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How the Real Mainstream Media Bias Favors Donald Trump

It’s not liberal vs. conservative. It’s called “inversion of expectation,” and it poisons coverage every single day.

Trump speaks to the media
Megan Varner/Getty Images

Watching and reading American media, a certain bias becomes immediately evident. Stories proliferate about pundits and a handful of Democrats calling for President Biden to drop out of the race, but they are almost never “balanced” by pointing out the massively larger number of Republicans (many now “former” or “never Trump” Republicans, but Republicans nonetheless) who are calling for Trump to drop out or be defeated.

Why would this be?

Why wouldn’t the American media at least try to balance their coverage of two “flawed” candidates? After all, Trump has been disowned by the former head of his own party (Michael Steele), something like half of his own former Cabinet officials (including his Defense and Intelligence officials), and even his own former vice president.

There is nothing like a movement or groundswell of that size on the Democratic side; virtually all of the calls for Biden to step aside have come from the media, and not one current or former administration official has gone on the record against Biden.

Shouldn’t the GOP calls for Trump to step aside, be replaced, or be defeated—from old-line conservative Republicans like Liz Cheney to mainstream Republicans like Steele to organized Republican movements like the Lincoln Project—at least be mentioned every time a story is written or a report done on Biden’s struggle to hang onto his candidacy?

Shouldn’t Trump’s crimes and anti-American behavior, as well as his own verbal howlers, at least be mentioned whenever Biden’s age is criticized?

Why aren’t they? What’s going on here?

One proposed answer is that the media is putting their thumb on the scale because they’re largely run by billionaires and corporations eager for more tax cuts and afraid of Biden’s Bernie-like promise to make them “pay their fair share.” But the truth is that with the notorious exceptions of Fox, Sinclair, and X, most media reporting isn’t so simplistically driven from the top down.

That doesn’t mean, however, that one of the biggest problems facing Americans (and the fate and future of our democratic republic) isn’t media bias. It’s just a very different type of bias, which most people who don’t work in the media never consider.

I’m not talking about a simple left/right bias, a political preference held by reporters or publishers and editors of the nation’s major media outlets. The bias I’m referencing has to do with spectacle.

Generations ago, we condescendingly referred to newspapers that emphasized scandal and celebrity intrigue as “yellow journalism.” The phrase dates back to the 1890s and William Randolph Hearst. From the 1890s until the World War II era, this brand of journalism dominated the American media scene.

It took two world wars to push public demand for real news and serious reporting—and an emphasis on fact-based reporting and substance over flash—back into media dominance. They birthed what became the era of Walter Cronkite and Kathryn Graham, with honest, credible reporting on everything from Nixon’s Watergate crimes to the horrors of the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War.

Cronkite competed with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley based on the quality of their reporting and the credibility of their sources, as did the nation’s major and even regional newspapers and radio news networks. Television and radio networks lost money on their news operations, but it was a price they were happy to pay to maintain their otherwise very profitable broadcast licenses.

But then something changed.

I trace the modern era of yellow journalism to the 1990s, when the nation was transfixed by Ken Starr’s (and his right-hand man Brett Kavanaugh’s) relentless and pornographic four-year-long pursuit of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.

After Ronald Reagan ended enforcement of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, radio and TV stations were no longer burdened by the requirement to “program in the public interest” to maintain their broadcast licenses; within a year (1988), all three major TV networks had moved their news divisions—which had universally been losing money in the competition for “real news”—under the arm of their entertainment divisions, where they remain to this day and have become significant profit centers.

Thus was born the modern era of yellow journalism or infotainment, replacing classic issue-based journalism. Rush Limbaugh’s 1988 national syndication and Rupert Murdoch’s 1996 Fox News set the tone for this era’s new yellow journalism, front-loading—as did Hearst back in the day—personality, celebrity, and scandal over the boring details of policy, debate, and the consequences of congressional and presidential decisions.

The “yellow” of this era’s “yellow journalism” more accurately means “profitable,” now that nobody remembers that cartoon of the 1890s. And, unlike the 1890s when there were still papers engaging in serious journalism, today’s yellow journalism is ubiquitous across the media consumed by the majority of Americans.

As a consequence, a Wall Street Journal poll found that 52 percent of voters claim that Trump “has a strong record of accomplishments” but only 40 percent say the same for Biden.

And now the researchers are weighing in, showing how today’s yellow journalism has altered our political landscape and led to the rise of the ultimate scandal/celebrity/personality/profit spectacle: Donald Trump and his fascist cult followers.

