By Sara Sheridan
Much has been written about President Trump’s open contempt for journalism. According to a recent report from the Committee to Protect Journalists, “Trump has habitually attacked the news media in rallies, responses to reporters’ questions, and many hundreds of tweets. He has repeatedly called the press ‘fake news,’ ‘the enemy of the people,’ ‘dishonest,’ ‘corrupt,’ ‘low life reporters,’ ‘bad people,’ ‘human scum’ and ‘some of the worst human beings you’ll ever meet.’”
Trump’s relationship to the media seems to consist of a series of alliances and rivalries, with common characters such as Fox News, CNN, and the New York Times, contributing to an ever-evolving narrative that the President recounts to his followers. To the extent that President Trump’s Twitter account is a window into his opinions and attitudes, we wanted to investigate his relationship to the media by analyzing his public interactions with news media accounts on the platform.
We pulled nearly 5,500 of Trump’s media-related tweets and retweets from June 2015 to September 2020, using publicly available data on the Trump Twitter Archive and focusing on a sample of over 40 networks, media outlets and individual journalists that appear regularly on the President’s Twitter. While the archive includes tweets that contain video or external links, this analysis relies solely on tweets that directly mention, rather than link to, media organizations.
We found that nearly one in seven of the President’s 31,000 tweets over the past five years has mentioned the media or a media outlet.
At the broadest level, the president’s relationship with the media is defined by a communications strategy best summarized by Fairleigh Dickinson political science and U.S. politics professor Dan Cassino: “Basically, for Trump, any coverage is good coverage,” he said. “If you’re just trying to share information, you’re kind of using the website wrong,” he said, referring to Twitter. “You’re looking for traction, not just interaction. Trump has always tweeted this way, and it’s worked for him,” he said.
Our data showed that Trump’s most mentioned network on Twitter was Fox News. With nearly 1,500 mentions over the last five years, Fox was featured in almost a third of all tweets we pulled for this piece, not counting references to individual Fox News personalities like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. Second to Fox was CNN with just 626 mentions, and third was the New York Times with 309. Trump’s well-known disdain for the latter two outlets suggests that the number of times he mentions a news organization on Twitter is not necessarily a measure of favorability. Even Fox News has been the subject of his ire:
One America News Network, mentioned in the tweet above, is a pro-Trump media outlet founded in 2013 known for peddling conspiracies about former President Barack Obama and, more recently, falsely reporting that a 75-year-old Black Lives Matter protestor who was captured on video being shoved to the ground by law enforcement in Buffalo, N.Y. was an antifa agitator. Despite the network’s well-documented record of spreading misinformation, OANN appears 88 times on the President’s Twitter, the same number of times as the Wall Street Journal. But while the President occasionally approves of the conservative-leaning editorial staff at the Journal, he explicitly promotes the work of OANN:
Boston College political science professor David Hopkins thought Trump’s behavior made sense within the context of his reportedly insulated media diet. “If you proceed from the worldview that a lot of the traditional authorities and information sources in society can’t be trusted and filled with your complete political enemies, it’s not a huge leap to start talking about conspiracies, to start talking about cover ups and lies and things like that,” he said.
According to a 2020 Pew Research Center study on media polarization and the 2020 election both sides of the political aisle tend to favor the cable news network that they feel best represents their views over the major broadcast networks. 67% of Democrats said they trusted CNN over other networks; 65% of Republicans said the same about Fox News. Since announcing his bid for President, Trump has seized upon this media polarization. We found that the President tweets about cable news networks more frequently than he does legacy broadcast stations. The combined total of major broadcast station tweets (NBC, CBS and ABC) is less than 10% of all news-related tweets we analyzed. NBC had the highest number among major broadcast networks with 225 tweets, which is still nearly seven times less than Fox News. Twitter, Hopkins said, “serves as a feedback loop for the news media. [Trump] comes to us as a Fox News viewer, who speaks the language of Fox News.”
“There’s such a tight relationship, that sort of a reciprocal relationship, between the Trump presidency and cable news and the conservative media,” Hopkins said. “[Trump] just uses Twitter to reach the journalists, and then the journalists will put it on television or print. He can sort of multiply his reach on Twitter to people who aren’t Twitter junkies.”
“What’s popular on Twitter ends up dominating the nighttime news. While Twitter is not the real world, it certainly looks like the real world if you spend enough time on it,” said Cassino, who is also the author of the 2016 book Fox News and American Politics: How One Channel Shapes American Politics and Society.
As the election draws nearer, how will the last four years affect the next president’s Twitter relations with the media? Cassino says that there should be a strategic overhaul of the ethics and policies surrounding the way that the president uses the social media platform, especially in the wake of the increasing spread of misinformation. “The president should not be retweeting anyone. If I were the social media director at the White House, I’d say never retweet anyone, don’t block anyone, don’t respond to anyone,” Cassino said. Regardless of the winner in the upcoming election, he said, “Twitter is a bad website for a president.”