As Democratic impeachment fervor continues to grow on Capitol Hill, the media’s descriptions of Donald Trump have become ever more colorful, with headlines proclaiming him a “criminal,” “corrupt” and even a “treasonous traitor.” How have the media’s descriptions of the president evolved since he first rode down that Trump Tower escalator four-plus years ago?
The infinite creativity of human language means there are endless ways a candidate/president can be described. The most straightforward and easiest for machines to analyze is to simply look for all mentions of “Trump is” and then compile a list of the first two words that follow. Thus, a statement that “Trump is a racist” would be counted as “racist” and “Trump is the most corrupt” would be counted as “most corrupt.”
Aggregated by month and examined over time, such a phrase list offers powerful insights into how the media’s descriptions of the president have evolved over his candidacy and nearly three years in office.
The timeline below shows the total number of mentions of “Trump is” on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News by month from June 2015 through October 2019 (November 2019 is excluded since it is thus far a partial month) using data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive and processed by the GDELT Project. (Click to enlarge.)
Much like overall mentions of Trump, descriptive ones increased through October 2016, fell steadily through March 2017 and have remained relatively stable at around 1,000 to 1,500 mentions a month since then. In all, CNN used the phrase 76,080 times through November 2016, while MSNBC mentioned it 80,037 times and Fox News 67,481 times.
These 223,598 total mentions were processed to extract the two words following “is” (excluding “a,” “an,” “the” and any punctuation) and compile a list of the most common two-word phrases used to describe Trump each month on each of the three news channels.
Since the most common overall phrases that follow contain basic grammar like “going to” or “trying to,” a statistical technique known as TF-IDF was used to eliminate these common phrases that appear consistently and instead focus on the five phrases most uniquely associated with each station in each month.
The complete results can be seen in the table here.
Immediately after announcing his candidacy in June 2015, all three channels adopted relatively unremarkable language such as “making another [attempt]” and “[a] sharp guy.” The following month the wording begins hardening, with CNN using “wrong on,” Fox News repeating claims of “political fraud” and MSNBC mentioning that he is “surging.” By August, CNN’s most distinctive phrases included “leading” and “dominating” while Fox noted that he was “resonating well” and MSNBC offered that he was “sucking all” the air out of the room and “tapping into” a portion of the electorate.
Over the next few months, coverage treated him largely dismissively, shifting towards words such as “entertainer” and “narcissist” and a “ratings machine” rather than terms related to his campaign.
From February to May 2016, all three channels began referring to him as “nominee” and “presumptive nominee,” while the tone of their descriptions hardened towards “very rattled” and “pathological liar” on CNN, “right candidate” and “unstoppable” on Fox News (though also “phony” and “clown”) and “con man” and “terrible person” on MSNBC.
June 2016 marked a major darkening in coverage, with all three covering Hillary Clinton’s remarks that Trump was “temperamentally unfit” and MSNBC adding that he was a “genuine threat.”
By September such phrases as “disgusting fraud” on CNN and “unfit for” on MSNBC were balanced against “doing better” and “best debater,” reflecting his rising fortunes. October saw “sexual predator” on MSNBC, “Nazi” on CNN and “person best” on Fox News.
From his November 2016 election through his inauguration, phrases such as “uniquely unqualified” trended on CNN; MSNBC used “phony” and “illegitimate”; and Fox News focused primarily on electoral words but also repeated such claims as “mentally unstable.”
February 2017 marked another major darkening, as all three repeated the word “horrible” and CNN switched to “embodiment of” while MSNBC referenced his “attacking judges” and Fox News noted he was “not boring.” Over the rest of 2017 the words used to describe Trump continued to get steadily more negative, with “white supremacist” trending in September of that year and “moron” and “mentally deranged” also making the list.
Descriptions in 2018 mixed mentions of China, the economy and negotiations with “fully stable,” a “con” and a “serious threat.”
Thus far in 2019, words have trended towards criminal allegations, impeachment and racism, representing the most negative wording yet.
It is important to recognize that these phrases represent a mixture of descriptions by the channels’ own personalities and those of third parties, which were rebroadcast as is. Combined, they offer a glimpse into the words a viewer would have heard closely associated with the president over time on each channel.
While less incendiary than CNN or MSNBC, the descriptions aired on Fox News about Trump over the last 4 ½ years have hardly been congratulatory. A closer look suggests that most of these utterances are from Democrats that Fox chose to repeat. For example, last month’s most distinctive term on the news channel, “most corrupt,” is actually a phrase uttered by Joe Biden during the Democratic primary debate, which Fox devoted significant airtime to replaying.
In contrast to the frequent portrayal of Fox News as airing only positive news about the president, this sifting of terms shows that the channel actually repeats many of the same negative sound bites as its competitors.
Putting this all together, the descriptions found on this link show a news media that was at first dismissive of Donald Trump, rapidly hardened its rhetoric as he raced towards the nomination, then has become ever more negative as his presidency has worn on.
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.