Mass Media for Donald Trump!

How could that be?  The media have a liberal bias and they hate Donald Trump– right?  Well, many journalists are liberals and they are, generally, no fans of Trump.  But far more than that are the norms of political reporting (both sides!) and a longstanding distrust of all things Clinton.

James Fallows with a great, great post (he wrote a classic book on media and politics, so he knows of what he speaks).  You should read all of it.  If this came out last month, I would have put it on my syllabus:

These mental habits of the media included an over-emphasis on strife and conflict, a fascination with the mechanics or “game” of politics rather than the real-world consequences, and a self-protective instinct to conceal limited knowledge of a particular subject (a new budget proposal, an international spat) by talking about the politics of these questions, and by presenting disagreements in a he-said/she-said, “plenty of blame on all sides” fashion now known as “false equivalence.”

I could explain it more, or I could suggest you go read the article.  (It’s free, but it never hurts to subscribe!)

Through the rise of Donald Trump, I’ve been watching to see how these patterns of mind might reassert themselves, particularly in the form of normalizingTrump…

For the most part, the political press has kept its nerve. It has “normalized” Trump much less than I expected. But this past week, as national polls predictably tightened, enough signs of a normalizing approach emerged to deserve mention…

On August 25, Hillary Clinton gave a very detailed speech on the network of white-nationalist, “alt-right,” and plain-old-racist organizations that Donald Trump had directly and indirectly encouraged and consorted with. Trump responded by saying in interviews, “she’s a bigot.”

To get a sense of how very un-equivalent these arguments and accusations were, you’d probably have to read Clinton’s speech, which you can do here. It was a carefully detailed indictment, which started with the Justice Department suit against Trump for racial bias in renting apartments; went through anti-black managerial practices at his casinos; discussed his leadership of the false “Birther” crusade against Barack Obama; and concluded with Trump’s recent “Mexican judge” comments and other claims. You might disagree with her conclusions, but you’d have to agree that she set out an actual case.

Trump’s response was just to use the word “bigot” and make his “What the hell do you have to lose?” appeal to black voters. There was no detailed case about Hillary Clinton’s supposed bigotry—literally, none. There was just the one word.

Again, you don’t have to agree with Hillary Clinton. But to imagine that she and Donald Trump were doing the same thing is something reporters would never do in any other realm. (“Harvard, Stanford disagree on which is older.” “Ledecky, rivals trade barbs over race results.” “O.J., ex-wife, have difference of views.”) Yet the Washington Post headline and story above were representative of the tactics-only way in which this latest “scrap” was played, and the reluctance to assess for readers the merits and fidelity-to-fact of the cases the candidates made. Sample from the Post:

The blisteringly direct accusations brought the subjects of race and bigotry, previously undercurrents, to the surface of this year’s presidential election. And the exchanges hinted at just how nasty the verbal battle between Clinton and Trump could become in the roughly 10 weeks until the general election.

Clinton’s aim is to diminish Trump in the eyes of Americans uncomfortable voting for someone who appeals to racists, perhaps even winning over some moderate Republicans. Trump is fighting that image by appealing to minority voters while questioning Clinton’s record on race issues, noting that Democrats have long controlled cities where many African Americans continue to live in poverty.

It was all about positioning and tactics, not about underlying truth of either side’s views. Here are similar examples from Politico…

And lots more depressing examples of how the media have utterly failed the public and helped Trump.

Krugman makes some comparisons to the 2000 campaign (when by and objective standard, Al Gore was screwed by the media) and I have to say that, at least based on recent reporting, these strike me as fair comparisons:

Americans of a certain age who follow politics and policy closely still have vivid memories of the 2000 election — bad memories, and not just because the man who lost the popular vote somehow ended up in office. For the campaign leading up to that end game was nightmarish too.

You see, one candidate, George W. Bush, was dishonest in a way that was unprecedented in U.S. politics. Most notably, he proposed big tax cuts for the rich while insisting, in raw denial of arithmetic, that they were targeted for the middle class. These campaign lies presaged what would happen during his administration — an administration that, let us not forget, took America to war on false pretenses.

Yet throughout the campaign most media coverage gave the impression that Mr. Bush was a bluff, straightforward guy, while portraying Al Gore — whose policy proposals added up, and whose critiques of the Bush plan were completely accurate — as slippery and dishonest. Mr. Gore’s mendacity was supposedly demonstrated by trivial anecdotes, none significant, some of them simply false. No, he never claimed to have invented the internet. But the image stuck.

