Bizarro world: The debate showed us the real "liberal media bias" — for Donald Trump

Cable newsers didn't watch the same debate as the rest of us — they tried to give Clinton's victory to Trump

Published October 10, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)

Donald Trump at the presidential debate in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016.    (AP/Patrick Semansky)
Donald Trump at the presidential debate in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. (AP/Patrick Semansky)

At one point during the second presidential debate between accused serial molester Donald Trump and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the sniffing, lurking GOP nominee whined to anyone listening, "One on three!" The lament of an unapologetic bully who was somehow shocked by the fact that his opponent and both moderators weren't kissing his ass like his closest advisers and fanboys do.

It surely wasn't Trump's most egregious trespass of the evening, but it was so perfectly illustrative of his entitled, infantile, schoolyard bully attitude. Trump is so blinded by the sycophantic fluffing of his most loyal fanboys, the notion of a debate setting in which, yes, both candidates faced the scrutiny of an opponent and two moderators seemed unfair and foreign to him.

So, he invoked a phrase we've all heard as kids at recess or from our own children: "One on three!" He might as well have collapsed to the floor, screaming at moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz, "You can't triple stamp a double stamp! You can't triple stamp a double stamp!"

Despite this and other disqualifying events during and before the debate, the political press on cable news seemed to bend over backward to shoehorn Trump into the "win" category. Conversely, it's obvious that if Clinton had responded by complaining, "Anti-quitsies, no anti-quitsies, no startsies!" the same talkers would have absolutely declared it a major fail by the frontrunner.

Specifically, it was the alleged liberal cable network MSNBC and its team of wise men, Chuck Todd, Joe Scarborough, Brian Williams and Chris Matthews, who couldn't wait to tap into the "Trump comeback" narrative by praising Trump for a performance that the rest of us observed as the creepiest, most sniffle-punctuated and, in places, Third World presidential debate appearance in at least a century.

I hasten to note that not all of the MSNBC panelists were so infuriatingly forgiving. To the contrary, Lawrence O'Donnell, Rachel Maddow, Joy Reid, Eugene Robinson and, yes, Republican strategists Nicole Wallace and Steve Schmidt were the exceptions — nailing Trump's twitchy, seemingly coked-up "jumble of sniffles and nonsense," as John Oliver described it last week. But among the network's self-styled "grown-ups," including the "Morning Joe" panel the next day, the reaction was basically that Trump was not as stupid and offensive as during the first debate, and therefore he won.

This bears repeating: The liberal network, the network that's routinely mischaracterized as being populated with left-wing apparatchiks, declared Trump to be the narrow winner simply because he wasn't as horrendously buffoonish as during his first go-round. Joe Scarborough, for example, whom Trump has blasted for being a loser and a clown, said that it was the Republican nominee's "most effective debate performance so far" and "he dominated the second debate in the same way she dominated the first debate."

While I've had friendly conversations with Scarborough and, unlike many peers, I don't dislike him, I don't mind saying that his analysis was nothing but Pollyanna-ish, "both sides" horseshit that unnecessarily rewarded a debate performer who is so unqualified and so politically carcinogenic that he had no business even being there in the first place. Worse, Scarborough's reaction was a more polished version of what Todd and Matthews said the night before.

Perhaps they were doodling or taking a bathroom break when Trump stalked Clinton, lurking over her shoulder; or when Trump told her that he'd abuse the office of the presidency to imprison her; or when Trump proudly confirmed that he didn't pay federal income taxes for 18 years or more; or when Trump denied a tweet in which he said we should watch a sex tape; or when Trump nearly inhaled his microphone dozens of times due to inexplicable nasal snorts; or when he implied that one U.S. senator can somehow unilaterally pass tax law; or when Trump called Clinton "the devil."

By the way, there was another remark that no one's talking about in which Trump blamed Clinton for letting him get away with not paying taxes. It's an abuser's excuse: Why do you make me hit you? This was preceded by a through-the-looking-glass press conference in which Trump trolled the world by exploiting four women, including Paula Jones, to deflect attention from his "grab her by the pussy" tape as well as to intimidate Clinton.

All things considered, it's amazing that Clinton didn't slap Trump in the face within the first 15 seconds of the proceedings. It's a good thing she didn't, although I, and many people I know would've done far worse. In reality, Clinton appeared firm, policy-centric, calm and, yes, presidential in the face of that malevolent circus peanut who was incomprehensibly elevated to her level by too many voters and cable news talkers.

What was lost in the superficial post-debate analysis on both MSNBC and CNN was that Trump's performance was about the same as the first debate, if not worse given the abuse-of-power threats and so forth, and yet because he didn't literally snort a line of blow off Melania's stomach during the Syria segment, he somehow "won" the debate.

Generally speaking, there's a galactically massive difference between "improving" and "winning"— not that Trump improved. But in the eyes of Chuck Todd and some of the others, he improved from the previous debate, topping Clinton because of it.

This is like saying that since Trump hasn't molested any women this week, he should get a lifetime achievement award from feminist groups. Not only is this a colossal fallacy being marketed by television pundits who ought to know better, Trump's performance was historically awful in nearly every way. Comparatively, Clinton could have said exactly nothing during the debate and it still would have bested Trump's desperate attempt to scold and shame Clinton using the sins of her husband.

(Let's be perfectly clear: Hillary Clinton is the victim of her husband's affairs, not the perpetrator. The political press seems to have overlooked this distinction, too.)

When Americans complain on social media about the political press, this is a significant reason why. When Americans complain about liberal bias at MSNBC or CNN, they clearly don't know how either network operates. The mission isn't necessarily to parrot liberal values and takeaways; it's about manufacturing artificial drama and narrative dynamics, while sidestepping the well-worn "liberal media bias" myth.

A dominant faction of hosts on MSNBC would much rather amplify an incompetent Republican than to give an infinitely more competent Democratic candidate credit where credit is due. Whether it was Scarborough's effusive kudos to a man who thinks Scarborough is a "clown," or even Chris Matthews' ironically softball post-debate interview with an increasingly disturbed Rudy Giuliani, the bias seems to be geared to giving Trump the benefit of the doubt, at least 50 percent of the time.

And people wonder how characters like Trump get this far. It's obviously because if you act like an unrelenting maniac, you can overwhelm journalists and pundits enough to force them to grant you unearned victories, simply by attrition — policy, decorum and presidential dignity be damned.


By Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.


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