Donald J. Trump likely won’t be the next president, but he’s already done an immense service to this country: He’s forced the political media to start doing its job. There are legitimate scandals to investigate, demonstrably bigoted and racist comments to interrogate, and policy platform after policy platform to obliterate.
This is a man who lies so often and with so little self-awareness that television networks have begun fact-checking him in real time with on-screen graphics like this beauty from CNN:
“Trump: I never said Japan should have nukes (he did)”
But let’s also put this in context.
The media was derelict in its duty, utterly asleep at the proverbial wheel during the Republican primaries. Fox News didn’t have to carry his water for him to win, because no one took him seriously. No one put his feet to the fire until, ironically, Megyn Kelly tried to hold him accountable on the debate stage. Even then, his outsized personality managed to garner the lion’s share of attention, while his actual deeds, past and present, slipped under the radar.
Today, at long last, that has changed. After months of playing footsie with Trump, the media assumed its role as watchdog.
Much as elections have consequences, so too does election coverage. Just ask Hillary Clinton. Democratic partisans, surrogates, and your casual left-leaning observers have spent the last few weeks wailing and gnashing their teeth over Clinton coverage. Questions about her e-mail scandal have gone on too long, they say. The Clinton Foundation isn’t anywhere near as corrupt as Trump’s foundations. She’s much healthier than Trump.
All of that may be true.
But it is quite literally the job of the media to interrogate these questions, and all of them are worthy of reporting. When political reporters started doing actual reporting on the candidates, instead of spending time on cable news talking about horse race politics, they found a strange thing: People like good stories, not just watching talking bananas in suits yell at each other over TPP. Call it “trickle down media economics.”
Reporting on Clinton’s health is newsworthy, as is her husband’s admission (and CBS’ subsequent editing of said admission) that this type of thing is common when she gets dehydrated. But they aren’t the same as the recent story about Donald Trump stealing money from charity to pay lawsuit settlements. It only seems that way to those with partisan blinders on who see that story reported next to a Hilary Clinton story. The media didn’t create a false equivalency. The consumer adds it.
Any time there’s a story that isn’t about the shady dealings of Donald Trump, it seems Democrats and left-leaning partisans cry foul.
This is precisely the type of behavior the left has long criticized the right for engaging in. In order to shield their political figure from any criticism, even valid ones, they turn the very act of criticizing into the problem.
Is the Clinton health story bigger because of Trump and his extended media apparatus spinning conspiracy theories about it? Absolutely. Does that mean it's not a legitimate story to cover when it was the most talked about political story of the weekend? Of course not. The reality is, Donald Trump has been covered significantly more than Hillary Clinton, at least until very recently. That's been true for months. And almost all of that coverage has been about the scandals, the backlash, the racism, the bigotry, and the campaign struggles.
The polarized media landscape allows us to retreat into a cocoon of likeminded thinkers and talking points. We all have our own echo chambers where we can be told how awful President Obama is, if that's what we believe, or how Bernie Sanders is here to save the world, if that's what we believe. This system has allowed people of all stripes to put their fingers in their ears and dismiss any criticism of politicians on their side of the aisle as strictly and nakedly partisan. And this goes doubly for news coverage.
In order to satisfy such a polarized landscape, it's almost as if news outlets must fully admit their biases and lean into them with all their might. We all have that conservative friend who refuses to acknowledge stories done by The New York Times, and the progressive friend who thinks even ABC has an anti-liberal, pro-corporate bias. But there's something deeper at work here, something potentially more harmful to the interests of open discourse: liberal privilege.
You shuddered reading that, didn't you?
When Fox News puts troglodytes on television and calls it news, it's easy to sit in bemused judgement … at least until we see the ratings and notice Fox destroys MSNBC and CNN in every key demo and has for decades. Conservatives have, for years, charged the media with a liberal bias. Certainly no one would argue about the bent of outlets like MSNBC, Mother Jones and others, but the hope of a select few remained that was you could still rely on some places for straight news.
The implicit understanding for Democrats and Republicans alike was that outlets like The New York Times too had a bias, but because it was a print medium, the seams showed less. At least until it got to the point this summer where it had to defend itself, even from its own liberal readers, against charges of bias.The Times once printed an editorial from its public editor who not just admitted but bragged about its liberal bias.
But I'm not going to convince everyone the non-Fox News media has a liberal bias. It's neither necessary nor relevant to this discussion. So let's go about this in a different way: practically. When it comes to politics, the Republicans have struggled to gain a foothold in a changing American culture over the last decade or so. The demographic and voting data bears this out, but politics is cyclical and this comes after a half century span where no Democrat ever managed to replace an outgoing Democrat in the White House.
