I have complained about media responsibility in normalizing the ugliness, patent dishonesty, and general vileness of Donald Trump. Unquestioningly repeating outright lies stated by a candidate is not journalism. Nor is harping on the small to moderate problems of one candidate while daily ignoring gigantic problems with their opponent, yet that is what we are seeing in the Trump-Clinton contest. Donald Trump is a narcissistic, pathological liar, yet thanks to a feckless media - and not just Fox News - many see him as more truthful than Clinton. Something is seriously wrong with this situation. A thoughtful column in the New York Times looks at the media's culpability. Here are highlights:
A CNN/ORC poll this month found that by a margin of 15 percentage points, voters thought Donald Trump was “more honest and trustworthy” than Hillary Clinton. Let’s be frank: This public perception is completely at odds with all evidence.
On the PolitiFact website, 13 percent of Clinton’s statements that were checked were rated “false” or “pants on fire,” compared with 53 percent of Trump’s. Conversely, half of Clinton’s are rated “true” or “mostly true” compared to 15 percent of Trump statements.
Clearly, Clinton shades the truth — yet there’s no comparison with Trump.
I’m not sure that journalism bears responsibility, but this does raise the thorny issue of false equivalence, which has been hotly debated among journalists this campaign. Here’s the question: Is it journalistic malpractice to quote each side and leave it to readers to reach their own conclusions, even if one side seems to fabricate facts or make ludicrous comments?
President Obama weighed in this week, saying that “we can’t afford to act as if there’s some equivalence here.”
I think we can do better at signaling that one side is a clown.
There are crackpots who believe that the earth is flat, and they don’t deserve to be quoted without explaining that this is an, er, outlying view, and the same goes for a crackpot who has argued that climate change is a Chinese-made hoax, who has called for barring Muslims and who has said that he will build a border wall and that Mexico will pay for it.
We owe it to our readers to signal when we’re writing about a crackpot. Even if he’s a presidential candidate. No, especially when he’s a presidential candidate.
Yes, Clinton has been disingenuous and legalistic in her explanations of emails. Meanwhile, Trump is a mythomaniac who appears to have systematically cheated customers of Trump University.
Then there’s the question of foundations. Yes, Clinton created conflicts of interest with the family foundation and didn’t fully disclose donors as promised. But the Trump Foundation flat out broke the law by making a political contribution. It’s also worth avoiding moral equivalence about the work of the two foundations: The Clinton Foundation saves lives around the world from AIDS and malnutrition, while the Trump Foundation used its resources to buy — yes! — a large painting of Trump, as a gift for Trump (that may violate I.R.S. rules as well).
I wonder if journalistic efforts at fairness don’t risk normalizing Trump, without fully acknowledging what an abnormal candidate he is. Historically we in the news media have sometimes fallen into the traps of glib narratives or false equivalencies, and we should try hard to ensure that doesn’t happen again.
We should be guard dogs, not lap dogs, and when the public sees Trump as more honest than Clinton, something has gone wrong.
For my part, I’ve never met a national politician as ill informed, as deceptive, as evasive and as vacuous as Trump. He’s not normal. And somehow that is what our barks need to convey.