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New Harvard study says media rewards Trump, harms Clinton

(Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty)

One of the great things about the United States is how its traditional ideology of a two-party system has worked so flawlessly. That either-or political system, enriched by periodic eruptions of third-party pressure and ground-up electoral housecleaning, lends itself to a note-perfect harmony between those who possess different ideologies. “Why, hello, stranger/relative at Thanksgiving/employer, it’s time to have a pleasant conversation—how about politics?” is a common refrain in social situations. And that agreeable mass demeanor lends itself well to scientific studies of political figures, which is why it should be relatively uncontroversial to state that a new study finds mainstream coverage of Trump is largely responsible for the candidate’s success. Furthermore, it also claims that coverage of Hillary Clinton during that same period was overwhelmingly negative, contributing to the weakening of her campaign. Let the genteel, urbane discussion begin!

As reported by The Slot—a sister site to Jezebel, a website that similarly inspires largely neutral feelings in the majority of politically engaged readers—a new study by Thomas E. Patterson at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government shows that coverage from mass news organizations played a big role in abetting Trump’s rise to the Republican nomination for president. Patterson shows that mainstream news coverage (as represented by CBS, Fox, the Los Angeles Times, NBC,The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post) was worth roughly $55 million in advertising for the sentient Boston baked bean. In arguing that media coverage is the most important element of a campaign—especially in the early going, whereas money plays a larger role in the final months—he claims the media’s attraction to what’s good for the media, not politics, was essential:

Journalists are attracted to the new, the unusual, the sensational—the type of story material that will catch and hold an audience’s attention. Trump fit that need as no other candidate in recent memory. Trump is arguably the first bona fide media-created presidential nominee. Although he subsequently tapped a political nerve, journalists fueled his launch.


And since the Democratic Party is also completely in easy-going lockstep with itself, regardless of which candidate someone supported, let’s not forget to have a fun conversation about that, too. These same news outlets—the ones routinely condemned as “lamestream liberal” by people who maybe need to get out a bit more—helped drive down Clinton’s favorability ratings. Despite getting far less coverage, Bernie Sanders actually had the best reception: “Strictly in terms of tonal balance—good news vs. bad news—Sanders was the most favorably reported candidate—Republican or Democratic—during the invisible primary.” Clinton, conversely, was actually hurt by the widespread name recognition, largely for the same reasons of media narrative construction that aided Trump.

Clinton might have wished that the Democratic race received even less attention than it did, given that her coverage was the least favorable of the leading contenders, Democratic and Republican. Month after month…her coverage was more negative than positive. There was only one month in the whole of 2015 where the tone of her coverage was not in the red and, even then, it barely touched positive territory. During the first half of the year, excluding neutral references, it averaged three to one negative statements over positive statements. Her coverage in the second half of the year was more favorable, but still damning. The ratio for that period was more than three to two negative over positive.

Whereas Trump’s come-from-nowhere rise was tailored to an ongoing fascination with his arrival, Clinton’s front-runner status hurt her, because the second she underperformed, the “schizophrenic quality” of the media’s coverage turned on her. “If the frontrunner loses support in the polls—a virtual certainty given the artificial boost that comes from high name recognition in the earliest polls—the narrative tilts negative,” reports Patterson, who’s probably bummed that everyone will so readily accept the findings of his research without an emotional response. Indeed, as we all wonder why anyone’s blood pressure could possibly rise as a result of such uncontroversial results, we would do well to remember Thomas Jefferson’s maxim: “From time to time, the tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of incredibly personal attacks on Twitter against people you’ve never met.”

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