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U.S. Media Is Divided On Its Coverage Of The Cohen Plea And Manafort Verdict

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Stories this week about Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort rattled the White House and sparked tweets and denials from President Trump. As often happens, these developments looked and sounded quite different depending on where you get your news. That means a growing gap in how millions of Americans view events in Washington. It could also shape who decides to vote in November. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: In the hours after the Cohen-Manafort news broke, conservative talk show hosts loyal to the president did what they've been doing since he took office - shifting into high gear, working to carve daylight between these events and Trump. Sean Hannity spoke on Fox News about Paul Manafort, the man who helped lead Trump's campaign in 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HANNITY")

SEAN HANNITY: These are decades-old bank charges, tax fraud charges - zero to do with Russia collusion, zero to do with Donald Trump or the Trump campaign.

MANN: On his influential radio show, Rush Limbaugh told listeners the convictions and guilty pleas are part of a long-running conspiracy engineered in part by the U.S. Justice Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW")

RUSH LIMBAUGH: The one thing that hasn't changed here, the one thing that all of this is about is forcing Donald Trump out of office because the Democrats lost an election.

MANN: As is now the norm, this all sounded starkly different in media that tilts left. Rachel Maddow on MSNBC used her show to compare Trump's legal troubles with those of Richard Nixon. Nixon saw many of his advisers indicted in the months before he resigned from office.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW")

RACHEL MADDOW: No less so than in 1974, because of Michael Cohen, this president has now been named as an unindicted co-conspirator.

MANN: On his popular webcast called "The Young Turks," Cenk Uygur argued that this week's developments push Trump across a bright line.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEBCAST, "THE YOUNG TURKS")

CENK UYGUR: He's alleged to be part of a conspiracy to commit a federal crime. If any other president had done it, we'd be talking about impeachment immediately, but we've lowered the bar for Trump.

MANN: In a deeply polarized country, this split-screen portrayal is nothing new. But Jason Schwartz, who covers politics and media for Politico, says the dichotomy in Trump coverage has widened sharply in recent months as the president's difficulties have mounted.

JASON SCHWARTZ: Flipping between Fox News and CNN and MSNBC, you'd think you're living in two different countries. The set of facts as they're presented, the reality presented rather, is just totally different. And I think there are big ramifications of that, for sure.

MANN: Schwartz says it's harder and harder for Americans to agree on basic facts. Many core Trump voters now see their president portrayed as a man unfairly besieged while voters hostile to Trump may choose media that already portray him as a criminal. A key question is how these narratives will affect turnout in November. Conservatives may rally to defend Trump while more liberal voters might mobilize against him. But Schwartz points out this isn't a situation where both storylines are equally valid. In this case, Trump really is having a terrible week. He faces mounting legal and political pressure, and many viewers tuning into conservative tilting media just aren't hearing those stories.

SCHWARTZ: So in terms of facts being presented that aren't, you know, necessarily reflective of the real world, that is happening.

MANN: Not all conservative media are defending Trump. After the Cohen-Manafort news broke, The Weekly Standard ran a lead opinion piece titled "The Rot At The Top" telling its audience the Republicans now face a midterm election mired in what the magazine calls a miasma of sleaze and corruption. Brian Mann, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.