President Trump generated an uproar this week with his widely condemned comments regarding four Democratic lawmakers of color, coupled with a campaign rally in which attendees chanted “Send her back!” in reference to Rep. Ilhan Omar. A closer look at media coverage of the congresswoman’s own anti-Semitic comments earlier this year raises the question of whether the current uproar will pass with as little long-term impact. Answering that may hinge on whether the media finds a new Trump angle to focus on.
Looking back over the past decade, the timeline below shows the percentage of airtime by month on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News that mentioned “racism” or “racist” using data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive processed by the GDELT Project.
From September 2010 to May 2013 there was a marked silent period in which mentions of racism largely disappeared from all three news channels. The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin in July 2013 appears to have restarted the national conversation around race. This week’s remarks by Trump appear to have sparked the most attention to the topic of the past decade.
Notably, there does not appear to be any meaningful change in mentions of racism between Obama and Trump’s presidencies.
In contrast, coverage of anti-Semitism does appear to have increased sharply during Trump’s term. The timeline below shows coverage over the past decade that mentioned the words “anti-Semitism” or “anti-Semitic” or “antisemitism” or “antisemitic.”
The topic attracted almost no attention during Obama’s presidency, but has received several bursts of coverage since Trump’s July 2016 “Star of David” Clinton tweet first prompted accusations of anti-Semitism. Interestingly, Rep. Omar’s anti-Semitic tweets in March 2019 received far less attention, with Fox News covering them more than CNN and MSNBC combined.
In each case, the story faded within a week. Looking at the broader topic of discrimination, the timeline below shows coverage mentioning “discrimination” or “discriminatory” or “discriminated” or “discriminating.”
Beginning July 2015, the month after Trump declared his candidacy, coverage of discrimination largely disappeared from all three channels and has remained far below Obama-era levels through the present. It is unclear what may be driving this shift, since anti-Semitism coverage has increased, but coverage of racism remains unchanged.
One possibility is that the stations have devoted so much of their airtime to Trump over the past four years, with just over 9% of their total airtime mentioning his name thus far this month.
Looking more closely at the timeline above, the fact that Trump’s media profile has been steadily shrinking could also help explain his attack on the four Democrats. Trump has a long history of adopting controversial and media-genic stances in periods of declining media coverage as a way to boost attention.
Putting this all together, it is likely that just as Omar’s anti-Semitic remarks this past March faded from interest within a week, so too will the media move on from Trump’s remarks this week.