The Day After Comey Was Fired, Front Pages Across The US Echoed Our National Divide
An analysis of 586 newspapers
It is difficult to discern the narrative structure of a story while caught in the middle of it, especially if that narrative unfolds in time as history does. It will be years before the smog clears and we will be able to weigh and measure President Trump’s action during the campaign and his presidency. Even caught up in the historical currents as we are, one event clearly revealed it’s historical importance as it happened because of its severity and utter mishandling by the White House: the firing of FBI director James Comey.
Regardless of if you consider President Trump’s choice to relieve FBI Director James Comey wise or justified, there is no disputing that how the White House communications department and the President handled the incident was a catastrophe. A poorly constructed paper trail, inconsistent and incoherent narratives, a demanded loyalty pledge, and a desire to end an ongoing investigation into Trump campaign staff are but a few of the communications and optics blunders surrounding the Comey debacle.
While it has been clearly shown the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and spreading of fake news played a role in the election, the ties between the Trump campaign and Russia and any potential collusion were mostly based off of circumstantial evidence until Comey was removed from his position. Whatever fire may exist under all the smoke surrounding #TrumpRussia, firing an FBI director who is investigating you will make people look twice as hard; it’s always the cover-up that gets you. Since Comey’s removal the investigation into the Trump administration and campaign’s ties to Russia has increased significantly in intensity leading to the appointment of a special counsel whose job it is to investigate how significant the ties are and anything else that is uncovered as they go.
Given the significance the firing of James Comey has come to have for the Trump administration, we decided to track how the media responded to and reported the incident. To be more precise we looked at the front pages of 586 newspapers across the country on the day after Comey was fired. We chose newspapers for two very specific reasons, firstly identifying if Comey made the front page gave us a clear and concise way to judge how important the paper judged the news. Secondly, unlike national cable news shows, editorial decisions for newspapers are still mostly made by locals who are part of the communities they provide news to. After analysis the distribution of newspapers per state is a fairly close (~80%) match to the electoral college with CA and TX having too few papers per vote and PA and WI too many.
We considered several simple questions while interpreting this data:
We asked about Russia because it was a piece of context that illustrated just how severe and out of the ordinary President Trump’s removal of James Comey was. Without mentioning ‘Russia’ a reader could remain unaware that the FBI was investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. While there were front page articles that mentioned Russia, but not in the title, titles matter. Titles are the first and often only chance at a readers attention and we believe they accurately reflect what the editors consider to be the essence of the article.
Firing FBI director James Comey began a new paradigm of support for President Trump. 50% of voters strongly disapprove of his actions, 25% float in the middle, and 25% strongly support the President in all his actions. Most moderates are results oriented over ideologically driven and by firing Comey, the President has all but guaranteed that concerns over him and his administration’s interactions with Russia will eat away at any political capital they posses keeping effective governance out of reach.
The media’s coverage of the Trump administration mostly increases polarization within various news bubbles, but the firing of Comey actually shifted the demographics of support for the President. Before, potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians were possible but far from proven, now while actions taken during the campaign remain hazy, the case for President Trump obstructing justice has proved hard to ignore for significant portions of the electorate.
Out of 586 front pages James Comey’s firing was mentioned on 402 or 68.6% whether as a full article or just a blurb. On a state by state basis AK, ND, ME, NH, NV and RI all had mentions of Comey on 100% of their newspaper while MS, NM and VT only had mentions in ~ 20% of theirs.
On 297 of the front pages a full article was printed or 50.7%. This means that 73.8% of the time the Comey was mentioned on the front page, the story was printed in full and not a blurb directing the reader to a specific page. For states AK and ME had full page articles in 100% of their papers with VA, TX and IA following close behind at ~80% . States VT, MS, KS and DE all ran no front page stories.
