Despite conservative accusations that news media are “the opposition party” (Politico, 1/26/17) and “the ultimate Super PAC” for the Democratic Party (Politico, 10/28/15), a new FAIR study finds that Republicans dominated coverage of Donald Trump’s appointments, with GOP partisans making up 47 percent of total sources and outnumbering their Democratic counterparts by a 5-to-2 ratio.
From Election Day (11/8/16) to Inauguration Day (1/20/17), Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees were one of the most-covered topics in news media. FAIR analyzed 1,019 quoted and on-air sources in 215 stories focusing on Trump nominees requiring Senate confirmation in this 74-day study period. These stories appeared on the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, or appeared on CBS Evening News, ABC World News Tonight, NBC Nightly News, PBS NewsHour and NPR’s All Things Considered.
Official sources dominated coverage of the appointments, with nominees, current or former government officials (including members of Trump’s transition team) providing 71 percent of quoted sources. Trump and his campaign/transition team, along with the nominees themselves, were 28 percent of sources; senators, who have the power to vote to confirm or reject the nominees, were another 22 percent.
Looking at the 683 sources with a partisan affiliation (elected officials, political appointees and party officials), 70 percent were Republican, 29 percent were Democrats and 2 percent were coded as independents—mostly Sen. Bernie Sanders, who although a registered independent, ran for president in the Democratic primaries. (The percentages do not add to 100 because a few sources who have had significant roles with both major parties—including Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin—were counted as both Republicans and Democrats.)
The front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post had the most unbalanced partisan sourcing—80 percent of the Times’ partisans were Republican, and 74 percent of the Post’s. The outlet with the least unbalanced partisan sourcing—PBS NewsHour—was still 60 percent Republican.
The only Republican sources who expressed skepticism or criticism of nominees’ fitness were Jim Thomas, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration who argued for preserving civilian control of the military (Washington Post, 11/25/16), and senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Marco Rubio, who questioned secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson’s history with Russian President Vladimir Putin (though all ended up voting to confirm him).
The top individual sources in the outlets surveyed reflect the emphasis given to amplifying the views of members of the Trump administration, at the expense of providing a platform for progressive opposition to the nominees and their favored agendas. The most frequently quoted source in the stories studied was Trump himself, quoted 83 times—8 percent of total sources.
Of the 15 sources quoted 10 times or more, 13 were partisan Republicans; many of these were the nominees themselves, but the top sources also included Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican Sen. John McCain, and 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. The non-Republicans most frequently quoted were Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders.
With nominees, current/former government officials and transition team representatives making up 71 percent of sources, there was scant room for perspectives that came from outside official Washington. Four percent were journalists, many of whom praised the nominees with conventional credentials and more establishment views. Corporate spokespeople also provided 4 percent of sources. Three percent were academics, and another 2 percent were representatives of think tanks.
Non-elite voices were scarce. Representatives of civic organizations that advocate on policy issues were 6 percent of sources, ranging from progressive organizations like the NAACP and ACLU to conservative groups like the Federalist Society and the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Spokespeople for organized labor were 2 percent, and the same percentage were members of the general public—not counting friends and family of the nominees, who made up less than 1 percent of the sample.
Racial and Gender Representation
Among the sources whose racial backgrounds were identifiable (99.9 percent of sources), 88 percent were white. Eighty-five percent of sources were male. Seventy-six percent of sources in stories on Trump appointees were white men, who make up only 31 percent of the US population (counting Latinos as people of color).
It was clear that women and minorities were likely to be disproportionately affected by the policies advocated by Trump’s appointees: Health and Human Services’ Tom Price, for example, has long been a vocal advocate of defunding Planned Parenthood, criminalizing abortion and repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), all stances that would impact women’s healthcare choices. Failed nominee for Labor Andrew Puzder opposed an increase in the minimum wage, 62 percent of whose recipients are women. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general, is noted for his hardline anti-immigration stance, attacks on black voter registration efforts and support for mandatory-minimum sentencing rules that fall most harshly on minority defendants. Relegating women and people of color to 24 percent of sources clearly limits their ability to respond to issues that directly relate to them.
The scarcity of non–white male sources is connected to the media’s focus on elite sources; people of color made up only 10 percent of government and corporate sources, whereas representatives of civic organizations, labor unions and the general public were 27 percent people of color.
The striking absence of independent voices meant that when Democratic and Republican officials agreed on a nominee, like former Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis for secretary of Defense (who was confirmed by a 98–1 Senate vote), there was virtually no dissent from the bipartisan consensus or vocal opposition in the media outlets surveyed.
While a front-page New York Times report was dedicated to Mattis’ opposition to torture out of a professed respect for international law (New York Times, 1/2/17), no sources during this study period mentioned that Mattis was accused of war crimes while leading troops in Fallujah, Iraq (Truthout, 12/6/16). Nor did any sources on Mattis’ appointment mention that he advocated an illegal preemptive missile strike on Iran during his time as CENTCOM commander under the Obama administration, even when this was reported on the front page of the Washington Post (1/9/17) during the study period. Nor did any sources counter Mattis’ stated belief that the Iranian government and the US’s supposed “policy of disengagement from the Middle East” were contributing to instability and extremism in the region (New York Times, 12/1/16), by questioning whether it was continuing US military operations, and US allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, that were contributing to extremism and instability.
The lack of independent sources on the nominees likewise narrowed the debate over the future of US healthcare. Coverage of Tom Price for secretary of Health and Human Services. Coverage of Price was mostly restricted to his vocal opposition to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), focusing on whether the US should keep or repeal the already market-oriented ACA (Christian Science Monitor, 10/28/13). A wider selection of sources, more reflective of the US population, would have featured opponents of Price who want to move toward a more progressive single-payer system. There were zero mentions of a single-payer system, national health service or a public option for Medicare in the coverage of Price’s nomination.
Instead of facilitating a robust national debate featuring voices from across the political spectrum and all walks of life, news media source selection mostly served to transmit and amplify the opinions of people belonging to the most powerful sectors of American society. News media appeared to equate the opinions of political and economic elites with the spectrum of relevant opinion, with white men as the most important demographic for information about Trump’s Cabinet nominees, despite their being the demographic least likely to be harmed by the nominees’ stated positions. News media would better serve the public interest by spotlighting sources likely to challenge the perspective of American elites and white men—rather than echoing them.