Things changed in favor of Democrats, but the system will evolve, and it will once again favor Republicans. It's the political circle of life. More to the point, prominent Republican politicians like Sarah Palin and Peter King can't seem to keep their feet out of the mouths, and it's become increasingly clear the Tea Party movement was nothing more than the not-so-vaguely (white) nationalist populism movement that spawned Donald Trump. Democratic partisans are used to news about bad Republicans because there have recently been some really loud, really bad ones.
Meanwhile, a brutal drone policy, struggling ACA, disastrous foreign policy, and overall ineffectiveness as an agenda-setter by President Obama has gone largely underreported. It's just a lot sexier to talk about that dumb thing the guy from Duck Dynasty said. That's how a latent bias builds up. Even if you're not into politics but happen to watch the news on a regular basis, you see a lot of Trump and people who talk like him.
Many aren't used to seeing this type of criticism of Democratic politicians unless they're also regular viewers of Sean Hannity. So when these once-friendly outlets start doing actual reporting on things like the Clinton e-mail scandal or pay-for-play access with the Clinton Foundation, it feels somehow unfair. When you're used to privilege, equality feels like oppression.
“Shouldn't we only be talking about that big, orange oaf?”
People seem to have forgotten that that's not how news operates. It's what drives seemingly intelligent people to create false equivalencies no one believes actually exist in the interest of driving a narrative.
No person with an IQ above a fruit fly’s is arguing that Clinton’s health issues are the same as Donald Trump’s … well, anything else. But at the same time, Clinton “forgetting” things while being investigated by the FBI is not the same as Trump “forgetting” things in a private lawsuit. The stakes are importantly different: namely, only one was Secretary of State during the time in question. That even good journalists failed to recognize that should be scary.
Although I’m afraid to gild the lily on this point, it’s worth mentioning that the death of print media also plays an enormous factor in the perception of coverage. It used to be you could pick up a newspaper, see the picture and the headline at the top of the fold and know that was the most important story of the day. With digital media, Twitter, and 24-hour cable news, where is the T1A? No, Trump University essentially being one giant scam isn’t as important as Hillary Clinton coughing at a rally, but both end up on Twitter. And both end up on talking head cable news.
Often, the most important topics don’t make for the best TV. We spend time talking about the craziest stories, the ones with the most potential to become sticky in our collective consciousness. “The media is biased” is the Democratic version of Trump’s “the election is rigged” in 2016. Even the Times, a news organization that long as held to a “he said, she said,” journalism whereby political statements were offered side by side to allow the reader to be the judge, has scrapped its model.
When Trump says something he knew to be false, it’s quite literally the media’s job to adjudicate the facts. Journalists have long shirked the responsibility of fully informing in favor of the appearance of remaining non-partisan. Facts should not be a partisan issue. Media companies can’t be so afraid to appear partisan that they’re unwilling to hold candidates accountable for the lies that they’re telling to appease some Platonic ideal of journalism as objective. Facts are objective. Present them. Refute anything that isn’t a fact, or at least present some context.
That dovetails with the other elephant in the room (pun intended): Trump himself. This is a business man so corrupt and a politician so inept that one scandal or another pops up daily. How can the media focus on just one of the myriad offensive things he’s said or shady business deals he’s done? By the time one is even half-developed, there’s something new to talk about. So we get a certain amount of this perceived false equivalency simply by virtue of pragmatics. The media can’t talk about any one thing Trump has done or said because there are so many. Ultimately news organizations have some responsibility to keep pressing and investigating stories, but once something has run its course in the public consciousness, they’re onto something new.
It’s up the audience members to draw their own conclusions about the implications. We have to trust people to understand the size of a story on their own. The critics are right to point out Donald Trump is potentially the most flawed candidate to run for president in a major party in anyone’s lifetime, but that’s not the point. When we head to the polls in November, there’s no “Not Trump,” option. They have to cast an active ballot for a different person and for most people – sorry Garry Johnson and Jill Stein – that’s going to be Hillary Clinton. In that case, it’s not just ethical, but a moral imperative that the media investigate her candidacy as well.
By virtue of covering both Clinton and Trump, the media ascribes no inherent equality to the value of each’s actions simply by virtue of stating either’s name. That a Trump story is immediately followed by a Hillary story, or vice versa, is importantly not the same as saying those two stories are equal in importance. That should be obvious. Instead, it’s become an issue of partisanship.
Trump gets covered incessantly for saying and doing awful things and his critics complain he gets too much attention. As soon as that attention shifts to their preferred candidate, the media is suddenly not focused on the right things. But you can’t have it both ways. It’s easy to feel like your candidate is having her feet held to the fire by the media when you’re used to playing patty cake. Trump’s ceaseless depravity has awoken the political media. Play time is over.