Harvard Professor Gives Insight Into New Shorenstein Report About How The Media Helped Trump And Hurt Clinton
Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP
The author of a new Harvard study on the media’s coverage of the presidential primary says the press clearly helped Donald Trump on his path to becoming the presumptive Republican nominee.
This week, Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy released a detailed report on the media’s coverage of the presidential race in 2015, the year leading up to the first primaries. The study found that “Trump is arguably the first bona fide media-created presidential nominee. Although he subsequently tapped a political nerve, journalists fueled his launch."
The study’s author, Harvard professor Thomas E. Patterson, told Media Matters in an interview that the massive amount of Trump coverage -- as well as its largely positive tone -- predated Trump’s rise in the polls and “helped position him to make a stronger run.”
“In the past, to get a lot of coverage pre-Iowa you had to be pretty high in the polls, and they started to give him heavy coverage when he was way down there, in the single digits,” Patterson said in an interview. “It is virtually impossible when you go back through all the races before 2016 when you were in a multi-candidate field and you were down where he was you are almost an afterthought to journalists.”
The study looked at coverage of the candidates prior to the caucus and primary votes by Fox News, CBS, NBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.
Equating the Trump coverage to advertising dollars, Patterson’s report found that Trump received about $55 million worth of positive and neutral coverage in the eight outlets studied, well ahead of the second place candidate, Jeb Bush, at $36 million.
“It’s gold, it works in every way in [his] favor,” Patterson said. “As you start to go up in the polls, there is a circular pattern, you can raise money and it becomes easier to pull voters into your column. What was abnormal was this extraordinary amount of attention Trump got early on even though he did not appear on paper to be a credible candidate. He was far down in the polls, but he made statements that made for great stories.”
The study found that all eight of the news outlets studied gave Trump predominantly positive or neutral coverage, from The New York Times, where 63% of stories about Trump were positive or neutral, to USA Today, which led the way with 74%.
By the same token, Clinton received largely negative coverage across the eight news outlets during 2015. The report argues of this disparity, "Whereas media coverage helped build up Trump, it helped tear down Clinton. Trump’s positive coverage was the equivalent of millions of dollars in ad-buys in his favor, whereas Clinton’s negative coverage can be equated to millions of dollars in attack ads, with her on the receiving end."
Patterson pointed to reporting on Clinton's use of a private email account while secretary of state and Republicans' ongoing focus on the 2012 Benghazi attacks as two of the most negatives stories.
“In her case, the emails and the questions about the emails, how big an issue is this actually, that was a big part of her coverage,” Patterson said. “Benghazi was a bigger part of the news early on and then she had that day-long session with Congress that a lot of people thought she did quite well with. Of all the candidates of recent decades who have been front-runners, she has had the strongest headwinds of negative coverage.”
But Patterson said the press may have over-covered the email issue and failed to put it in proper context.
“How big an issue is the email controversy in the context of the candidate’s preparedness and ability to be president of the states?” he asked. “I think you would get some who say it is a molehill into a mountain. My own sense is that as a standalone issue the emails are pretty small potatoes in the realm of presidential preparedness. It has been a common practice in Congress and among cabinet officers to combine them one way or another. She is not an outlier on this and you could ask why the press has not brought that part of the story into it.”
Patterson added that even apart from those controversies, Clinton’s “substantive issue coverage was more negative than the other candidates.”
Despite the helping hand the media gave Trump during the primaries, Patterson notes that “in the past few weeks, Trump has gotten the kind of press scrutiny that if it had come earlier it would have been a drag of some kind on his candidacy, perhaps enough to make it hard for him to go into the convention with a majority.”