Networks Elevate Trump’s NFL Spat Above Puerto Rico Crisis
Study finds ABC, CBS and NBC gave #TakeaKnee flap 3.6 times more coverage than humanitarian disaster
Three major news networks spent 3.6 times more airtime covering President Donald Trump’s weekend battle with the National Football League than they spent covering the devastating humanitarian crisis Hurricane Maria inflicted on Puerto Rico, according to a report conducted by the Media Research Center (MRC).
ABC, CBS and NBC covered the president’s criticism of football players who choose to protest against racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem ad nauseam between Sunday and Monday. Trump began by blasting the kneelers Friday at a rally in Alabama before following it up in a series of tweets peppered throughout Saturday, Sunday and Monday. NFL officials and sports papers retaliated in a series of statements and by kneeling in larger numbers.
But while the three networks allotted a total of 92 minutes and 33 seconds of airtime for Trump’s spat with the NFL and the athletes, those same networks could only spare 25 minutes and 45 seconds of airtime over those two days for Puerto Rico — which is suffering a crisis that many of these same networks criticized Trump for neglecting on Twitter.
“I think the Trump story’s easier for [the media]. I think it fits in their storyline of the year, which is trying to give a massive amount of attention to anything that they think makes the president look silly or out of touch or puts him in a bad light,” Rich Noyes, the research director at MRC, told LifeZette.
“And I think that was their reaction to the NFL dispute,” Noyes added. “It was letting their reflexes take over before their brains were engaged.”
Of the three networks, ABC spent the most amount of time delivering frenzied coverage of the NFL controversy. During the two-day period, MRC found that 52 minutes and 54 seconds were allotted to the ongoing spat, while just seven minutes and 39 seconds were allowed for Puerto Rico coverage at a seven-to-one ratio. In particular, MRC found that ABC’s “Good Morning America” program spent a total of 24 minutes and 52 seconds of time reporting on and analyzing Trump’s feud with the sports world. That amount of time alone proved to be more coverage than NBC gave the topic over the entire two-day period.
For its part, NBC gave the Trump controversy 23 minutes and three seconds of airtime over the two-day span while allotting 12 minutes and seven seconds of coverage to Puerto Rico’s massive humanitarian crisis. NBC gave the U.S. island territory the most airtime out of the three networks.
“I would just point out [that] Lester Holt last night on NBC did his newscast from Puerto Rico. They had three times as much news about the Puerto Rico disaster as they did about Trump’s tweets,” Noyes noted. “That’s an example that the media — they covered both stories, but they didn’t take the easy story and go wall-to-wall with it. They actually took the more difficult story and gave that significant attention.”
“And I think that just shows it can be done. And for those who say it can’t, they don’t seem to know what they’re talking about,” he added.
Meanwhile, CBS used 16 minutes and 34 seconds to report on the NFL controversy, while spending a mere five minutes and 59 seconds on Puerto Rico coverage.
“The Puerto Rico story is relatively far away. It’s a difficult situation for a reporter to be in. It’s like a war zone with the lack of amenities,” Noyes noted. “On the other hand, it’s terribly important. The media were very heavy with their coverage of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Hurricane Irma in Florida, and, for a couple of days, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.”
“But they almost treated Puerto Rico as if it were foreign territory instead of an American territory,” he added. “And that’s obviously incorrect.”
Noyes said that many reporters appear to justify their hyper-focus on the latest Trump controversy by saying that “they cover these things because the president tweets them.”
“Well, that is essentially saying that they don’t have independent news judgment, that the only source for their material is what the president tweets. And that of course is preposterous,” he said. “I think they gravitated toward this story for the same reason the president did, which is they thought it would create a lot of buzz and interest and be good for viewers. I think they went there for shallow reasons.”
“I think the coverage has mostly been since Sunday [about] lots of NFL players, NFL owners criticizing President Trump. So this was an opportunity for story after story after story,” Noyes added. “So you ended up with stories that were packed with critics without very many defenders. That’s by any standard definition bad press. So this was the way they were framing it — more bad press for the president.”
Although not a part of the data in MRC’s study, Tuesday’s edition of “Good Morning America” found anchor George Stephanopoulos once again reaching for the weekend’s Trump/NFL drama, noting that “Trump is facing some criticism for his response” before pivoting to the president’s Puerto Rico remarks.
“He had his first tweet on Puerto Rico last night,” Stephanopoulos said. “Let’s begin with Puerto Rico. The president had that tweet last night that also seemed to criticize the island.”
In his series of three Monday tweets acknowledging Puerto Rico’s ongoing crisis, the president said, “Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble … Its old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars … owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities — and doing well.”
The president also announced Tuesday his intention of visiting Puerto Rico next week to offer his support.
The media had a field day piling on Trump for the Puerto Rico social media response. The Huffington Post ran an article titled “While Trump Tweeted About Sports All Weekend, Puerto Rico Dealt With ‘Apocalyptic’ Hurricane Damage.” The Washington Post published a story called “It’s not complicated: Trump is more interested in NFL protests than the storm in Puerto Rico.”
Stephanopoulos brought on ABC White House reporter Cecilia Vega to discuss Trump’s NFL controversy Tuesday morning.
“Look, by our count, since Saturday the president has tweeted about sports 23 times, about Puerto Rico just three times. And you can imagine the criticism has just been pouring in from celebrities, to members of Congress on Capitol Hill,” Vega reported. “But look, the president is likely to face a lot more criticism, George, as you can imagine, if he’s tweeting about this debt crisis while millions of people on that island are still out of power.”
Although Vega was critical of Trump’s relatively paltry number of Puerto Rico-focused tweets, she didn’t appear as concerned about her own network’s seven-to-one ratio of NFL/Puerto Rico coverage.
But Noyes noted that there appeared to be a media pivot back to Puerto Rico as the weekend NFL drama was afforded some more distance.
“And I think they’re a little embarrassed about the fact that a lot of people are pointing out the disparity with Puerto Rico” in their own coverage, he said of the media.
“You have the media sort of piling on with that as well, trying to paint the president as one who’s out of touch. I think it is part of the divisiveness that the media on one hand criticize the president for, and yet they engage with it themselves because they’re trying to suggest the president is unfit,” Noyes added. “This is not reaching out with an olive branch, but it’s more of a tit-for-tat that we see in this war of words between Right and Left.”