On NBC News the other night, anchorman Lester Holt reported that Donald Trump was pivoting to a more presidential image. In the measured tones that we commonly associate with “objectivity,” Holt said: “Trump’s comments appear to signal a more moderate shift …”
When I heard that, I sighed to myself, “Right on schedule. The normalization of Trump has begun.”
On MSNBC the other night, Chuck Todd equated Trump and Hillary Clinton, raising him up by lowering her down, bowing to the journalistic ritual of “balance.” Todd said: “Are we really going to be here for six straight months of the two most unpopular people running for president, probably going down a low road led by Trump, Clinton probably feeling doing the same thing, and it’s sort of this race to the bottom?”
When I heard that, I sighed to myself again. Just as I have sighed whenever Trump has stated, in debates and in press interviews, that he strongly opposed the Iraq war before it began — a blatant lie that has typically gone unchallenged, despite the dearth of evidence that he ever opposed the war before it began.
Trump routinely whips up fanboy hatred against the media, but in truth the media — or, more precisely, the “objective,” “balanced,” mainstream media — is potentially his best friend for the next six months. Under the longstanding rules of the game, newspaper and broadcast reporters are barred from stating what is incontrovertibly accurate about this historically asymmetric matchup:
That one candidate, regardless of how anyone might feel about her policies, has the demonstrable experience and qualifications to run the world’s pre-eminent superpower; and that the other candidate, by dint of his temperament, his zero public service experience, and his racism, xenophobia, and misogyny, is manifestly unfit.
Everything in that paragraph is factually incontestable. But most of the reporters, hewing to traditional standards, will pretend otherwise. They will be compelled to find “balance” — or, as we more accurately call it these days, “false equivalence.” And as evidenced by the episodes I quoted earlier, they’re already doing it. Their implicit mission is to place both candidates on the same plane. Their ’16 mission, in the brilliant words of one analyst, is “to make it Coca-Cola versus Pepsi, instead of Coca-Cola versus sewer water.”
Granted, it’s easy for me to say these things, because as a columnist I don’t have to play the false-equivalence game. I don’t have to artifically pump Trump full of the gravitas he doesn’t possess. I don’t have to depict his occasional low-key remarks as a perceived “moderate” “shift.” I don’t have to pay obeisance to the mantra of “on the one hand, on the other hand.”
But somehow it would be great if the “balance”-saddled press could keep in mind its most crucial mission: to hold these candidates fully accountable. If that means dogging Hillary about her email server, fine. If that means questioning her closely (assuming she permits it) about her flip flops on free trade and the minimum wage, go for it. But let’s not pretend that a flawed but seasoned centrist is on a par with a policy cipher who advocates the spread of nuclear weapons in Asia, who shrugs off violence at his rallies, who demeans women and minorities, and who’s currently the target of two fraud trials.
It would be great if the “balanced” press can keep that in mind, because the various autumn rituals will have the effect of equating them. He says something, she reacts. She says something, he reacts. It’s all very binary. And if he tries to sanitize his past by moving to the center, the “balanced” press will likely flush his track record of rhetorical hatred down the memory hole. If he’s not spewing anew, they can’t keep reporting the old stuff — lest they be accused of “bias.” And heck, the mere act of putting them on the same debate stage will raise him up at her expense.
Ironically, the best place to find truth, in the months ahead, may well be in the conservative press. Those folks don’t give a whit about false balance. They have no love for Clinton; heck, many of them have been hammering her for the past quarter century. But they see Trump for exactly who he is, and they’re saying it with devastating accuracy. Here’s conservative analyst Jay Cost:
“[Trump is] a racist, nativist demagogue with few ties to government, no experience in public office, no service in the armed forces, and little to no knowledge of anything involving governance, from policy to basic questions like, ‘What is the Supreme Court, and what does it do?’ If you conjured all the ignorance and arrogance and gave it human form, you would have Donald Trump, give or take a spray tan.”
If mainstream reporters eschew those self-evident truths, rest assured that Trump will play them for suckers. And voters will potentially pay the price.