Writing about Pres. Trump’s lack of character and leadership skills is difficult because it seems like beating a dead horse. But not writing about it occasionally would be like writing about Puerto Rico without mentioning Hurricane Maria.
One of the recent reminders of this is the recently published study from the Pew Research Center on media coverage of Trump. During the first three months of the administration, Trump got coverage that was 62% negative; prior presidents got coverage that was 20-28% negative.
Conservatives will point to this as evidence of media bias against Trump, as it is. But there’s an even more lopsided statistic in this study that got little attention:
“When reporting on any event, a reporter can choose any number of ways to orient the storyline. This study classified stories into one of two main frames: the president’s leadership and character or his core ideology and policy agenda. Overall, journalists structured their narratives far more around President Trump’s leadership and character than his policy agenda (74% vs. 26%, respectively).”
“The study also found that, overall, Trump and his administration played a large role in the stories that ended up getting reported on each day. Nearly half the time (45% of all stories) the reporter produced the piece in response to something the president or his staff said or did.”
I tend to think that these basic trends have continued past the first three months.
Whatever else one may want to say about the media, it should not be surprising that the vast majority of the Trump coverage is about his character and leadership instead of policy.
Trump is not a policy guy. That’s not to say his administration hasn’t done some good things on the policy front; it has. But Trump does not drive narratives about his policy accomplishments, because he’s not a policy guy. It’s also why conservative Trump skeptics may give him less credit for those conservative policies (and nominations) than other presidents might get.
Instead, Trump often seems more engaged with Twitter feuds than in his job duties. That disengagement is a big part of why — despite the efforts of the latest chief of staff — his White House continues to have conflict among the staff (and between the staff and Trump). That’s a big part of why that conflict gets leaked to the media… when Trump isn’t live-tweeting it. That’s a big part of why many administration positions, including some major ones, go unfilled.
For Trump, it’s almost always personal, not business. Thus, he will attack Sen. Jeff Flake, who has generally been a reliable vote, but not Sen. Rand Paul, who has been unreliable. And his disengagement is why he’s not driving a legislative agenda, while staffers complain his non-agenda is being thwarted. Moreover, when legislation does pass, it is more likely to reflect someone else’s priorities because Trump fails to assert his.
Trump’s supporters like to claim that the attention on character and leadership elevates style over substance, though they would almost certainly claim otherwise if Trump had a (D) after his name. Yet it is clear that Trump’s character and leadership problems degrade his job performance.
This is the elephant in the Oval Office. Not discussing it won’t make it go away. And it’s tough to blame the media for not focusing on policy when Trump doesn’t either.
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