Trump Era Coverage of AG 'Contempt' Dwarfs Obama Era 'Crisis'

Trump Era Coverage of AG 'Contempt' Dwarfs Obama Era 'Crisis'
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Trump Era Coverage of AG 'Contempt' Dwarfs Obama Era 'Crisis'
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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A White House citing executive privilege in refusing to hand over subpoenaed documents to Congress. An attorney general held in contempt for refusing to provide those materials. Questions over whether Congress could actually arrest the sitting AG and drag him to jail. His dismissal of the entire process as “political theater” and a “politically motivated investigation … making reckless charges unsupported by fact and advancing truly absurd conspiracy theories.”

A summary of William Barr’s situation this past week? No, this was the saga of Eric Holder seven years ago in the so-called Fast and Furious gun-running inquiry. How did media coverage of contempt, executive privilege and “constitutional crises” during the Obama administration compare with their coverage today?

The timeline below shows the percentage of airtime on MSNBC, Fox News and CNN that mentioned “contempt” and “Congress” within 15 seconds of each other over the past decade, using data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive processed by the GDELT Project.

Immediately clear is that the events of the past month are far from “unprecedented.” In fact, it was almost exactly seven years ago that the media were fixated on an almost identical story with almost the same threats and warnings. The only difference was the reversal in roles: a Democratic White House stonewalling a Republican House.

The 2012 events were covered by Fox News more than CNN and MSNBC combined, whereas the events of the past week were covered slightly more by CNN and MSNBC than Fox.

The 2012 fight similarly involved the administration citing “executive privilege” to shield documents from Congress, as seen in the timeline below.

Once again, the 2012 fight was covered by Fox more than twice as much as the other two stations. In contrast, the Barr proceedings were covered by MSNBC almost twice as much as by Fox.

Jeff Sessions’ claim of executive privilege in June 2017 also resulted in far more attention on MSNBC and CNN, as did Steve Bannon’s similar claim in January 2018.

The question of whether the nation is facing a “constitutional crisis” also appears to have generated very different interest across the three stations in the Obama and Trump eras, as seen in the timeline below.

During the Obama administration, the June 2012 specter of Attorney General Eric Holder being held in contempt of Congress yielded a flurry of coverage on Fox News about whether the White House’s refusal to comply with Congress’ subpoenas constituted a constitutional crisis. CNN and MSNBC, on the other hand, barely gave the topic a mention.

Similarly, in November 2014, as Obama debated turning to executive action to push through his immigration policy, Republicans decried his unilateral actions as a potential constitutional crisis, again generating a burst of coverage on Fox News that was not met by similar attention on the other two channels.

In contrast, during the Trump era, MSNBC has mentioned the phrase the most often, with CNN not far behind.
The events surrounding Barr have prompted the most mentions of the topic of the past decade, with MSNBC devoting 70 times the airtime to the phrase this past week than it did during the week Holder was held in contempt, CNN devoting 36 times and Fox devoting 3.6 times.

Putting this all together, it seems everything is more outsized in the Trump Era, even the media coverage.

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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