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BRENDA LOOPER: Double negative?

Putting a spin on it by Brenda Looper | October 24, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

I hear complaints all the time about overall negative news coverage (and the obligatory claims of "fake news") of the president by the media. I tend to apply Occam's Razor to many of these complaints. Seriously, what's more likely: that all of the reports--especially those that are well-sourced and fact-checked--perceived as negative are fake, or that the coverage is merited by the actions and words of the president?

For some readers, the answer is that it's all fake. I know I'll never be able to change your minds or get you to even consider other explanations. For the rest of you, let's talk negativity.

"I've fought more damn battles here than any president in 20 years with the possible exception of Reagan's first budget and not gotten one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press. I am damn sick and tired of it." You might think that our current president said that, but no. That was Bill Clinton 25 years ago--the first year of his presidency--in an interview with Rolling Stone.

With Clinton, negative coverage outweighed the positive throughout his presidency, though admittedly not by as large a margin (a ratio of about 3-2, compared with the current 4-1). Harvard's Shorenstein Center reported last year: "There was not a single quarter during any year of Clinton's presidency where his positive coverage exceeded his negative coverage, a dubious record no president before or since has matched."

If the current president doesn't match it, it won't be for lack of trying.

Clinton found out that any leader in a land with free press is going to face his or her share of negative headlines; it's part of the job, and unless you're the embodiment of perfection on earth, you will have opposition, and reporters who seek out their comments in addition to those of supporters. As Callum Borchers of The Washington Post wrote in June, "A president is not entitled to coverage that is half-positive and half-negative; he deserves whatever split his governing warrants."

And really, how do you put a positive spin on some of the things the president does? Charlottesville (among other instances) wasn't exactly his finest hour.

What typically happens with a lot of studies on coverage (and this happens in every administration) is that people cherry-pick numbers to make a point. Sure, go ahead and use that 90 percent or so negative figure in recent studies and ignore the fact that it's only among stories with clear tones. Neutral reports made up about a third of both the Harvard and Pew Research Center studies; not counting those creates the illusion of more negativity than there is.

Harvard reported: "Have the mainstream media covered Trump in a fair and balanced way? That question cannot be answered definitively in the absence of an agreed-upon version of 'reality' against which to compare Trump's coverage. Any such assessment would also have to weigh the news media's preference for the negative, a tendency in place long before Trump became president. Given that tendency, the fact that Trump has received more negative coverage than his predecessor is hardly surprising. The early days of his presidency have been marked by far more missteps and miss-hits, often self-inflicted, than any presidency in memory, perhaps ever."

Barack Obama's first 100 days elicited more positive coverage than any other recent president, but a big part of that can be attributed to the historic nature of his being the first black U.S. president. The first female president, whenever that happens, will likely receive similar coverage ... unless it's Hillary or Elizabeth Warren (the divisive tend to draw negative coverage).

With the current administration as opposed to earlier administrations, Pew found that character, not policy, has been the focus of more coverage, which helps explain the negative press. When you have a president seemingly obsessed with staying in the news, who attacks anyone who displeases him, whose administration leaks like a sieve, and whose documented prevarication has only increased since he came into office, it's little wonder that coverage is more negative. Add to that a disregard and/or lack of awareness of societal norms and his habit of making pronouncements with no basis in fact, and it's a near-miracle that any coverage is positive.

Seriously, can someone get him off Twitter, please?

Pew reported that outlets with right-leaning audiences had more positive reporting on the president, but also cited fewer sources than did outlets with left-leaning or mixed audiences. Which says something about the audiences those outlets seek.

I always come down on the side of widening your news diet. If you can't take criticism of the president--no matter who it is at any given moment--you should definitely add other voices to your diet, as you should if you can't stand to hear the president praised. We as voters should be open to all of it--the good, the bad, and the in-between--and analyze the information without regard to ideology (remember: person, not party).

Or you can stay in your little safe space where nothing will ever hurt you. Well, except for reality.


Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at Email her at [email protected]

Editorial on 10/24/2018

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