The Game of the Name: Media Bias and Presidents

The Game of the Name: Media Bias and Presidents
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
The Game of the Name: Media Bias and Presidents
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
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The adversarial relationship between the press and the presidency in America traces its roots back to the founding of the republic, but it has grown more fraught as the 24/7 news cycle has collided with a president whose fame was built upon a mastery of the media. The majority of this conflict plays out in clear view in the selection and framing of the stories news outlets choose to run, but outlets can also subtly chip away at the dignity of the presidency by refusing to use the word “president” when mentioning the current White House occupant.

Take the pejorative term “Trumpian” that has come to be used by news outlets to express disapproval of the president’s agenda. Using data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive processed by my GDELT Project, the total airtime of CNN, Fox News and MSNBC from June 16, 2015 (the day Donald Trump announced his candidacy) through Oct. 12, 2018 was broken into 15-second intervals. The graph below shows the total number of those clips that mentioned “Trumpian,” with MSNBC by far its biggest adopter.


A far more common way of chipping away at the dignity of the office is to refer to the president without his title. The timeline below shows all mentions of “Obama” in orange compared with all mentions of “President Obama” in blue on CNN from June 16, 2009 (the start of the Archive’s data) to Oct. 12, 2018, using a 12-day rolling average to smooth the data. Immediately clear is that when CNN has referred to the now-former president over the past decade it has chosen to address him as “President Obama” nearly as often as “Obama,” even in the year and a half since he left office. Indeed, the only two periods it did not do so was September to October 2012 while he campaigned for his second term and September to December 2012 during the Obamacare debate and government shutdown crisis, though it is unclear to what degree this was driven by the network’s own commentary versus its airing of clips from Republicans referring to him as “Obama.”


In contrast, the same timeline for “President Trump” versus “Trump” shows that even after Donald Trump the candidate became Donald Trump the president, CNN has largely stuck with referring to him only as “Trump.” In the year and a half since his inauguration, just 36 percent of CNN’s mentions of his name were in the form “President Trump,” compared with 40 percent of the mentions of Obama during the same time. (While “Trump” can also be used to refer to other family members, such usage is minimal and the overwhelming majority of appearances of “Trump” refer to the president.) 

Thus, a year and a half out of office, CNN still refers to Obama as “president” more often than it does the current occupant of the White House.

To illustrate this difference more clearly, the graph below shows the percentage of all mentions of “Obama” that included “President” in front of his name during the period of June 16, 2009 to Jan. 20, 2017 for CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. It also shows the percentage for the period of Jan. 21, 2017 to Oct. 12, 2018 to capture how Obama has been referred to post-presidency and the same for President Trump from Jan. 21, 2017 to Oct. 12, 2018 to capture his presidency to date.

MSNBC’s disdain for the current president is starkly visible in the data. During Obama’s presidency it referred to him as “President Obama” just over half of the times it mentioned him. In the year and a half since he left office, 37 percent of the network’s mentions still refer to him as “president” while just 25 percent of its mentions of Donald Trump since his election refer to him as “President Trump.”

As noted earlier, CNN is not far behind, referring to Obama as president in 54 percent of its mentions during his presidency and 40 percent afterwards, while Trump is referred to as president in just 36 percent of mentions.

Fox, for all the criticism it receives, in this case appears to be called the most balanced in how it refers to the current head of state. During Obama’s tenure it referred to him as “president” in 46 percent of its mentions, dropping to 31 percent of its mentions post-presidency. It refers to Donald Trump as “president” in 44 percent of its mentions of him, nearly identical to how it treated Obama while in office.

In contrast, MSNBC and CNN still refer to “Obama” as “president” more frequently than Trump, more than a year and a half after he left office.

Most striking of all, MSNBC cannot seem to bring itself to acknowledge that Trump is the current president, choosing to refer to him only as “Trump” even while it still honors Obama as “President Obama” in his retirement.

Putting this together, when we talk about media bias we typically refer to “agenda setting”:  the stories each outlet chooses to cover and the framing it uses to discuss them. In reality, outlets may also exhibit a range of more subtle forms of bias, such as whether they honor an individual by using his formal title or whether he is treated as an ordinary person. It remains to be seen whether this is a temporary change, driven by the media’s intense dislike of the current administration, or whether it reflects a more lasting shift in how the media report on the presidency. However, the fact that Fox News did not refer to Obama any differently than it has Trump and that this difference is most visible in MSNBC’s coverage suggests it reflects genuine partisan bias. Instead of dismissing Fox News as a partisan network, perhaps we should spend a bit more time recognizing the subtle bias that underlies all news.

After all, few would label Fox News a pro-Obama network, but if it was able to afford him the same dignity it does the current administration, perhaps MSNBC and CNN could be a little less biased in their coverage of President Trump.

RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.

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