One of the most vexing challenges of the Trump phenomenon is how the press should deal with it. There's never been anything quite like it and journalism is having to try to navigate this campaign as the rules are being rewritten on the fly. Back in the beginning, The Huffington Post had tried to keep the whole thing in perspective by relegating the campaign to their entertainment pages but eventually had to move it back to the politics section when it became clear that Republican voters were actually taking Trump seriously. Today they cover him like a normal politician but append a standard disclaimer at the end of their articles about him pointing out that he's an extremist with noxious views.
Trump has brought the tabloids into the race already, with his good friend David Pecker, the publisher of the National Enquirer, helpfully providing smears of his rival Ted Cruz during the primary. Now Pecker has hired notorious Clinton hater Dick Morris as the Enquirer's chief political correspondent so it's likely Trump will be fed a steady diet of tabloid tid-bits which he will undoubtedly share with his adoring fans. So far, the mainstream media has resisted the temptation to run with Clinton gossip stories mainly because there's so much coming over the transom about Trump. But they are out there and are likely to seep into the coverage as the Hillary smear industry gets up and running. There's nothing new in that but Trump is a master of tabloid media so we can probably expect this to play a different role than it has in the past.
TV news organizations, meanwhile, have been notorious for allowing Trump to flout their rules. They happily let him call in rather than appear on camera and give him hours of airtime in the hope that he'll say something news worthy which, to be honest, he often does. His lies and reversals are so constant and so blatant that reporters seem to be almost paralyzed as he slithers and slides out of their grasp. He is sui generis and nobody knows quite what to do about it.
Media critics have been weighing in recently as the situation has become acute. NPR's "On the Media" correspondent Bob Garfield has been particularly vociferous lately imploring the media to recognize the threat that Donald Trump poses to America. In this column he takes them to task for covering the Trump candidacy "like a bemused recap of House of Cards." He wrote:
The rapacious CBS Chairman Les Moonves and the cable-newslike channels are delighted at the spectacle; disaster is always great for ratings. But this is not a show, to be consumed and titillated by and parsed. It is a conflagration of hatred and authoritarianism on its way to consuming us, or at least that which makes us us. Trumpism is raging out of control and the Fourth Estate responds how?
By going through the motions.
The usual false balance. The usual staged cable bickering. The usual dry contextual analysis. The usual intermittent truth-squading to garnish our careless daily servings of uncontested hate speech, incitement and manifest lies. The usual reluctance to “be part of the story” -- which, in fact, we are inextricably part of because we in large measure created it by giving oxygen to his every incendiary outrage and being our soundbitten, compulsively enabling selves...[the]reflexive focus on the latest development, the political ebb and flow and the architecture of the coming election simply buries the lede -- that the man is monstrously unfit and un-American -- and normalizes the grossly, tragically abnormal.
And then he tells them what he really thinks which is that they are falling into the trap of false equivalence between the parties, fear of right-wing pressure and a reluctance to call a fascist a fascist.
Margaret Sullivan, former NY Times ombudsman and current media columnist for The Washington Post has similar concerns, particularly the notion that the media is pursuing a "false equivalence" rather than simple truth-telling:
[T]his perceived need to push for “fairness” for Trump — as if he has been mistreated or put at a disadvantage — baffles me. Trump gets far more media attention than other candidates, if only because he says such outrageous things, commanding the daily news cycle over and over.
Wayne Barrett, the investigative reporter who has been covering Trump for 40 years (and whose reporting brought about Trump’s first federal grand jury investigation) told me in an interview: “The great failing is not in print media. But the campaigns occur on the screen.”... Many hard-hitting stories from the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Daily Beast and elsewhere have received little follow-up on TV — “not one minute of air time that I’ve seen” — but the slightest hint of a new angle on Hillary Clinton’s email practices can occupy most of a news cycle. (An exception was TV’s attention, last week, to complaints about Trump University.)
Jay Rosen, the New York University professor and author of the PressThink blog, is concerned about how this concept of fairness might play out. “Does it mean ‘we can’t take sides,’ or does it mean ‘let’s treat unequal things equally’?” The latter, which he called “distortion toward the middle,” ought to be prevented, he said.
The Nation's Eric Alterman wrote about the print media's propensity for false equivalence as well, focusing particularly on the New York Times:
From the earliest days of this campaign, Times reporters have been transparently eager to blame “both sides,” often regardless of circumstance. Last November, Times reporter Michael Barbaro devoted a lengthy article to the GOP candidates’ most brazen lies, albeit one filled with euphemisms for the word “lie.” Carly Fiorina “refused” to back down from a story about Planned Parenthood that was “roundly disputed,” he wrote. Ben Carson “harshly turned the questions” about inconsistencies in his life story “back on the reporters who asked them.” Donald Trump “utters plenty of refutable claims” and “set the tone for the embroidery” by creating “an entirely new category of overstatement in American politics.” But guess what? “The tendency to bend facts is bipartisan.” How do we know? Well, Gary Hart and Bill Clinton chose not to confess their infidelities to the nation during election cycles that took place a generation ago. And apparently Hillary Clinton once mistakenly described herself as being the granddaughter of four immigrants when, in fact, her paternal grandmother was born shortly after her family arrived in the United States—an error she quickly corrected. Barbaro also found Clinton’s explanations about her personal and State Department e-mail accounts to be unsatisfactory. He wrote that she had “used multiple devices, like an iPad, to read and send e-mail,” even though she’d said she “preferred” to read them all on a single device. He failed to note that the iPad didn’t even exist when Clinton set up her e-mail account, nor did he explain why expressing a preference counts as bending the truth
Here is an example of false equivalence from just this week. Nobody has done more to probe Donald Trump's noxious views than CNN's Jake Tapper. His grilling of the candidate over his bigoted comments about the federal judge overseeing his Trump University lawsuit in California was as good as it gets and he received many kudos for his aggressive journalism.
He continued to report on Trump on his show Monday but also featured this harsh criticism of Hillary Clinton in which he lambasted the State Department's stated inability to release emails pertaining to her work on the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal to reporter David Sirota until after the election. He took on a very aggressive tone, editorializing about the importance of releasing this important information when people are deciding whether to vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. However, he notes that while Clinton was President Obama's Secretary of State she openly advocated for the deal in glowing terms, even calling it the "gold standard", facts which have been known for years and have been well hashed out on the campaign trail and in the debates with Bernie Sanders. Now she says she has changed her mind and is against the deal. Politifact called it a flip-flop.
So what exactly do they think they will learn about her position that they don't already know? Maybe she was more involved than she says she was, which would be interesting, but somewhat meaningless since we know she advocated strongly for it all over the world. In the end, you either believe she's really changed her mind or you don't and these documents from years ago will not shed any new light on that. And yet the implication was that Clinton was up to something nefarious with those "damn emails" again.
I don't mean to pick on Tapper. He's a great journalist, one of the best on cable news. The temptation to try to "even things out" with this sort of coverage has to be overwhelming when a personality like Trump dominates the coverage the way he does. It must feel to a straight mainstream journalist as if they're piling on him every day and it looks like they're being partisan and unfair. Certainly the right wing is accusing them of that non-stop --- as they have been for more than 30 years.
But the result of this "distortion toward the middle" as Jay Rosen calls it, has the perverse effect of normalizing Trump and pathologizing Clinton in a way that equalizes them to Trump's advantage. There is no equivalence between them. He is an unqualified, unfit, unhinged authoritarian demagogue and she is a mainstream Democratic party politician. Let's hope the press listens to some of these critics and does a serious gut check whenever they are tempted to "balance" the coverage in this election by going easy on Trump and hard on Clinton. It's dangerous.