Measuring a Trump-Size Mark on the Cable News Universe

Measuring a Trump-Size Mark on the Cable News Universe
AP Photo/Richard Drew
Measuring a Trump-Size Mark on the Cable News Universe
AP Photo/Richard Drew
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The presidency of Donald Trump has not only divided the public, it has fractured the media landscape. The tone of media discourse has trended steadily more negative since Trump took office -- to the point that even the very pronouns used to describe Americans have changed. As mentions of Trump and his impeachment trial reached almost a quarter of total television news airtime last month, it is worth reflecting on just how much this president dominates the media and how starkly the nation’s divisions have become apparent in the Fourth Estate.

The timeline below shows the total number of mentions of “Obama” and “Trump” on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News from July 2009 through present, using data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive processed by the GDELT Project. While the archive’s data begins six months after the start of Obama’s first term, over the same period in his presidency Trump has received two to three times as many mentions per month as his predecessor. (Click to enlarge).

Combining mentions of “Trump” with “impeachment” or “impeach” or “impeaching” or “impeached” or “impeachable” or “trial,” the timeline below shows Trump’s recent media attention almost eclipsing the outpouring of shell-shocked coverage in the aftermath of his surprise election.

While his actions may divide news outlets, Trump has clearly also united the press in its unwavering interest in his presidency.

All three cable news channels initially covered Trump with roughly the same amount of airtime, but beginning with the May 2017 appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, MSNBC has  consistently afforded Trump and impeachment as much as 5% more than the other two (though as the impeachment process began last month, the gap has narrowed).

Since August 2017, the Internet Archive has inventoried the textual chyrons at the bottom of the three channels. Over that time period, CNN’s chyrons have mentioned Trump or his impeachment during more than 3,425 hours of airtime, followed by MSNBC’s 3,412 hours. In contrast, Fox News has mentioned the president or his impeachment less than half as often: 1,717 hours.

The phrase “not normal” entered the lexicon shortly after Trump’s election and has become a catchphrase ever since. Recounting the president’s latest “not normal” behaviors has become a cable news staple. Interestingly, as the impeachment process has accelerated, CNN and MSNBC have decreased their mentions of the term, while Fox News has begun to embrace it.

Chyrons have also embraced the word “normal” with such headlines as “How far from normal is this White House?” Since August 2017, MSNBC’s chyrons have mentioned the word “normal” during more than 190 minutes of airtime, followed by CNN with 167 minutes. In contrast, Fox News’ chyrons have mentioned the word during just 71 minutes of airtime.

Mentions of the words “divisive” and “divisions” and “divided” have nearly doubled since the election. During Obama’s presidency, MSNBC used the terms 1.7 times more than CNN or Fox News, reaching a peak during 2013’s government shutdown. The presidency of Donald Trump has led all three to make greater use of the words, with his election drawing more mentions of division on MSNBC than the shutdown itself. With this month’s impeachment trial, Fox News is now using the term more than its peers

Rather than being seen as the legitimate winner of a democratic process, Trump has been portrayed as a threat to democracy itself since his surprise election. Mentions of “democracy” have almost quintupled during his presidency, with increases across all three outlets, further illustrating the way in which his administration has polarized the nation.

The corners of civil society that mobilized in resistance to a president they viewed as illegitimate made the words “resist” and “resistance” catchphrases of his first two years in office. Fox News paid the most attention to this pocket of social action, while CNN gave it little airtime.

The purported role of the government bureaucracy in this resistance propelled the term “deep state” into the mainstream.

Looking ahead to the 2020 race, the phrase “identity politics” has gained traction alongside Trump’s rise. While Fox News has used it the most, CNN and MSNBC have also ramped up their mentions as the Democratic field has heated up.

Putting this all together, the presidency of Donald Trump looms so large over the television landscape that his actions and statements displace up to a quarter of total airtime. Since he first announced his candidacy, Trump has turned the nation’s news outlets into “Trump TV,” breathlessly focused on his every word. The spellbound attention to his presidency has in turn fractured the media, leading to a surge in mentions of words relating to national cohesiveness – or lack thereof. In the end, no matter what happens this November, Trump has left a Trump-size mark on the national narrative.

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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