that Democrats find The Onion to be more credible than Beritbart, but Republicans do not.