This Week’s Trump and Clinton Stories Highlight Political Media’s Facile, Dangerous Need for “Balance”

Last night’s presidential forum on NBC felt like the apex of a particularly dispiriting few weeks in election coverage.  It all led to the question everyone was asking today: why are journalists like Matt Lauer letting neofascist Donald Trump skate by with predictable falsehoods about his support for our military interventions in Iraq and Syria in front of millions of viewers? “It’s not a great idea, in general, for journalists to let politicians get away with bald-faced, on-camera lies. But it’s particularly important not to let them do it when, as is the case with Trump on these two issues, the lies are so predictable,” noted Matt Yglesias in his quick post this morning.

So what’s going on, exactly? When we have a deranged, racist narcissist on one side, why isn’t his untruthfulness being called out more?

In my view, this is due to two entrenched factors in American campaign coverage. The first is the media’s need for “both-sidedness,” a faux balance that gives scandals about emails (like Clinton’s) and scandals about blatantly promoting genocide-like policies (like Trump’s) the exact same weight. Without Bernie Sanders in the race, any focus on policy seems to be lost in the ether, and we’re living in an entirely “horse-race” based media universe. The second factor, resulting from this, is the constant need for a new narrative. If yesterday’s headline was “Trump descends into demagoguery and fear-mongering yet again,” the hope is tomorrow the candidate will do something that appears presidential and gives him “momentum” even if it’s only appearing on the podium with another president.

The most shameful day of the whole cycle may have been when Trump went to Mexico and got praised by the press for “pivoting” and “moderating” his tone on immigration, only to follow up the very same night by giving one of the nastiest, scariest speeches of his career on the very topic, one that Josh Marshall equated to a blood libel. How did we get here? asked Marshall the next day:

This isn’t normal. It was normal in the Jim Crow South, as it was in Eastern Europe for centuries. It’s not normal in America in the 21st century. And yet it’s become normalized. It’s a mammoth failure of our political press. But it’s not just theirs, ours. It’s a collective failure that we’re all responsible for. By any reasonable standard, Donald Trump’s speech on Wednesday night should have ended the campaign, as should numerous other rallies where Trump has done more or less the same thing for months. There’s a reason why the worst of the worst, the organized and avowed racists, were thrilled and almost giddy watching the spectacle. But it has become normalized. We do not even see it for what it is. It’s like we’ve all been cast under a spell. That normalization will be with us long after this particular demagogue, Donald Trump, has left the stage. Call this what it is: it is hate speech, in its deepest and most dangerous form.

Marshall’s assessment of the reaction to Trump is one of the two ways the media’s failure manifests itself: allowing extremism to mask itself as moderation. This means swallowing and accepting the outrageous things that Trump has said rather than sounding the alarm over and over again. In past elections gaffes like misspelling “potato” and sighing during debates were considered game-changing gaffes. Now one candidate’s making the crudest, most demeaning comments is barely given a look. Paul Krugman at the Times (possibly dinging his own employer’s newsroom), writes that “it’s hard to escape the impression that he’s being graded on a curve.”

If he manages to read from a TelePrompter without going off script, he’s being presidential. If he seems to suggest that he wouldn’t round up all 11 million undocumented immigrants right away, he’s moving into the mainstream. And many of his multiple scandals, like what appear to be clear payoffs to state attorneys general to back off investigating Trump University, get remarkably little attention.

Krugman goes on to discuss the second way that this media failure manifests, on the other side of the aisle: a bizarre focus on the Clinton Foundation that yields little fruit, but many vague aspersions. As Esquire‘s Charles P. Pierce writes,  “right now, there is substantial evidence that many of [the news media’s outlets] will print anything as long as they can wedge ‘Clinton,’ ‘questions’ and ‘e-mails’ into a headline.” Krugman offers this warning to his colleagues: “I would urge journalists to ask whether they are reporting facts or simply engaging in innuendo, and urge the public to read with a critical eye. If reports about a candidate talk about how something ‘raises questions,’ creates ‘shadows,’ or anything similar, be aware that these are all too often weasel words used to create the impression of wrongdoing out of thin air.”

Krugman compares the treatment of Clinton to the treatment of Al Gore in 2000; the press corps’s viewing of a wonky, dull, policy-oriented candidate as though that quality itself is scandalous.

This habit was dangerous when it helped elect George W. Bush to office and it’s even more dangerous now. I can’t help but recall the Decembrist’s anti-Bush song “Sixteen Military Wives” which reads as an indictment of the Iraq War era, with its refrain “and the press goes la-di-da-di-da.”