Despite assurances in the Times, false equivalencies still dog campaign coverage

The New York Times’ public editor has considered the complaints about false equivalency in coverage of this year’s presidential campaign — and assured us it is not a problem.

Describing reader concerns, Liz Spayd writes, “The Times, they say, is too harsh on Clinton, given the dangers of her opponent.”

This artfully allows her to suggest that the criticism is really about taking sides — and Times reporters can’t do that, of course.

But, despite the assurances of the nation’s best newspaper, a form of false equivalency still dogs campaign coverage.


Outside of a couple of constitutional niceties, the only qualification for president is the ability to persuade enough people to vote for you. The campaign process itself is intended to qualify the candidates.

Till now, experience in governance and politics has been the price of admission.

But — like so many other things in the digital age — the barrier to entry now is lower. If you can manipulate the levers of fame and gain access to a broad national audience, you have the opportunity to make the very seductive case that you can run this country better than the people we have in charge now.

Enter Donald Trump.

By traditional measures, Donald Trump is not qualified to be president. He has no background in government. He has demonstrated no particular grasp or interest in the details of governance. He has well-formed views on few public policy issues of importance.

Rather, the premise of the Trump candidacy — and by extension, the GOP — is that the political system has failed badly enough and is so devoid of credibility that the country should elect someone from outside that system: someone with no concern for its niceties, nuances or complexities — a honey badger, as it were.

Trump himself said it best in his convention speech: “I alone can fix it.” And it appears a lot of Americans are buying into that.

Faced with this extraordinary candidacy, the press has deployed its depressingly ordinary coverage yardsticks.

A case in point: candidate positions on the issues.

The evidence of Trump’s support for the invasion of Iraq, duly uncovered by the press and denied by him, consists of, “Yeah, I guess so,” in a 2002 interview with Howard Stern.

I wonder if we really ought to consider that the equivalent of a U.S. senator actually voting on whether to go to war, with all of its ramifications. And I wonder if Trump instead had said, “I don’t know, I guess not,” that would validate his current rhetoric on the issue.

OK, I don’t wonder: It’s not the same at all. It’s — dare I say it? — a kind of false equivalency.

Trump’s “I guess so” — not an option available to Hillary Clinton at the time of her vote — was the barely considered view of someone whose view was of no consequence. Press insistence on pinning Trump down on this issue or that is silly. It’s pretending those positions matter to his candidacy. With one or two obvious exceptions, they don’t.

“Positions” on issues are the province of politicians. They are honed. They come with complications and commitments — the baggage of political life — and they are rightly scrutinized when they change.

Trump carries none of that baggage. Hasn’t been there, hasn’t done that.

Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is the point of this election.

And the original sin of campaign coverage this year has been ducking that fact, and instead comparing the candidates using, yes, false equivalencies.

This appeared originally as the column One Dog Barking on