What the Data Tell Us About Impeachment as Virus Distraction

Mitch McConnell suggested this week that the U.S. government’s delayed response to the coronavirus pandemic could be traced back, in part, to the distractions of the impeachment process in the early weeks of this year. A closer look, however, suggests the 2020 presidential race, rather than impeachment, may have been responsible for “diverting” the White House’s attention from the brewing pandemic.

The timeline below shows the combined percentage of airtime across CNN, MSNBC and Fox News that mentioned either the coronavirus, impeachment or any of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates from Jan. 1, 2020 through present, using data processed by the GDELT Project from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive. (Click to enlarge.)

The year opened with substantial coverage of both impeachment and the presidential race, yet it was the sharp rise of 2020 coverage starting around Feb. 1 – just ahead of the Iowa caucuses – that coincided with mentions of impeachment dropping to nearly zero, suggesting a causal relationship. (The president was acquitted by the Senate on Feb. 5.) 

In contrast, media interest in the coronavirus did not increase substantially until the last week of February, and as that interest took off the virus in turn displaced coverage of the 2020 race. 

Despite hosting daily White House press briefings, President Trump’s media mentions still account for less than half their pre-pandemic levels (this counts only mentions of his name, not the total airtime devoted to his press briefings). New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s media star continues to shine, with his name being mentioned about half as often as the president’s on a typical day, while Joe Biden has almost completely disappeared from view.

Putting this all together, the graphs above suggest that it was the 2020 race, not impeachment, that may have distracted the White House from the emerging pandemic. (Questions about the administration’s preparedness since then have diminished Trump’s media luster.) Biden’s exit from view suggests it will be hard to recapture the media momentum he seized with his Super Tuesday wins, while Cuomo’s continued ability to garner almost half as many mentions as the president of the United States suggests even Trump is not immune to the appeal of other key players in the media spectacle that pandemic coverage has become.

RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.

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