Washington media frenzy unlikely to calm down anytime soon, experts say

Reporters stake out an entrance to the Senate chamber to interview members as they leave on May 18, 2017. (Leandra Bernstein/SBG)

New research could support President Trump’s complaints that he has faced harsher scrutiny from the press than his predecessors, but experts and former journalists say the barrage of negative headlines is not necessarily unfair or unwarranted.

“No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly,” Trump claimed during his commencement speech at the Coast Guard Academy Wednesday.

It may seem that the media is blasting out every single bit of news at the highest volume and the “breaking news” banner is rarely disappearing from cable news screens, but the context and content of those stories matters.

According to Frank Sesno, former White House correspondent and CNN Washington bureau chief, the developments driving the coverage are often significant and worthy of attention.

“Certainly in the last couple of weeks, and certainly since the firing of [FBI Director James] Comey, this story has entered that sort of inevitable place where big stories go where they just become completely dominant,” said Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.

Stephen Farnsworth, a former journalist and author of “Spinner-in-Chief: How Presidents Sell Their Policies and Themselves,” said the coverage reflects the actions of the administration and the problems it has had.

“There has been an immense amount of news focused on Trump these last several months and it seems entirely justified,” said Farnsworth, now a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington.

There are obviously frivolous exceptions—news cycles spurred by errant tweets and personal feuds or segments about how many scoops of ice cream the president eats—and cases where reporters have jumped the gun with incomplete information, but there have also been major events that raise valid questions.

The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University published a report Thursday that analyzed coverage of the first 100 days of the last four presidencies. The media interest in Trump far outpaces other recent presidents, as does the negative tone of the coverage.

The study tracked reporting in three major U.S. newspapers, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News, and three European media outlets. Researchers found that 41 percent of all television news stories were related to Trump, three times more than previous presidents.

Of reports that had a clear tone, 80 percent were negative. In comparison, about 60 percent of coverage was negative in the first 100 days for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In Obama’s first 100 days, nearly 60 percent was positive, but in the first 100 of his second term, it was 57 percent negative.

However, the analysis also found that Trump was the main speaker in nearly two-thirds of the stories. Republicans and other administration officials accounted for 15 percent, and Democrats were the featured speakers in only 6 percent of stories.

Report author Thomas Patterson observed that it is unusual for coverage to be so negative despite the subject being given so many opportunities to speak for himself. He suggested this is because Trump has been on the defensive for much of his term.

Fox News painted the president in a more positive light, with coverage 34 percentage points less negative than the average of the other six U.S. outlets, but even on Fox, 52 percent of stories had a negative tone.

Trump is the first president to begin his administration in a world where every event is witnessed, documented, and commented on over social media. A story can spread across the web in minutes, amplifying the drama and significance of it.

“Part of why there’s so much focus on Trump’s daily developments is the presence of social media. People are ready to receive the latest every few seconds. But it’s also true that news reporting follows the news itself,” Farnsworth said.

He also pointed to the inordinate amount of leaks coming out of the White House and the government these days, many of them challenging the public narratives put forth by the president.

“Reporters write about what they have, and reporters are getting a lot these days,” he said.

Trump’s own social media activity is a story engine itself. Every tweet generates headlines, and Trump tweets a lot. That is only one of many ways that he has upended traditions and violated political norms.

“By flouting the conventions as he has, the president has invited scrutiny,” Sesno said.

The media feeding frenzy in Washington is not just impacting the White House. The Senate press galleries are now expressing concern about “large and aggressive” packs of reporters questioning lawmakers in the halls of the Capitol.

“We understand the increased demand for reporting at the Senate. However, we are concerned for everyone’s safety,” gallery directors said in a letter to editors and bureau chiefs obtained by Politico Wednesday.

They warned that Senate officials may take action to correct overcrowding, particularly in areas not sanctioned for stakeouts.

Still, reporters swarmed the Capitol Thursday as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein briefed senators on the firing of FBI Director James Comey and other recent developments. The meeting came a day after Rosenstein announced he was appointing former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel for the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

That news followed the revelation Tuesday that Comey reportedly kept memos on his conversations with Trump, including one in which Trump urged him to drop the investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

The day before that, the Washington Post reported that Trump shared sensitive classified information with Russian officials. Current National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster disputed the possibility that Trump revealed sources and methods of intelligence, but the Post story had not claimed that he did.

“It’s one development, disclosure, or nugget of news after another,” Sesno said. “At this stage, it becomes almost a non-stop cycle.”

The rapid-fire pace of developments creates potential pitfalls for journalists.

Conflicting accounts have emerged from anonymous sources in some cases, and administration officials have directly denied other reports. In this environment, despite the pressure to get news out fast, the need to be accurate is even more urgent.

“There’s always the danger of getting things wrong,” Sesno said, though he noted that most recent stories contested by the White House were not verifiably inaccurate.

Asked at a press conference Thursday whether he urged Comey to close the Flynn investigation, Trump said, “No, no. Next question.” That denial will not put the issue to rest.

The escalating tension between Trump and the press may be taking a toll on both.

A new HuffPost/YouGov poll found 36 percent of Americans have a great deal or fair amount of trust in Trump, while 39 percent said they have at least a fair amount of trust in the media. Only 10 percent trust both Trump and the media, and nearly a quarter do not trust either.

Trump supporters have taken issue with both the tone and the prevalence of coverage of the administration, claiming that the media is obsessed with trying to take down the president.

“Each and every week, they have manufactured a continual cycle of ‘fake news’ crises about the Trump administration for the sole purpose of smearing the Republican leader so that Democrats can take back power in the midterms and 2020,” wrote Adriana Cohen in the Boston Herald.

“If you review the first four months of news coverage – much of which is based on unnamed sources – it becomes obvious how overwhelmingly negative, hostile, gossipy, and focused on undermining and weakening President Trump and his team the press corps truly is,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said in a Fox News op-ed.

Others disagree, saying Trump’s atypical behavior begets atypical coverage and he has no one to blame but himself.

“in recent weeks, the coverage has been aggressive, broadly speaking,” Sesno said. “I believe this is news coverage that Donald Trump has brought on himself, a parade of self-inflicted gaffes, wounds, disasters, an absolute contempt for the process and the press, and a sort of cloak of suspicion and secrecy that he and his aides have wrapped around virtually everything.”

According to Farnsworth, the White House’s shifting messages and conflicting statements perpetuate stories the media might otherwise have moved on from. This occurred with Comey’s firing, where Trump’s statements in interviews directly contradicted claims his aides made days earlier.

“If you tell one version of events on Monday and another version of events on Wednesday and another on Thursday, you can expect a lot of stories if you are the president or work for the president,” he said.

The constant stream of headlines and apparent bombshell reports may obscure the fact that Trump is only four months into his presidency. With the Russia investigation hanging over the administration and leaks raising more questions about Flynn and other issues, there is no sign it will slow down anytime soon.

“It seems hard to believe that this can last for four years, but I would have said it’s hard to believe it could last for four weeks,” Farnsworth said.

As the drama continues, Sesno observed that it is important to put events in perspective for readers.

“One of the biggest challenges of covering this moment in American politics and this president is how to keep a sense of proportionality with the torrent of news and outrage,” he said.

If Trump changes his behavior, brings in a more disciplined staff, and focuses his attention on policy, the headlines may stop flowing. Experts see no reason to expect that.

“The 24-hour cycle slows down when things become routine,” Sesno said. “Will they ever become routine with Donald Trump?”

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