False equivalency: Trump and Clinton are both candidates, but they’re not the same

The he-said-she-said, two-sides-to-every-story approach is on full display in the 2016 presidential campaign.

It’s a staple of conventional campaign coverage — but the unconventional Trump campaign is exposing its shortcomings.

The result? Two very different candidates, often packaged in identical journalism boxes.

Last week’s winner of the false equivalency award, judging from the reaction of the Twittersphere, appears to be the Associated Press, with “Welcome to the Trump-Clinton conspiracy election”:

It’s a conspiracy: The 2016 campaign features one candidate who warned against the “vast right-wing conspiracy” and another who was a leader of the so-called “birther” movement.
Donald Trump and his surrogates hint at a mysterious “illness” afflicting rival Hillary Clinton. Pushing back, Clinton warns of murky ties between Trump and the Russian government, insinuating that her Republican opponent may be a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Those are not the same thing — and the bulk of the story gives that away.

The story actually devotes 12 of its 22 paragraphs to the rumor-mongering about Clinton’s health. It doesn’t get to the other hand until the final two paragraphs:

In the aftermath of hacked Democratic emails, Trump encouraged hackers from Russia to find Clinton’s missing State Department emails, an apparent invitation for a foreign power to intervene in a U.S. election.
Clinton’s team frequently points to Trump’s ties to Russia. Her campaign has a page on its website devoted to a Q-and-A about Trump’s “bizarre relationship” with Russia, fueling an unproven theory that Trump is a shill for Putin.

USA Today joined the party later in the week with a literal he-said-she-said story, “A comprehensive guide to all the insults Trump, Clinton exchanged this week”:

Over the past couple of days, Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a bigot and she responded by delivering an entire speech blasting him for his ties to white nationalists and racists … .

OK, maybe “called Hillary Clinton a bigot” and “delivering an entire speech blasting him for his ties to white nationalists and racists” are the same thing, but I don’t think so. And since much ink and many pixels have been devoted to Clinton’s speech as an important strategic gambit, I don’t think a lot of the political world does, either.

Well, except maybe Zeke Miller of Time magazine:

This Clinton speech is basically one big guilt-by-association attack. AKA politics as usual

Miller was referring, presumably, to Clinton’s discussion of Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon joining the Trump campaign. Among the deluge of replies on Twitter: “Then you don’t know what ‘guilt by association’ means.”

Critics have pushed back.

Ed Kilgore in New York magazine (“Media False Equivalence is Trump’s Friend in the Debate over Racism”) sharply criticized the Washington Post and Politico for their recent coverage of racial issues in the campaign.

NYU professor and media analyst Jay Rosen, among others, called out the AP (“I didn’t know conspiracy theories were as central to Clinton’s campaign as they are to Trump’s until the AP told me.”) and Time’s Miller (“Guilt by association? Breitbart guy is the chair of Trump’s campaign. That’s not ‘usual.’ You’re not making sense.”)

On-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand is among the hoariest of journalism conventions, and there is nothing new about the distortions it can create.

The distortions are simply more glaring in the 2016 campaign: We are awash in false equivalencies between two candidates about whom almost nothing is the same.

This appeared originally as the column One Dog Barking on CitizenCartwright.com.

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