Over the past few weeks, the political press has settled into a pattern I was hoping we could avoid in 2016: the normalization of the presidential campaign. With increasing frequency, the media are ignoring or playing down negative news about Donald Trump while throwing a collective fit over Hillary Clinton’s appearances of possibilities of rumors of wrongdoing.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman—whose paper has been a prime offender—warned on Monday that the race is in danger of turning into Bush versus Gore all over again. He wrote: “True, there aren’t many efforts to pretend that Donald Trump is a paragon of honesty. But it’s hard to escape the impression that he’s being graded on a curve.” Writing in the Atlantic, James Fallows provides a thorough overview of exactly how the media's "normalizing approach" is playing out.
Thus we see most of the media ignoring a Washington Post report that the Trump Foundation made an illegal campaign contribution to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi at a time when her office was investigating Trump University (and yes, Trump is a recidivist). As for examples of overly harsh Clinton coverage, I wrote about a few of them recently; now we see the media freaking out over yet another FBI report about Clinton’s emails.
If you read nothing else about the Clinton email story, I urge you to read Kevin Drum’s detailed analysis at Mother Jones about the FBI findings. His utterly convincing conclusion: “This report is pretty much an almost complete exoneration of Hillary Clinton.”
Meanwhile, we are left to ask ourselves: Why is this happening? What is it about the media that causes them to seek balance instinctively, even when to do so ignores the fundamental truth of what's taking place? I’ll offer five theories—not all original with me, I should add. I think the first three are key.
1. An institutional bias toward balance. The Washington press corps is overwhelmingly liberal and, you can be sure, will vote almost as one for Clinton. But as Eric Alterman argued years ago in his book What Liberal Media?, the way liberal reporters convince themselves that they don’t let their ideological beliefs interfere with their coverage is to bend over backwards to beat up on liberal politicians.
You’d think that wouldn’t occur with a racist demagogue like Trump, who, after all, bears little resemblance to past Republican nominees like Mitt Romney or John McCain. But the media’s coverage of Trump was so negative for so long (of necessity given what he was saying and doing) that now the press is looking for reasons to ignore his behavior. That’s why Trump was praised for managing to get through his meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto without touching off an international incident, and why his hate rally of an immigration speech later that night did not receive nearly as much condemnation it should have.
2. Trump fatigue. Once a candidate has mocked a disabled reporter and viciously attacked Gold Star parents, where else is there to go? I think the peak moment of anti-Trump coverage occurred after he criticized the Khan family, who lost their son in the war in Iraq. The press and the public were repulsed; for all Trump had said up to that point, it represented a nauseating new low.
The media have been covering and overcovering Trump from the moment he announced his campaign in June 2015. And they’ve dwelled on every hateful moment, from his mocking of McCain’s heroism as a POW to his hiring of a notorious white nationalist as his CEO. The press is tired of Trump—just as the home stretch is getting under way.
3. A sense that it’s over. This is related to Reason No. 2. Although the race has been tightening a bit as the Khan outrage fades into our rearview mirror, Clinton still holds a substantial lead. As of Monday, the New York Times’s statistical model showed her with an 86 percent chance of winning, and FiveThirtyEight had her at 72 percent. Given that the electorate is highly polarized, there is very little chance that Trump can win.
As a result, the media may already be moving on, attempting to hold the likely next president to account while paying less attention to the shortcomings of the loser.
4. The media want a horse race. I don’t buy this. Although I do think many reporters think in terms of evening out their coverage for purposes of fairness and balance (see above), I don’t think they do it to create artificial competition. I say that as someone who has been a working journalist, either full- or part-time, for 40 years, and who has been reporting and writing about the media for more than 20 years. Take that for what it’s worth.
5. The press despises the Clintons. And the Clintons despise the press. This is actually true. Still, I don’t think it explains why most journalists are ignoring Trump’s illegal campaign contributions or have become so caught up in their if-there’s-smoke-there-must-be-fire coverage of Clinton’s emails or the Clinton Foundation. I think the first three reasons are sufficient to explain those phenomena.
There is a danger, needless to say, in treating the media as a monolith. Of our two leading newspapers, the Washington Post has done a better job of avoiding false balance than the New York Times; and yet there are countervailing examples in both papers. CNN drives me to distraction, but there have been good moments as well—especially media reporter Brian Stelter’s tough interviews with various Trump surrogates. And, yes, even the most egregious oversights tend to be corrected over time. As I write this, for instance, it looks like the Trump Foundation's illegal campaign contribution to Pam Bondi is about to become A Story. We'll see.
None of this, of course, should be taken to mean that I think Hillary Clinton is above criticism. It’s long past time for her to face some tough questions from the media, whether at a press conference or in some other forum. A quarter-century of overblown so-called scandals, from Whitewater to Benghazi, have left her overly secretive, which is a recipe for trouble in a future president.
But that doesn’t excuse the media, which need to cover this campaign right up to Election Day as though the future of our democracy depends on it. False balance is a disservice to everyone—especially the public, in whose stead and interests the press purportedly acts.