This is the thing: While it is easy enough to get lost in the spectacular noise and bluster, the breathtaking incoherence and disbelief, something does seem to have happened. Jonathan Chait dove in last month, noting, “The most important substantive problem facing political journalists of this era is asymmetrical polarization”. And to a certain degree, Chait is vital, here, because of something else he wrote, all of several days before:
I had not taken seriously the possibility that Donald Trump could win the presidency until I saw Matt Lauer host an hour-long interview with the two major-party candidates. Lauer’s performance was not merely a failure, it was horrifying and shocking. The shock, for me, was the realization that most Americans inhabit a very different news environment than professional journalists. I not only consume a lot of news, since it’s my job, I also tend to focus on elite print-news sources. Most voters, and all the more so undecided voters, subsist on a news diet supplied by the likes of Matt Lauer. And the reality transmitted to them from Lauer matches the reality of the polls, which is a world in which Clinton and Trump are equivalently flawed.
Nor need one be any manner of confessed media elitist; outside the circles where people perpetually complain about the media, news consumers are more than a little puzzled―indeed, some or maybe even many are alarmed―about what they are witnessing.
Part of the problem, of course, is asymmetrical polarization; Chait considered the question―
Political journalism evolved during an era of loose parties, both of which hugged the center, and now faces an era in which one of those parties has veered sharply away from the center. Today’s Republican Party now resides within its own empirical alternative universe, almost entirely sealed off from any source of data, expertise, or information that might throw its ideological prior values into question. Donald Trump’s candidacy is the ne plus ultra of this trend, an outlier horrifying even to a great many conservatives who have been largely comfortable with their party’s direction until now. How can the news media appropriately cover Trump and his clearly flawed opponent without creating an indecipherable din of equivalent-sounding criticism, where one candidate’s evasive use of a private email server looms larger than the other’s promise to commit war crimes?
Liz Spayd, the New York Times’ new public editor, dismisses the problem out of hand in a column that is a logical train wreck. Spayd specifically addresses a column by Paul Krugman that lambastes two news investigations into the Clinton Foundation, one of which appeared in the Times. Both reports dug deep and found nothing improper, but instead of either walking away from the dry holes or writing an exculpatory story, dressed them up with innuendo. These stories supply a prime example of the larger critique often grouped under the heading of “false equivalence”―journalists treating dissimilar situations as similar, in an attempt to balance out their conclusions. Spayd dismisses false equivalence as liberal whining, without in any way engaging with its analysis.
There is actually a lot to the dispute, but for our moment, Chait explains:
Critics argue that the Clinton email scandal should be covered in proportion to the scale of the offense, so that a gigantic violation of political norms receives wider and more hyperbolic coverage than a smaller violation of political norms. Spayd replies that this would lead to a “slippery slope” in which the smaller scandal receives no coverage at all. She does not explain why covering scandals proportionally to their importance would lead inevitably to this result. She simply conjures the metaphorical slope, and leaves her readers with the assurance that it is impossible to move a step in one direction without continuing to the extreme.
The false-equivalence charge is not that reporters are explicitly “making matchy-matchy comparisons of the two candidates’ records.” It’s that they are doing this implicitly through what Spayd concedes to be “bad journalism.” The Times is creating the impression of two candidates with proportionally sized flaws even though it is not setting out to do so. Spayd is presenting the accusation as if it were a defense.
The critics are suggesting that the fact that Clinton and Trump are both trusted in roughly equal measure is a problem for which the news media bears at least some responsibility. Perhaps they are about equally distrusted because the liberal media has portrayed Clinton as a criminal? No, Spayd replies, the media is doing it right because people dislike Hillary Clinton almost as much as Trump.
That last is important; given the New York Times‘ mission aiming to assassinate Hillary Clinton’s characterα, we might wonder if Ms. Spayd is, in fact, crowing of success. Eight years ago, Dan Froomkin offered a sterling critique of the Bush administration’s pathetic response to the Senate Intelligence Committee: “It takes a lot of chutzpah to defend yourself against charges that you’ve engaged in a propaganda campaign by noting that it worked.”
α cf., Wilentz“
The administration also persevered despite baseless vitriolic attacks on First Lady Hillary Clinton. A chief source of the character assassination, interestingly, was The New York Times, which legitimized the caricature of Clinton in the political mainstream, distant from the fever swamps of the right and left. William Safire, the former Nixon propagandist, filled his Times columns with anti-Hillary calumny, most notably in a column in 1996, when, with no apparent evidence, he blasted her over the Whitewater pseudoscandal, calling her “a congenital liar” who “had good reasons to lie; she is in the longtime habit of lying; and she has never been called to account for lying herself or in suborning lying in her aides and friends.” Under editorial-page editor Howell Raines, the Times became something of a whipping post for the Clintons. Maureen Dowd outdid herself and everyone else on Hillary (as she continues to do today), writing scores of columns attacking the Clintons as a couple―”like a virus or an alien that needs a host body to survive”―and Hillary above all, as a power-hungry cynic and a betrayer of feminism who with her husband had “chosen tactics over truth with such consistency that it’s impossible to accept anything they say.” Thus was established the abiding myth of Hillary Clinton as a deceitful harridan, a fiction that seems to have become hard-wired in our politics despite all the evidence to the contrary, including the recent report by the distinguished and authoritative fact-checking project PolitiFact that Clinton was the most truthful candidate, Democratic or Republican, in the 2016 primary season.
Image note: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton laughs before speaking to supporters at the Human Rights Campaign Breakfast in Washington, October 3, 2015. (Photo: Reuters/Joshua Roberts)
Chait, Jonathan. “Matt Lauer’s Pathetic Interview of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Is the Scariest Thing I’ve Seen in This Campaign”. New York. 6 October 2016.
—————. “New York Times Public Editor Liz Spayd Writes Disastrous Defense of False Equivalence”. New York. 12 September 2016.
Froomkin, Dan. “The Propaganda Campaign Dissected”. The Washington Post. 6 June 2008.
Krugman, Paul. “Hillary Clinton Gets Gored”. The New York Times. 5 September 2016.
Spayd, Liz. “The Truth About ‘False Balance'”. The New York Times. 10 September 2016.
Wilentz, Sean. “Hillary’s New Deal: How a Clinton Presidency Could Transform America”. Rolling Stone. 11 August 2016.