The huge amounts of negative Donald Trump coverage during and after the presidential election may be more about making money than simple bias.
Changes in the newspaper industry, coupled with the pressure of competition between The Washington Post and The New York Times, seems to play a major role.
“Call it the Last Newspaper War, as two great survivors face off with different strategies and different economic realities,” writes Vanity Fair’s James Warren for the September 2017 edition. Both papers lead the charge in talent, and have two competitive leaders at the helm, Executive Editor Dean Baquet at the Times and his counterpart Marty Baron at The Post.
Both are facing off head to head in the new digital struggle to retain market power, in a dynamic industry no longer dominated by print media. “There’s a relentlessness to it that’s new,” the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller, said about the competition between The Post and The Times.
Complicating things, their competition also includes cable news outlets that report breaking news in real time, making necessary, according to Warren, the rush to cover “the provocative and outrageous tweets, the attacks on the press, and the cornucopia of outright falsehoods” from Trump more quickly than in the past.
Jonathan Mahler, media reporter at The New York Times, once referred to Trump as “a human breaking-news event” with “the singular ability to fill cable news’s endless demand for engaging content”
Warren’s claims about Trump’s outright falsehoods aside, ratings for both The Post and Times are on the rise in the Trump era, with both trying to outdo the other with the next best Trump scoop.
“The ongoing tit for tat helps explain the online-traffic records for both newspapers and why they are, more than ever, the tip sheets and storyboards for cable and broadcast news,” writes Warren.
Both The Times and Post Trump related reporting rakes in the online advertising bucks both need in order to compete. The “[t]wo revived bastions of old media” are locked in a “duel” for control of news critical of the Trump administration, and are leading the establishment media’s charge across all mediums, according to Warren. The incentives for both papers is ad revenue, not necessarily maintaining journalistic integrity 100 percent of the time.
Network news, as well as cable news outlets like MSNBC and CNN, have enjoyed a ratings surge based on viewers taste for negative Trump coverage.
Old media such as the Times and Post, need to match competitors quickly, and relentlessly pursue the next best scoop. Being the first to report breaking news is what gets the eyes advertisers salivate over, while the loser takes a smaller piece of the revenue pie.
The fevered race to the top could be affecting the quality and credibility of some of their news coverage, however.
The New York Times’ reporting is becoming notorious for lax or misleading coverage often times featuring damaging info about the Trump administration more prominently, and burying the mitigating information deep within the article. In June, The Times had to issue a retraction for an article incorrectly claiming all 17 intelligence agencies agreed Russia interfered in the election when in reality it was only three.
FBI Director James Comey’s testimony in June vindicated claims made by Trump that he wasn’t personally under criminal investigation. Prior to his testimony, The Times ran a deceptive headline alluding to Trump being criminally investigated, and in the article, explicitly mentioned a “criminal investigation at the doorstep of the White House” that didn’t exist.
When Trump’s counsel issued a memo asking staff to preserve documents, a formality in even routine IRS investigations, The Times published a lengthy, overwrought piece dedicated to the “seriousness of the inquiry.”
The Washington Post’s coverage has been equally flawed. In December, it published a false story about the Russians hacking the U.S. electricity grid, forcing them to issue a retraction. The Post, like The Times, is also guilty of burying mitigating information deep in articles and placing incriminating information about the administration front and center. The Post reported Trump’s claim that former Comey told him three times he wasn’t personally under investigation as “inaccurate.” Trump was later vindicated by Comey’s congressional testimony.
Both The New York Times’ and The Washington Post’s coverage of Trump is at times feigned with negativity, which could harm their credibility yet at the same time pad their pockets.
It’s impossible to know if The Times’ and Post’s missteps are related to their intense competition for advertising revenue fueled by a market with a taste for news critical of the president. But it can provide a plausible explanation other than their alleged ideological biases.
The Times recently announced another round of buyouts, creating a sense of unease among their journalists, in an effort to streamline their reporting process so they can compete with not only The Post, but other web-first media outlets. The Times still remains a media behemoth, but The Post is hot on its tail.
Ad revenue and digital subscriptions are up at The Times, but they’re having trouble competing with advancements made in technology and digital media at The Post.
“We don’t call ourselves a newspaper anymore,” said Marty Baron of the Post in a Vanity Fair video interview. “We’re a news organization.”
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ purchase of The Post in 2013 not only provided the paper with ample resources (Bezos is worth $84.1 billion), but the business acumen and technological insight the paper needed, resurrecting it from the dead. While The Times was more reticent to acquiesce, Bezos and The Post embraced the changes. Technological advances wasn’t the only aspect of the changing media landscape The Post was willing to embrace.
“[Bezos] forced us to think of the web and digital platforms as, essentially, a different medium [than print],” Baron told Vanity Fair. Baron recounted Bezos, telling him “look, you do all these big narrative stories… and deep investigations and then some other news outlet in 15 minutes has rewritten your story and stole all your traffic.”
The answer was to adopt many of the same techniques as web-first media outlets, which search the web for trending topics to write articles of their own. The leap into the 21st century has paid off — while The Times is threatening more layoffs, The Post has actually added journalists with the publisher and CEO Fred Ryan writing that they’re now “profitable and growing.
“Competition is the least examined motivation in American journalism,” according to The Times’ Baquet. “I go to bed worried that Marty [Baron] is gonna beat us, and he goes to bed worried that we’re gonna beat him, and that makes for good journalism.”
In a world of cut-throat competition and old media giants vying for position in the digital age, perhaps “good” journalism is the type subsidized by the stories that attract the most readers.
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