Michael Cohen’s candid congressional testimony on Wednesday, Feb. 27, during which Donald Trump’s former personal attorney detailed the criminal enterprise that has long surrounded the president, once again catapulted Trump scandal coverage back to the media forefront.
It was at times breathtaking to watch someone who closely served Trump for so many years patiently detail the staggering number of ethical and legal Trump misdeeds. Cohen also explained how the then-Republican nominee privately cheered on Russian hackers and hoped they’d make a huge impact on the 2016 U.S. elections by dumping Democratic documents online. (Most Americans, if they had knowledge of looming Russian skullduggery, would have immediately contacted the FBI.)
So yes, Trump scandals and the issue of Russia collusion have rocketed to the top of the media headlines this week. But honestly, it’s still not enough. The sheer magnitude of Trump’s nearly unending laundry list of transgressions really demands that members of the press find another gear to cover this unfolding American crisis. What Cohen laid out before Congress, about how campaign adviser Roger Stone had been in touch with WikiLeaks in an effort to obtain emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee, requires nothing less.
The good news is we know the press has another, higher, and more aggressive gear they can reach for, because in 1998 and 1999 they did just that while covering Bill Clinton’s sex scandal with an appetite that rushed past insatiable and bordered on fanatical.
Today, it might seem like the news media are treating Russian collusion and other hot Trump topics like a huge deal. But compared to the Clinton ‘90s, the press simply is not. And that’s easily provable.
In 1998 and 1999, the nightly evening newscasts devoted a staggering 2,528 minutes to the Clinton scandal surrounding his affair with Monica Lewinksy, according to monitoring done by television news researcher Andrew Tyndall. (Not included in that tally are other Clinton ‘scandals,’ such as Whitewater coverage.)
Compare that to 2017 and 2018, when ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News set aside a combined 1,740 minutes for Trump Russia-related reporting, which included the firing of James Comey and the Trump Tower meeting with Russian contacts. That’s 30 percent less than for the Clinton coverage.
How is the story of Clinton’s personal transgression 30 percent more newsworthy than Trump’s possibly treasonous behavior, or his well-detailed history of campaign finance violations, insurance fraud, tax fraud, conspiring to defraud the United States, witness tampering, making false statements, and suborning perjury?
Note that in 2017 and 2018, Russia-related scandals garnered the most Trump coverage, so I’m using Russia and collusion as an umbrella reference for that type of reporting.
And what’s also troubling was the drastic cutback in Trump-Russia coverage last year by the television networks. In 2017, they aired 1,334 minutes of coverage, and just 496 minutes in 2018. This happened despite the fact that even more questions arose last year about Trump’s behavior, and more shocking allegations continue to tumble out.
With the Clinton coverage, there was also a steep drop off in airtime between 1998 and 1999. But that’s because the story wound down. By the end of 1999 the impeachment vote in the U.S. Senate had failed, effectively ending the scandal and its coverage. As we approach the third month of 2019, the Trump scandals have only picked up momentum—and so should the coverage.
Note that the data regarding Trump coverage above just deals with network news. It’s certainly true that newspapers and cable news, for instance, have spent an extraordinary amount of time over the last two years digging very deep into the Russia collusion story, and in the process have produced some great, insightful journalism. My point though, is about context and pointing out that the scale of coverage is still badly out of whack.
Let’s say that newspapers and cable news channels are covering Trump with the same enthusiasm and energy they applied to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Even if true, that would still represent a spectacular failure of the press. Why? Because the Clinton saga was about illicit sex and a possible one-word lie the president told to prosecutors. (The meaning of “is.”) The Trump saga revolves around a possible treasonous president with deep ties to a foreign adversary who’s running a criminal enterprise from inside the Oval Office. How on earth are those two stories of equal significance?
The Trump scandals would seem to deserve two, three, or four times as much coverage as Clinton’s sex scandal. Instead, on network television to date, Russian collusion garners far less time and attention than did the Clinton-Lewinsky story.
I can hear one argument already: Well, the Clinton saga was about sex, and sex sells for the media. The crazy part is the larger universe of Trump scandals are about sex. They’re about infidelity, alleged love children, adult film actresses, and White House hush payments. If the Clinton scandal had included storylines like that, those 2,000 minutes of network TV coverage back in 1998 and 1999 would have probably exceeded 4,000 minutes. (Maybe 40,000?)
So why the relative restraint now? During the 1990s, the D.C. press corps let the GOP lead them around by the nose for two-plus years during the impeachment scandal, convincing the media it all represented the biggest threat to the union since … whatever. And that’s the friendly interpretation. The less friendly interpretation is that the press voluntarily lost its collective mind during the late 1990s. (Most Americans thought the coverage was excessive, and interest in the story soon waned.)
When the Lewinsky story broke in January 2018, the Los Angeles Times reported that “The nation’s media have scrambled onto the kind of full alert that is usually reserved for a Watergate or a national crisis like the Gulf War.”
Let’s see that again now—this time, for Trump.