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Good journalism doesn't mean covering Biden and Trump equally

The New York Times and other newspapers are displayed at a newsstand in the Times Square subway station in New York City. (Michael Brown/Getty Images)
The New York Times and other newspapers are displayed at a newsstand in the Times Square subway station in New York City. (Michael Brown/Getty Images)

The headline on a recent New York Times column read: “Must We Discuss the Queen and Trump in the Same Breath?

The answer for Gail Collins and Bret Stephens apparently was “yes, we must” because once they discussed the Queen, they pivoted to former President Donald Trump’s effect on the midterm elections and the questionable candidates he’s backing.

As actor Christine Baranski said in a recent interview: “Six years later, can you believe that this guy is still in our brains, taking up all this real estate?”

And Baranski had an explanation for what she sees as over-coverage of Trump. She blamed the news media in large part for covering “every outrageous thing” he does, which gives him “so much traction.”

But the media shouldn’t be blamed for covering what’s newsworthy. And when a former president continues to defy every norm of expected and, some would say, acceptable behavior, including keeping top secret documents in his private storage closet, and when he hints constantly that he’ll soon announce another run for the presidency, that’s the very definition of newsworthy.

But it isn’t the media’s job to match tough stories on one president to those on another.

As a former reporter and long-time professor teaching journalism history, law and ethics, I understand that another major consideration for the media is that coverage of Trump is good for business. In March 2021, Business Insider reported that CNN viewership was “dramatically down since Trump left office," with the network losing nearly 50% of its audience during primetime. So there’s a financial incentive to keep reporting on the former president too. But the coverage should be in proper perspective.

It was a big story when Sen. Chuck Schumer was able to twist Sen. Joe Manchin’s arm sufficiently to get him to agree to support the Inflation Reduction Bill passed in what the Associated Press on July 27th called “a startling turnabout.” That huge victory for the Democrats and President Biden had to share top billing in the day’s new cycle with not one but several Trump stories.

Stories on the same day in multiple media outlets included: Trump making his first public speech in Washington, D.C. since leaving the White House; Trump backing Saudi Arabia’s LIV golf tournament by hosting it at his New Jersey country club, and the Justice Department’s building a criminal case against Trump for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. 

What must President Biden have thought when he picked up the paper and turned on the news that day? Maybe a saltier version of: “You’ve got to be kidding me?”

I thought on July 27 — and on many other days — that the balance was off. As important as those Trump stories are, it seemed to me that Biden, his agenda and his accomplishments were not always getting as much coverage as they deserved. Infrastructure is not sexy, I know, but it’s significant and has much more impact on people’s daily lives than some of Trump’s antics.

The media can’t and shouldn’t cover “both sides” of this divide equally.

Similarly, good news on the economy has had to vie for attention for weeks with the FBI’s search for classified documents at Mar-a-Lago and Trump’s lashing out over the search. Both stories deserve full and fair treatment.

And I’ve heard similar comments from my UMass students. Some have cut back on reading and watching news because they’re “tired of Trump.” For that reason, I try to limit my commentary on him in journalism and law classes so as not to lose their interest, even though our discussions of sedition, libel and access to classified documents must include discussion of the former president.

Some media critics say journalists have been too tough on Biden in an effort to match their tough reporting on Trump. Of course, all presidents should be held accountable through rigorous reporting. Still, in all the coverage and commentary on Biden’s age, there has been little mention that Trump is only three years younger.

But it isn’t the media’s job to match tough stories on one president to those on another. A reporter’s job is to report evidence-based truth, fairly and transparently, always. The media have gotten better at pointing out Trump’s outright lies and his assertions made without evidence. When Biden goes off script and exaggerates or gets things wrong, they report that too.

Biden, his agenda and his accomplishments were not always getting as much coverage as they deserved.

But two days after Biden warned that American democracy is under assault by forces loyal to Trump, the Times reported that Trump described the speech as “the most vicious, hateful and divisive speech ever delivered by an American president.”
Surely that’s a distinction held by Trump himself.

The media can’t and shouldn’t cover “both sides” of this divide equally. They should give both sides the standing they deserve in the story with an eye to appropriate balance in terms of the overall picture being presented.

Websites like the Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer track the number of minutes devoted to various topics across time, including Trump and Biden, and most news organizations track views on stories, with those on Trump often among the most read, shared and discussed. But the observations in this columnChristine Baranski’s and my ownare more anecdotal.

Like this one, for example: The print edition of the Sept. 15 New York Times ran a small two-column photo of Biden at a lectern on page 14, the continuation of a front-page story. His sleeves were rolled up, and he was speaking about trying to avert a looming rail strike. (His administration was successful in brokering a deal, and avoiding a work stoppage.) Several pages later, the paper ran a large five-column photo of Trump standing on a stage and looking quite statesmanlike under a headline reading: “In Legal Fight Over Documents, ‘a Lot of Smoke’ From the Former President.”

Trump sells real estate, but Baranski and my students are right that he’s getting a little too much of it in the media right now.

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Karen List Cognoscenti contributor
Karen List is a professor in the journalism department at UMass Amherst where she teaches journalism law and ethics.

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