He must be in Europe… This was posted at 3:51 AM EST today: “The Falsity of False Equivalence:”
If Donald Trump becomes president, the news media will bear a large share of the blame. I know some (many) journalists are busy denying responsibility, but this is absurd, and I think they know it. As Nick Kristof says, polls showing that the public considers Hillary Clinton, a minor fibber at most, less trustworthy than a pathological liar is prima facie evidence of massive media failure.
In fact, it’s telling that this debate is usually framed as one of false equivalence and whether it’s a problem. It’s a lot better to have this debate than a continuation of the unchecked media assault on Clinton. But it’s actually much worse than that. The media haven’t treated Clinton fibs as the equivalent of outright Trump lies; they have treated more or less innocuous Clintonisms as major scandals while whitewashing Trump. Put simply, until the past few days the media have had it in for Clinton; only now, at the last moment or possibly after the last moment has the enormity of the sin begun to sink in.
Think about the Matt Lauer debacle. That wasn’t a case of false equivalence; a rough summary of his performance would be “Emails, emails, emails; yes, Mr. Trump, whatever you say, Mr. Trump.” One candidate was repeatedly harassed over something trivial, the other allowed to slide on grotesque falsehoods.
Or as Jonathan Chait says, the problem hasn’t just been the normalization of Trump, it has been the abnormalization of Clinton. Consider the AP report on the Clinton Foundation. An honest report would have said, “The foundation arguably creates the possibility of self-dealing and undue influence, but we’ve looked hard and haven’t found much of anything.” Instead, the report played up meetings with a Nobel Peace Prize winner as being somehow scandalous.
And it’s still happening, if not quite so relentlessly. We’re still seeing reports about how something Clinton did “raises questions,” “casts shadows,” etc. – weasel words that allow reporters to write negative stories regardless of the facts.
I’ve compared this to what went down in the 2000 campaign; Nick compares it to what happened in the runup to the Iraq war. Pick your analogy. But let’s use Nick’s example: actually, the media didn’t do false equivalence in 2002. What they – alas, including this paper – actually did was to breathlessly hype the case for war, reporting as an inside scoop everything that Dick Cheney fed them, while freezing out critics and skeptics. The other side was out there; McClatchy found plenty of insiders willing to say that we were being sold a bill of goods. But the skeptics couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Effectively, the media were pro-war.
And this time they have effectively been pro-Trump – actually anti-Clinton, but it comes to the same thing. I doubt that reporters or even editors have thought of themselves as trying to elect Trump; many of them will be horrified if he wins. But they went all in on Clinton Rules, under which sneering at and razzing a Clinton is considered good for your career. It’s really more like high school than high journalism, but it may have horrendous consequences.
A lot depends on whether the same behavior continues for the final stretch. If the media report on the debates the way they did in 2000 – if substance is replaced by descriptions of Clinton’s facial expressions, her sighs, or how she “comes across,” while downplaying Trump’s raw lies, say hello to the Trump White House. And history will not forgive the people who made it possible.