In 'Woke' Era, Is Scandal Coverage Tied to the Accused's Politics?
Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP, File
In 'Woke' Era, Is Scandal Coverage Tied to the Accused's Politics?
Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP, File
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As voters head to the polls in Virginia today, three men at the top of state government there remain in office despite what ordinarily would have been career-ending scandals earlier this year. Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring both acknowledged wearing blackface in their youth, while Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was accused of sexual assault, which he denied. How have the media covered these allegations of blackface and sexual assault and what do they tell us about the shifting winds of “woke” and “#MeToo” culture?

The timeline below shows the combined number of mentions of “Northam,” “Herring” and “Fairfax” by day on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News from Jan. 1 of this year through Nov. 3, using data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive processed by the GDELT Project. (Click on the image to enlarge).

Immediately clear is that all three stories came and went within the space of less than two weeks and have barely been mentioned since. Despite their intersection with two of the Democratic Party’s most important issues, race and the #MeToo movement,  the stories disappeared as quickly as they had come.

The bar chart below shows how many times each of the three channels mentioned the three stories. Fox News covered them more than its peers, with this difference most pronounced in its coverage of the assault allegations against Fairfax. In fact, both CNN and MSNBC covered the Northam blackface allegations twice as much as they mentioned the  allegations against Fairfax, while Fox News mentioned it just 1.2 times as much.

One possible explanation for this is that both CNN and MSNBC significantly curtailed covering the #MeToo movement at the end of last year, leaving Fox News largely alone in covering the topic in 2019, as seen in the timeline below of the number of mentions of “MeToo” on each channel since August 2017. During this time, Fox News mentioned #MeToo 714 times compared with 401 mentions on MSNBC and 285 on CNN.

A similar pattern played out in September with the revelation that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had worn blackface in his youth. Fox News mentioned it 353 times, more than CNN’s 192 times and MSNBC’s 87 times combined.

Fox also covered President Obama’s recent critique of “woke culture” almost twice as much as its peers combined: 16 times since last week, compared with just five mentions on CNN and four on MSNBC.

If blackface and sexual assault allegations against prominent liberal politicians are not enough to draw the attention of CNN and MSNBC, what is? Unsurprisingly, the answer is Donald Trump.

The timeline below shows the number of mentions of “racist” or “racists” or “racism” on the three channels by month over the course of 2019. Fox News consistently mentioned the terms more than its counterparts through June, most notably during the February blackface allegations against Northam and Herring.

In July, however, CNN and MSNBC offered wall-to-wall coverage of the topic, rising to more than 2% of their total airtime that month. The story? Trump’s tweets that several progressive members of Congress should “go back,” which were widely described as “racist.” As the Trump furor wore off, Fox News regained its mantle by September, when the Trudeau blackface story broke.

Putting this all together, despite “woke” culture, racism and the #MeToo movement being central themes of the Democratic Party today, media coverage of such stories seems to be heavily dependent on the politics of the person accused. The only constant seems to be the ever-present “Trump Bump” in which any story involving the president is media gold.

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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