And right now I and many others have the sick, sinking feeling that it’s happening again.

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. 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.

Meanwhile, we have the presumption that anything Hillary Clinton does must be corrupt, most spectacularly illustrated by the increasingly bizarre coverage of the Clinton Foundation.

Oh, and speaking of the Clinton foundation, have you heard about the actual malfeasance of the Trump foundation.  Probably not.  That’s some liberal media bias.  Judd Legum:

Meanwhile, on September 1, news broke that the Trump Foundation “violated tax laws by giving a political contribution to a campaign group connected to Florida’s attorney general.” It was required to pay a $2500 fine to the IRS.

The details of the case are even more unseemly. Florida’s Attorney General was considering opening an investigation into Trump University, which is accused of defrauding students. Bondi herself contacted Trump and asked for a political contribution. After a political committee associated with her campaign received the illegal $25,000 contribution, she decided not to pursue it.

The story has something that none of the Clinton Foundation stories have: Actual evidence of illegal conduct. In this case, not only is there concrete evidence that the Trump Foundation broke the law, but a formal finding of wrongdoing by the IRS. [emphasis mine]

And great, great post from Wil Wheaton (you should read all of this one, too):

It’s recently come to light that these donations (bribes) were paid out of the Trump Foundation. Whether that was through deliberate intent or incompetence is immaterial, because this is an actual, real, meaningful scandal with two — two! — smoking guns. This is exactly the sort of thing that the New York Times, CNN, and all the biggest names in journalism are looking for as they relentlessly go after the Clinton Foundation, as well as Bill and Hillary Clinton. [emphasis in original]

There is nothing to be uncovered there, because there is no “there” there. … but there is almost complete and utter silence about Trump’s two successful efforts to buy off politicians — and not just politicians, but the Attorneys General of two different states!

Josh Marshall writes The New York Times appears to be revisiting its ‘whitewater’ glory days with its increasingly parodic coverage of the Clinton Foundation, and I think he’s right.

The Times uniquely, though only as a leading example for the rest of the national press, has a decades’ long history of being lead around by rightwing opposition researchers into dead ends which amount to journalistic comedy — especially when it comes to the Clintons. But here, while all this is happening we have a real live specimen example of direct political and prosecutorial corruption, misuse of a 501c3 nonprofit and various efforts to conceal this corruption and the underlying corruption of Trump’s ‘Trump University’ real estate seminar scam. It’s all there — lightly reported here and there — but largely ignored.

The story the media wants to write about the Clintons exists, but it looks more and more like it won’t be written, because it’s about Trump. I don’t think this is because the media is in the tank for either candidate, but is because there is a narrative: Trump’s a buffoon and dog bites man, while Clintons are just so damn suspicious and there’s a cloud over everything they do and whether it’s actually questionable or not, it sure has the appearance of being unethical. [emphasis mine]

Yes!  The media has a conventional wisdom/ a narrative for each candidate and they make the news fit into that narrative, whether it really does or not.  And sometimes, that really helps a particular candidate and we are seeing it right now.

In short, every media bias (i.e., failing) that exists in political campaign coverage has been taken to 11 in the past week.  Ugh.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to Mass Media for Donald Trump!

  1. “Trump’s response was just to use the word “bigot” and make his “What the hell do you have to lose?” appeal to black voters.”

    Do you really feel that this is a fair statement?

    Granted, you may not feel that Trump’s argument that Hillary champions policies that have failed to deliver a lot of African Americans out of poverty is equivalent to bigotry, but he did clearly make that argument.

    Well … as clearly as Trump makes any argument, anyway.

  2. R. Jenrette says:

    Following Fallow’s lead as I read it, Hillary should select three or four big issues that can get her core support groups to the polls. She should spend her time campaigning on these ideas: what her policy is to solve the problem vs Trump’s plan or lack of a plan. She needs to educate the public on how it would benefit the people to vote for her. Keep it simple and direct.
    She should turn over Trump bashing and her defense to Trump allegations to her surrogates. Elizabeth Warren will soon be back on the campaign trail as will Joe Biden, Tim Kaine and other high power Democrats. They can handle the negatives.

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