David Weiss, chair of the Department of Communications and Journalism at the University of New Mexico, and their student, graduate Andrew Schuman, are currently researching foreign criticism of US presidents. In particular, they look to foreign media criticism of the Trump administration and the US’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020. With this research, the pair is using a number of existing academic principles and standards frameworks for journalists and exploring ways in which recent journalism critiques can challenge these standards.
“Our data shows that criticisms of Trump in the Big Three countries (France, Britain and Germany) news pages, in particular and since 2020, were not primarily ideological. ie, openly liberal/leftist euro Newspapers did not criticize Trump because of his conservative political stance,” Weiss explained. “Rather, they criticized his character flaws, his inability to lead, his mismanagement of the crisis – and he did so often in highly personal terms . We have also seen criticisms in the Euro Papers that fall more on the conservative side of the ideological spectrum; These criticisms were published despite the newspaper’s conservative ideologies. Therefore, we believe that there are many new things happening in the way they write about the US President, even in newspapers that have political leanings up their sleeves. ,
Weiss teaches a variety of courses at UNM, mainly in areas including Strategic Communications and Media Studies. Major areas of Weiss’s research include media discourse, political and religious communication, and the media and popular culture industries.
“There is no doubt that it is okay to criticize the US President in the United States. What we want to know is this: how can what we see here be explained by existing theories, or how to develop new theories? What can be used for? -David Weiss, chair of UNM’s Department of Communications and Journalism.
UNM graduate student Andrew Schuman is pursuing a dual degree in History and Political Science with the UNM Honors Program. He plans to become a policy advisor at the state or federal level.
Weiss and Schuman’s major research project is on foreign press coverage of American politics before, during and after 2020. While most US presidents have had issues with the press in the past, Donald Trump directly articulated his concerns in clearly important terms. On several occasions, Trump called the free press “fake news” and “the enemy of the people.”
Those statements reflect statements made by past autocrats/dictators in other countries such as Hungary, Poland, Russia and Brazil. These countries and other countries have governments that suppress media criticism of political leaders through retaliatory action.
“In such countries, journalists are losing the ability or authority to criticize their leaders in print, have been jailed, threatened, surveyed, etc.,” explained Weiss. “Hearing the same words from the mouth of the democratically elected leader of the United States is frightening to American journalists and to many American citizens.”
Weiss says that’s why it’s important to look critically at how other countries are covering American politics, and how that criticism is developing. Trump’s policies, character and physical appearance have been criticized by three major Western European countries. Weiss and Schuman suspect that this behavior may be the result of a fear of losing press freedom, as in some Eastern European countries.
“The giant American experiment we call democracy is increasingly under threat,” Weiss said. “What will the American press look like under the second Trump administration? This is an issue that American journalists—and I suspect, journalists in our allies, in Europe and around the world—are already concerned.
There are additional layers to this research and implications for journalists. While the US press operates under certain ethical guidelines, and claims a non-partisan approach, Western European papers do not have the same standards of objectivity and are more up front about their biases and political affiliations. In a recent Albuquerque Journal op-ed titled “Should the Foreign Press Criticize Our Media?” Weiss recalls spending a sabbatical in Prague in the spring of 2020. That was when he began to see that foreign coverage of American politics was much more frequent and personal than before. Weiss especially saw a trend in European news outlets as he covered the US handling of the COVID-19 crisis and Donald Trump.
“In addition to reporting on the global nature of the pandemic, it has become very common for the foreign press to report on US internal issues,” Weiss explained.
After noticing this new trend in European media, Weiss and Schumann searched deeper. How did European press outlets cover US leaders before the pandemic? How has the US press criticized foreign leaders and/or policies in the past? What can academics learn by analyzing these patterns of media attention?
Weiss and Schuman addressed these various questions in a recent presentation hosted by the Albuquerque International Association, titled, “Is it OK to Criticize the U.S. President?” They have found that European and American journalists have previously criticized each other’s leaders, but over time the criticism has become more personal. Weiss and Schuman analyzed how Trump was elected, before and during the pandemic.
Ahead of Trump’s election, several European news outlets expressed concern about his possible presidency. Similarly, during his first three years in office, Trump was criticized for his personal characteristics, disregard for the truth, and physical appearance. Criticism of Trump grew in intensity during 2020 as countless European news outlets criticized Trump’s handling of the pandemic, his “stupid belligerent remarks” (in the words of one such outlet), and his response to the virus.
“… this is outright criticism. Without a doubt, the gloves are off,” said Schumann.
Weiss and Schumann are still in the research phase of this project. They hope that they will soon be able to present their findings at academic conferences and publish their work in one or more academic journals.
“There is no question that it is okay to criticize the US President in the United States,” Weiss explained. “What we want to know is this: how can what we see here be explained by existing theories, or used to develop new theories?”
The theories that Weiss and Schumann are focusing on are specifically normative theories.
“Ideal principles are guidelines for what should be the case in an ideal world. They are often based on moral or ethical standards,” Weiss says. “Are we seeing a violation of norms?”