Columbia Journalism Review, the premier watchdog of American news reporting, last year published a scathing indictment of preelection political coverage in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Nothing has changed in the months since then; if anything, this profit-driven “yellow journalism” has gotten worse.

Because these two newspapers are so widely read and respected, they tend to set the agenda and tone for most other reporting in the United States, and what the Review found, leading up to the 2022 midterm election, was shocking:

By the numbers, of four hundred and eight articles on the front page of the Times during the period we analyzed, about half—two hundred nineteen—were about domestic politics. A generous interpretation found that just ten of those stories explained domestic public policy in any detail; only one front-page article in the lead-up to the midterms really leaned into discussion about a policy matter in Congress: Republican efforts to shrink Social Security.

Of three hundred and ninety-three front-page articles in the Post, two hundred fifteen were about domestic politics; our research found only four stories that discussed any form of policy. The Post had no front-page stories in the months ahead of the midterms on policies that candidates aimed to bring to the fore or legislation they intended to pursue. Instead, articles speculated about candidates and discussed where voter bases were leaning.

This is the exact same type of yellow journalism “reporting” that preceded the 2016 election and brought us Donald Trump as president.

But it’s not just selective reporting of the news of the day with a heavy tilt toward the GOP (or, more correctly, a steady refusal to report on the accomplishments of Biden and Democrats).

Another factor that Hearst played on heavily—and has come to dominate what passes today for journalism—is the media’s intentional “inversion of expectation.” It’s the other side of the coin of spectacle.

In his 1941 book American Journalism. A History of Newspapers in the United States Through 250 Years, 1690 to 1940, Frank Luther Mott famously noted the hallmark of Hearst’s yellow journalism era: “When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.”

In today’s yellow journalism era, reporters are similarly far more interested in “man bites dog” stories than in examining the factors and history that may have provoked that bite, or even covering in any detail the frequency of bites of any kind.

In this regard, we’re watching a repeat of the way our national news media helped Trump into the White House in 2016.

The irrefutable example comes from an in-depth analysis of 2016 done by Media Matters, comparing Hillary Clinton’s private comment about Trump’s followers being “a basket of deplorables” and Trump’s very public 2016 proclamation, literally echoing Hitler, that some Americans are “vermin” whom he intends to “root out” and eliminate from American society.

Clinton is a reasonable and thoughtful politician and former diplomat, so her “deplorables” comment was seen by our yellow press as “man bites dog.” It was unexpected. Trump, on the other hand, is a sadistic fascist whose call for the extermination of his political opponents could reasonably be expected: “dog bites man.”

The 2016 data proves the thesis, as Media Matters noted: “Media Matters reviewed the nationally syndicated broadcast news shows—ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week; CBS’ This Morning, Mornings, Evening News, and Face the Nation; and NBC’s Today, Nightly News, and Meet the Press—in the first week after each remark.” Result? They found that those programs aired 54 minutes of coverage of Clinton’s “deplorables” comment but just three minutes regarding Trump’s “vermin” remark.

Cable news (CNN, Fox “News,” and MSNBC) wasn’t much different. On CNN, there were 553 mentions of “deplorables” compared to 70 for “vermin.” On Fox News, the count was 513 to only nine. Even on MSNBC, it was 596 to 112.

Finally, the reporters at Media Matters then turned their attention to the nation’s five largest newspapers by circulation. Here, they found the pattern repeated. The Los Angeles Times published three articles about Clinton’s “deplorables” comment, two on the front page. But not one single article during the week after Trump mentioned “vermin” even referenced his remark.

The New York Times had seven articles about Clinton’s comment, four on the front page; like the L.A. Times, there wasn’t a single news story that mentioned Trump’s “vermin” comment during that time period. The Wall Street Journal similarly ignored Trump’s comment altogether but ran eight articles about Clinton’s faux pax, four of them on the front page. The Washington Post at least mentioned Trump’s comment once, on page A2 (including it in the headline), but gave Clinton’s remark nine stories, one on the front page, with five using the word “deplorables” in the headline. USA Today covered Clinton’s comment in two news articles but, like three of the other four papers, completely ignored Trump’s.

And now they are repeating that pattern virtually step by profitable step. So, to answer the question about why Trump is polling better than Biden regardless of the realities in the fact-based world: “It’s the media, stupid.”

The best corrective, and the best chance to save our republic, is for all of us to speak out loudly when we see this kind of modern-day yellow journalism practiced.

As we saw last week when The New York Times featured an editorial calling for its heavily Democratic readers not to vote and then altered the headline in response to public outrage, our pressure can alter media behavior.