Working the Refs

Over the past few weeks, the role of the media in the presidential race has been increasingly debated. Supporters of Hillary Clinton are upset with the way her campaign has been covered, starting with the reporting on the Clinton Foundation and carrying over into stories about her “basket of deplorables” comment and health issues. Clinton’s supporters feel that she is unfairly being held to a higher standard, and that the press is motivated by a need to create false balance, to overstate Clinton’s negatives while downplaying Trump’s. Democratic consternation is so great that even safe spaces like the New York Times and NPR are being attacked.

Part of my motivation in writing this is to get down some general thoughts on the issue of media bias. I find debates over media bias to be simultaneously important and tedious. Important, because the press has tremendous power to present, withhold, and frame information for the public. Tedious, because even though the biases of the press are fairly obvious and constant, we have the same screaming matches around every controversy and campaign about which side is being mistreated by the press.

The press has a mixture of political and professional biases. Politically, the press is generally socially liberal and economically moderate, as one would expect from a group of upper middle class urbanites (well-argued from both sides of the political spectrum here and here). Professionally, the press has a bias towards simple narratives that are easy to report and easy to consume, to stories that interest the public over stories of public importance, towards controversy and close races, and towards a false balance that won’t offend any entire class of consumers. Political reporters have a bias towards process over policy. Mixing the political and the professional, the press has a bias towards the status quo — influential reporters have good, well-paying jobs, work for people with even better-paying jobs, and rely on powerful people as sources and often as friends. They have little incentive to report stories that would rile up the masses and suggest that the whole political and economic system needs to be overhauled. Reporting isolated incidents of corruption wins Pulitzers; reporting systemic, overriding corruption risks upsetting the apple cart.

With all those factors at play, and just basic human fallibility, it’s highly unlikely that the press will ever get any story “right.”

With that background, here are a few possible premises, narrowing down from about candidates broadly to about Hillary Clinton specifically.

(1) Every major presidential candidate has been intensely scrutinized by the press and attacked by their opponents;

(2) Supporters of every major presidential candidate have felt that their candidate was mistreated by the press — by pushing unfair narratives, by failing to accurately report on the opponent’s flaws, and by failing to sufficiently rebut the opponent’s claims;

(3) All of us have been fed from birth various stereotypes about men and women, and sexism — both conscious and subconscious — impacts how news is reported and consumed;

(4) From the moment Hillary and Bill Clinton emerged on the national stage, they have been subjected to a continuous and coordinated smear campaign by their political rivals. This smear campaign has led to the press spending a large amount of time investigating potential malfeasance by the Hillary Clinton, damaging the public’s trust of Clinton and Clinton’s relationship with the press;

(5) Hillary Clinton is an ordinary politician, motivated by a mixture of self-interest and public interest, and has been enmeshed within the power structure for so long that she has lost sight of the line between the public interest and the interests of the ruling class;

(6) Hillary Clinton is a uniquely gifted leader, combining compassion for the disadvantaged with the political skill and wisdom necessary to build a more just world; and/or

(7) Hillary Clinton is a villain, motivated only by increasing her and her family’s power and influence by any means necessary.

Looking at these premises, the first thing to note is that it is possible for all of them to be true, to some degree, at the same time. I find the first four to be undeniable; of the last three, I would say (5) is true, (6) is partially true, and (7) has at best a glimmer of truth in Clinton’s darker moments.

The second thing to note is how where one stands on premises (5)-(7) impacts whether one sees the coverage of any particular Clinton story as being driven by (1) and (2) or by (3) and (4). The more you see Hillary Clinton as a typically or uniquely corrupt politician, then criticisms that she’s cold and calculating seem of a piece with Al Gore being attacked as wooden, or Michael Dukakis as cold, or Ted Cruz as conniving. The more you see Clinton as a uniquely gifted and upstanding leader, the more such attacks seem motivated solely by sexism and partisanship.

