Trump and the Doctrine of False Equivalence

Trump Redefines Role of Election Observers

In an editorial published on Sept. 25, The New York Times analyzed the reasons Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump should not assume the Oval Office. Specially, the Times declared that Mr. Trump, a “man who dwells in bigotry, bluster, and false promises,” lacks the temperament to be president. Despite its strongly worded condemnation of Mr. Trump, the Times and other media outlets have fallen victim to what political scientist Norman Ornstein dubs the standard of “false equivalence.” Throughout this campaign, journalists have struggled to maintain objectivity when covering Mr. Trump. To avoid the appearance of partisanship, the media has portrayed Democratic nominee Clinton’s missteps as equal in degree to Trump’s provocations. Journalists cover Trump as entertainment; reporting is meant to garner quantity of viewership as opposed to quality of analysis. As a result, voters in this election cycle have witnessed absurd coverage of Secretary Clinton, in the name of even-handedness, that reduces the presidency to a cult of celebrity.

The Brookings Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, warned in June that “the banality, false equivalence, and amorality of the daily coverage of the [Trump] campaign” has normalized Mr. Trump’s ascent. False equivalence became the standard of political reporting even before the candidates secured the nominations of their respective parties. In March, after Mr. Trump had secured primary victories in  Florida, North Carolina, Missouri and Illinois, the Times ran an article entitled, “2 Front-Runners, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Find Words Can Be Their Weapons.” Readers learned that Mr. Trump frequently used words like “dog” and “fat pig” to refer to women, and that this misogynistic vocabulary has contributed to his high disapproval ratings among women. The “weapons” that Secretary Clinton employed during her primary cycle were less clear. The Times merely noted that, in a then recent speech, Secretary Clinton admitted her support for sustainable, clean-energy jobs would “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” According to the Times, the bluntness of both Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump has isolated key voting demographics. To prove the symmetry of their comparison, the Times quoted the spokesman of an anti-Clinton super PAC, who felt Secretary Clinton demonstrates a “brazen disregard for the men and women who help power America.” Politicians should view coverage of this election as a dangerous precedent. To journalists, defending a policy proposal unpopular with certain demographics is akin to impugning their character.

Perhaps more disturbing than misleading comparisons between Clinton and Trump is the growing prominence of news stories rooted in yellow journalism. Norman Ornstein, in a post to Media Matters, writes, “the coverage of Clinton has been stupid—an obsessive focus on press conferences, on the Clinton Foundation…” Indeed, in August, the AP released an investigative report chronicling the allegedly unethical ways in which the interests of the Clinton Foundation had clouded Secretary Clinton’s judgment during her tenure at the State Department. The AP reported, “more than half of the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was Secretary of State gave money — either personally or through companies or groups — to the Clinton Foundation.” If one considers the many military personnel, as well as foreign and domestic government officials with whom Secretary Clinton met daily, the percentage of donor-associates would not reach the 50 percent threshold. The AP, however, neglected to clarify this fact. By exaggerating Secretary Clinton’s association with the Foundation, the AP channels Mr. Trump’s perchance for a sound bite scandal.

Mr. Trump’s ascent into politics has steered journalists from investigating policy proposals and issues of national importance, to toward covering the candidates as gossip. On October 2, The Atlantic released an article entitled, “The Many Scandals of Trump: A Cheat Sheet.” Although the article covers Trump’s behavior, which has clear policy implications should he become president, the title is meant to grab one eager for a juicy story rather than prep readers to evaluate the presidential race. In the spirit of evenhandedness, Secretary Clinton has been the subject of a number of news stories lacking any relevance to voters. Following Secretary Clinton’s abrupt exit from a ceremony at the September 11 Memorial Museum, the Times issued an article that explained the symptoms of pneumonia and that looked like something copied and pasted from WebMD. The article, emphasizing that “older adults are…one group that is likely to have complications in recovery,” served no purpose other than to make Secretary Clinton appear less presidential.

The Times’ own staff laments the paper’s coverage. Paul Krugman, an op-ed columnist, writes that Secretary Clinton has encountered a barrage of adversarial coverage treating “relatively minor missteps as major scandals.” All candidates have flaws and weaknesses, but current reportage fails to accurately reflect the weaknesses of Secretary Clinton. Journalist must take a critical look at their reporting, renounce “false balance” doctrine and report only on substantive issues impacting a candidate’s qualifications for office.•