Update October 10, 2018: USA TODAY published an op-ed from President Trump about healthcare that was full of lies.
It is normally hard not to feel bad for the men and women who have to cover the Trump presidency. Journalists have to struggle to adequately cover all of the seemingly daily scandals surrounding Trump, all while suffering through the harassment and misinformation that his administration has become synonymous with.
You would be forgiven if you found yourself lacking in sympathy for media outlets over the last few days, however. First, there was last month’s report from The New York Times that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had mulled wearing a wire to when speaking to Trump in an effort to obtain evidence to invoke the 25th amendment. This report was subsequently contradicted by other news sources, who claimed that Rosenstein had said this sarcastically.
Fast forward a week later, Axios put the public on high alert, setting off reports that Rosenstein was set to resign because of the NYT story, only to have other sources contradict this with reports that the White House was actually going to fire him, only to then have seemingly the entire press walk back their stories after Rosenstein emerged from a White House meeting with his job intact.
It seems the media has not yet learned how to treat an administration hell-bent on destroying them (not to mention democracy, human rights, civil decency as we know it, etc.) They have repeatedly published uncorroborated content sourced from a White House that is dedicated to misinforming the public, failed to provide the necessary context to many Trump stories, and have often been unable to call out the administration’s misinformation tactics as they happen. The past week was even worse, as journalists went from dawdling observers of Trump’s lunacy to active (if perhaps unwitting) participants in it.
This is not just a phenomenon during Trump’s presidency; it is part of the reason why we got Trump to begin with. Because before mainstream media was blundering through the Trump presidency, they were giving Trump free publicity while working to bring down his opponent, Hillary Clinton. In a race featuring an opponent who lied, harassed, and offended with every sentence, the media glommed onto anything Clinton said, did, or had done that would make her seem even a tiny bit as unpresidential as Trump. The double standard with which the media reported on Trump and Clinton certainly made an impact on the race down the stretch. While we have come a long way from that time, it is always useful to take a look at the mistakes of the past, so they do not continue to be repeated in the future.
A Look Back At The Infamous (and Probably Correct) Deplorables Comment
One major example of the media doublespeak came on September 9, 2016. During a speech at an LGBTQ fundraising event, Hillary Clinton made comments that would become somewhat synonymous with her campaign. Speaking about Trump supporters, she said:
“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables…They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic — Islamophobic — you name it. And unfortunately, there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully, they are not America.”
The “basket of deplorables” line would end up haunting Clinton for the rest of her ill-fated campaign. The GOP propaganda machine, with Fox News at the helm, took it and ran with it. They held it up as proof of Clinton’s “coastal elitism,” and her hatred of “real Americans.” For the Trump campaign, it was a boost in a race that had seemed Clinton’s to lose. At the second presidential debate a month later, Trump took no time in lambasting Clinton over the line, saying: “how can you unite a country if you’ve written off tens of millions of Americans?” (in retrospect, one of the few well-articulated jabs Trump was able to muster.) He used the line regularly at rallies thereafter to rile up his base. His supporters themselves even took to sporting the label as a fashion statement.
That Trump and the right-wing media responded this way was no surprise. What was more unexpected was how the non-propaganda arm of journalism went right along with them. Mainstream media source—from the “Failing New York Times” to the “Fake News CNN,” in Trump parlance—immediately sentenced Clinton of making the gravest of political mistakes: alienating potential voters. And they wasted no time doing it:
Fundraiser remarks are treacherous things. https://t.co/BF87ArNIwM
— David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) September 10, 2016
“Basket of deplorables” reminds me of “binders full of women.” Equally tone deaf statements divorced from reality. https://t.co/Nc1nPPAcUK
— Lis Smith (@Lis_Smith) September 10, 2016
Rebukes ranged from Clinton being “startlingly blunt” to “smacking of liberal elitism” (the price of the fundraising event was often mentioned as a citation to the latter.) NPR’s Domenico Montanaro said the comments “throw salt in the wound of the American cultural divide.” The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake one-upped him, suggesting Clinton’s comments were worse than Mitt Romney’s comments in 2012—calling 47 percent of the country welfare moochers—because at least he had the decency to say that behind closed doors. The Pulitzer for Both-Sideism, however, must go to the New York Times (surprised?) From NYT’s Amy Chozick:
“Mrs. Clinton’s remarks flipped, for a day at least, the familiar script of the 2016 campaign, in which Mr. Trump slights a large group of people and she quickly rebukes him.”
It is as if these people were writing in an alternate universe where Donald Trump wasn’t running for President. There are few other ways to explain how one could equate Clinton calling half of Trump’s supporters—you know, these people—bigots; with Trump calling Mexicans “rapists,” Muslims “terrorists,” ridiculing gold star families, and so on.
One justification was Clinton’s quantifying of the number of bigots in Trump’s base (though she even admits she was generalizing.) Again, from NPR’s Montanaro:
“The biggest problem in Clinton’s statement is that she said “half” of Trump supporters are racists, xenophobes and otherwise bigots. Half means equal or near-equal parts. There’s no data to support such a specific number.”
Breaking News: Many Trump Supporters Are Indeed Deplorable
…now there is! According to a recent Economist/YouGov poll that should surprise no one, about 47% of white Trump supporters would “definitely” or “probably” vote for a President who used the N-word. From The Economist’s G. Eliot Morris:
Wow: Our new poll with detailed questions about the N-word:
▪️47% (!) of white Trump voters say they would “definitely” or “probably” vote for a POTUS who has used the N-word
▪️37% admit to using the word
▪️Trump voters are 1.6x as likely to usehttps://t.co/VpGnf9rbXc
— G. Elliott Morris📈🤷♂️ (@gelliottmorris) August 22, 2018
So Clinton was 3 percent off in her self-described “gross generalization.” Most statisticians would kill to have their models be that accurate. It seems it was actually the MSM’s narrative of Clinton being an out of touch elitist that lacked the data to support it.