Put it all together — the various ways of viewing Hillary Clinton and the various reasons why the press will never report any story totally fairly and accurately — and you have lots of battlefields with lots of shields and swords lying about. Unfair criticism can be wielded to deflect fair criticism, and fair criticism bolstered in support of conspiratorial nonsense. Blatant sexism (and more subtle sexism) provides cover for spurious accusations of sexism. Clinton defenders can (justifiably) wonder why the Clinton Foundation is getting more scrutiny than the con job that is the Trump Foundation. Clinton critics from the left can (justifiably) argue that Clinton’s role in the coup in Honduras is more significant than either foundation, yet got almost no coverage in the campaign. Partisans on the right can (justifiably) speculate as to how similar stories involving a non-Trump Republican would be reported.

(These examples may be bringing the phrase “false equivalence” to mind. False equivalence is certainly a real problem in journalism and in political debate, but that phrase too can be used as both a shield and sword. While there are very few 50/50, both sides are equally right, propositions in politics, the charge of “false equivalence” can also be used to bat away suggestions that a proposition is actually 70/30 instead of 100/0.)

While something similar to the above could be written about any candidate for president, it is much more complicated with Clinton than with other candidates. Obviously, the sexism is unique to Clinton among major party presidential candidates. Added to that, while one can debate whether Clinton is better or worse than your average politician, it’s hard to dispute that she is “more” than any other politician. In her 24 years in the public eye — corresponding with the rise of 24-hour cable news, talk radio, the internet, and SuperPACs — she’s made more friends and more enemies, had more words of praise and more words of condemnation written about her, raised more money and been subjected to more scrutiny than anyone in American history. Only George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama would even come close. All the opportunistic spin and obfuscation that can make our politics an inscrutable morass is there tenfold where Hillary Clinton is involved, both for and against.

Now, another complicating factor: debates about media bias almost never happen in a vacuum. The question is almost never “Is X being covered fairly?” but rather “Is X being covered fairly relative to Y?” And so, as mentioned, the major complaint of Clinton supporters is not merely that the press is treating Clinton unfairly, but that it is treating Clinton unfairly relative to Donald Trump. Why such an intense search for instances of Clinton paying back donors to the Clinton Foundation and relatively little attention paid to Trump buying off an attorney general who was considering prosecuting his Trump University scam? Why is Clinton pressed repeatedly on her e-mails while Trump is allowed to skate on bald-faced lies?

Is there a double standard in the press’s coverage of Trump versus Clinton? Of course, but how could not be? Whatever her flaws, Hillary Clinton is a serious person with detailed ideas about how the United States should be governed. Donald Trump is a reality TV con man whose interest in government and public policy extends only as far as getting himself the most attention and adulation (whatever damage he causes for the rest of us). Whatever questions you ask him, however you cover him, you’re going to get the same bullshit and non sequitur.

Treating Trump as spectacle and Clinton as substance may not be fair, but it is accurate. In a way, Clinton partisans play into the normalization of Trump by tying defenses of Clinton to attacks on Trump. By complaining that Trump’s behavior should be the measuring stick by which Clinton’s should be judged, they are implying that Trump is the standard Clinton must clear to establish herself as qualified to be president. Trump is so patently unqualified to be president that, even though he is her only viable opponent, being better than Trump should not be a high enough standard for Clinton.

So where does this leave us? The press is an enormously powerful institution with an important role in a democracy, and it must be held to account. It’s biases and flaws need to be openly discussed, so that the news can be viewed through the appropriate lenses and taken with the appropriate grains of salt. At the same time, complaints about the bias of the media are often just another way of saying “some people in this democratic nation of 300 million people have different opinions and priorities than I do.” (I agree with John Podhoretz that much of the Democratic angst about the press is an inability to believe that Donald Trump could be competitive with Hillary Clinton on a level playing field.) Presidential campaigns are the time to hash out those differences of opinion, but filtering everything through the lens of media bias is a cheat, a way of trying to turn the subjective into the objective, reducing differences of values to differences in access to information.

My view is that, for all its imperfections, the press has done a pretty good job of framing this election as a choice between a serious politician and a reality TV con man. The reasons why Trump remains competitive — both the power of his appeal to prejudice and the failures and elitism of neoliberal governance — are far beyond the scope of this essay. If the American people would rather elect the reality TV con man, it won’t be the press’s fault.