The word ‘Russia’ was mentioned in headlines 210 times, which is 35.8% of the total papers, but 52.2% of the times that Comey was mentioned on the cover the word ‘Russia’ was also used. This is second in frequency only to the word ‘fired’ which showed up in 75% of all the headlines written (the others used words such as ‘axed’ for the same affect). As far as states went AK mentioned ‘Russia’ in all of it’s papers while ME, NH, and TX all mentioned ‘Russia’ in ~74%. There were four states that did not mention ‘Russia’ on any of their front pages NV, MS, KS,and DE. Notably three of these states also ran no front page stories on Comey’s firing.
Note: Utah had full length articles mentioning ‘Russia’ on the front page of 100% of it’s newspapers, however as there were only two, we deemed the sample size to small to guarantee accuracy.
If we divide the states based on those that voted for President Trump in the latest election there exists no real correlation between how a state voted in the 2016 election and how much coverage their newspapers gave to Comey’s firing. Throwing in a couple more data points reveals some interesting considerations. 52.2% of all mentions of Comey also contained the word ‘Russia’ in their headlines. CA, MA, MD, NJ, NC and TX had the highest ratio of Comey mentions/Russia mentions showing that when they were talking about Comey, it was from the angle of President Trump potentially interfering with the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling. On the flip side IA, KY, MI, MO, SC, WI and WV were the states that ran more articles on Comey’s firing that didn’t use the word ‘Russia’ than any others.
We then reexamined these states to see what they were writing about Comey. Out of 586 front pages 81 (13.8%) of them mentioned the word ‘emails’ when discussing Comey’s firing. Use of the word ‘emails’ in the headline echoes the Trump administration’s original talking point that Comey was fired for his mishandling of the probe into Hilary Clinton’s emails. Of all the articles that mention Comey, the 20.1% that also discuss ‘emails’ where mostly found in IA, KY, MI, MO, SC, WI and WV.
These numbers fit with what Nate Silver from 538 has had to say about President Trump’s base and approval ratings recently.
2. Trump's base is ~20-25% of the country. Might be the plurality in a GOP primary. But nowhere near enough to win a general election.
538 estimates that as of the end of May, Trump’s strong approval numbers sit at around 21.4% while those who somewhat approve of him sits at 17.9%. Those strong approval number match our data on publications that ran with ‘emails’ in the headlines i.e. publications that actively attempted to disperse the President’s narrative at that time about the firing. 538 has Trump’s strongly disapprove at 44.1% which would be the equivalent of our 52.2% of headlines that actively mentioned ‘Russia’. Somewhat approve at 17.9% and somewhat disapprove at 11.6 percent combine to 29.5% very similar to our 27.7% of headlines that used neither ‘Russia’ nor ‘emails’ in the headline, focusing on neither narrative.
In conclusion the firing of FBI director James Comey by President Trump marked the beginning of the new paradigm we have seen in polling. 50% strongly disapprove of the President, 20–25% strongly approve, and 25–30% float in the middle with more approving slightly than disapproving slightly. Whatever President Trump had planned for domestic policy achievements in his first two years are suffering greatly under the cloud of the continuing debacle with Russia.
It has been remarked many times that the U.S. Congress has a one track mind. As long as hearings into Trump and his people’s comportment towards Russia and the investigations into potential collusion continue to occupy Congress, nothing much gets done on the domestic policy side. Given the dynamics of the 2016 election it is clear that plenty of voters voted against Clinton more than for Trump, and while they were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and hoped he would succeed, wins have been few and far between. It is unclear if President Trump’s mistakes have been sufficient to drive these reluctant Republicans to vote against him and their party, but the eroding strong support suggests that they have produced an enthusiasm gap as evidenced by the numbers we examined earlier.
It is difficult to discern what the pivotal moments will be in this first term of President Trump when we look backwards years from now. One thing however is clear, the firing FBI director James Comey and appointment of Mueller as special counsel has solidified the cloud of Russian interactions that hovered over the election. President Trump is the master of reinventing himself as others pay for his failures, but he is now bogged down by this investigation and the firing of James Comey may well turn out to be his final pivot.