Clinton, meanwhile, was mostly correct in her assertion, and the ensuing two years since her speech have only proved her more right. As President, Trump has pushed for policies aimed at hurting minorities in one way or another, while defending those who support white supremacy. All the while, his base has hardly wavered in their support. The same poll finds that 93 percent of voters who voted for Trump in 2016 still approve of him as Commander in Chief.
Did the Russians Even Need To Fake The News?
The deplorables speech is just one example of how coverage of the Clinton campaign was excessively negative, to Trump’s gain. Several studies have shown that Clinton was covered more negatively than both Trump and Bernie Sanders. Crucially, Clinton received more negative coverage than Trump in the last two weeks of the election, right when the race started to drift away from her.
Was this sexism? Definitely. It was easier to see in the primaries than in the general election, (when she was going up against the “Grab ‘Em By the Pussy” guy.) But it was there, in the form of the haranguing she received for holding the same positions on issues as her male colleagues. For example, when her speech supporting the 1994 crime bill—in which she appears to refer to black youth as “super predators”—was dredged up, there was no mention of the fact that Bernie Sanders and a majority of the (mostly male) Congressional Black Caucus members were among the ones who voted for the same bill. She was similarly lambasted for being anti-gay marriage as recently as her 2008 campaign, the same one she lost to Barack Obama, whose emphasis on his Christianity probably put him more to the right on the issue at the time.
Every facet of Clinton’s 2016 campaign was subject to a thorough scrutinization, from her record, to her campaign donors, to her “email scandal” that never was. Her opponent was not afforded the same courtesy (had he been given it, Mueller may not have had to do so two years later.) Worse, media outlets treated the Trump campaign like a high schooler treats a vape pen: filling up on Trump’s hot air in the form of ratings, spewing it out to the unsuspecting public, paying for the experience (in form of free advertising to the Trump campaign), and paying no mind to the disease they were causing themselves and others.
Yes, there were the other, now-well-known, factors at play in Clinton’s demise- Comey’s investigation, Russian interference, gerrymandering, voter suppression, Clinton’s apparent hatred of the Great Lakes region, the underappreciation of coherent governance stemming from the US’ lack of proper civics education. But it is hard not to include media bias in with the lot. The deplorables speech, again, provides a prime example. Most news sources even failed to report on the other half of Clinton’s remarks about Trump supporters:
“But the “other” basket…that “other” basket of people are people who feel the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures; and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but — he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”
Such sentiments were echoed by many on the left after the election, most notably Bernie Sanders, who was lauded for this take so much so that it briefly made the bogus “Bernie would have won” argument a legitimate point of view outside of northeastern university drum circles. But because these comments did not fit into the narrative of “Clinton, the emotionless, New York City corporatist shill”, they weren’t deemed worthy of inclusion.
Oops, I Both-Sided Again.
This article was not written to extol the virtues of Hillary Clinton by piling on the MSM. It’s written because, two years on, news outlets have been slow to learn their lesson. Too many journalists thought their inability to predict Trump’s election meant that the right-wingers had a point, that they were just out of touch liberal cucks too obsessed with facts.
Thus began a years-long attempt to normalize Trump’s America. At its mildest, it involved filling news cycles with focus groups, interviews, and visits with people in “Trump’s America.” Journalists flocked to the flyover states in an attempt to figure out the culture and habits of Trump voters, not unlike anthropologists discovering a new tribe. Never mind that this took time away from discussion of real issues when it was needed most.
At its worst, the last year or so of Trump’s presidency gave us horrid dives into both-sideism. Among them was NYT’s infamous “Nazis, They’re Just Like Us” take, or the “The Alt-Right, the Hip New Kids on the Block” angle, en vogue pre-Charlottesville. This, coupled with the lamentable habit of allowing Trump surrogates to spew lies uninhibited, is the complete opposite of what journalists were trained to do.
To be fair, not all journalists have done this, and many that did are now coming around to doing their jobs. The alt-right fascination thankfully seems to have subsided. News reporters on TV and White House press rooms alike have begun to push back against the fallacy and doublespeak. Investigations by news outlets have pushed on without regard to what the Trump supporters that never read them anyway have to say. Even as this piece is written, examples abound of journalists doing the very thing they sought out to do: reporting the facts as they are
(CNN’s Chris Cuomo showing how to handle the Trump administration’s lying)
More needs to be done though, and the events of the past week show that clearly. This long into Trump’s presidency, the media should know better than to take anything Trump’s mouthpieces have to say at face value. This correspondent, for one, will not be satisfied until the likes of Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway are aired on tape delay only, with a flashing siren and fact check ticker going up every time they lie.
Will this make Trumpism die out? Probably not. But taking liars to task will reestablish three important aspects for both good journalism and a healthy democratic system: facts, truth, and transparency.
So what is the MSM to do now? In the era when truth was truth, newspapers issued retractions or statements to notify readers when they got a part of a story wrong. So that would be a good start. Given the trying times, journalism is going through, your correspondent has kindly provided one, free of charge:
In 2016, we wrongly lambasted Hillary Clinton for calling half of Trump supporters deplorables. It turns out; she was only about 3% off. This was just one of a series of false equivalencies we pushed to get better ratings which, at least in part, contributed to the election of Donald Trump.
For the last few days, we have thrown one of the most important investigations against a sitting President into disarray through shoddy reporting.
We have fucked up, and we apologize.
Yours for only a few dollars a month,
[Insert Trump-Hated Publication Here]