Presidents are more than the main focus of U.S. reporters. Presidents are also their main target. Although journalists are accused of having a liberal bias, their real bias is a preference for the negative. News reporting turned sour during the Vietnam and Watergate era and has stayed that way. Journalists’ incentives, everything from getting their stories on the air to acquiring a reputation as a hard-hitting reporter, encourage journalists to focus on what’s wrong with politicians rather than what’s right. Once upon a time, the “honeymoon” period for a newly inaugurated president included favorable press coverage. That era is now decades in the past. Today’s presidents can expect rough treatment at the hands of the press, and Donald Trump is no exception (see Figure 4). Of the past four presidents, only Barack Obama received favorable coverage during his first 100 days, after which the press reverted to form. During his second 100 days, Obama’s coverage was 57 percent negative to 43 percent positive.
Trump’s coverage during his first 100 days set a new standard for negativity. Of news reports with a clear tone, negative reports outpaced positive ones by 80 percent to 20 percent. Trump’s coverage was unsparing. In no week did the coverage drop below 70 percent negative and it reached 90 percent negative at its peak (see Figure 5). The best period for Trump was week 12 of his presidency, when he ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airbase in retaliation for the Assad regime’s use of nerve gas on civilians. That week, his coverage divided 70 percent negative to 30 percent positive. Trump’s worst periods were weeks 3 and 4 (a combined 87 percent negative) when federal judges struck down his first executive order banning Muslim immigrants, and weeks 9 and 10 (a combined 88 percent negative) when the House of Representatives was struggling without success to muster the votes to pass a “repeal and replace” health care bill.