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The Media Coverage of Hillary Clinton Is Out of Whack

The problem isn't the scrutiny of her emails or the Clinton Foundation, but treating such sins as comparable to Donald Trump's.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

By the end of last week, high-profile liberals and members of the political press corps were battling one another in a state of mutual incomprehension.

Many liberals believe that reporters, lead by standard-bearers at The New York Times, have fallen short recently of their institutional duty to accurately inform the public about the candidates and stakes of this election; reporters, along with many of Hillary Clinton’s progressive critics, have responded that liberals are attempting to shield her from their scrutinizing eyes for partisan reasons.

The participants in the dispute, which continues to this day, include some of the most influential members of the commentariat and the national news media.

In a representative salvo this Monday, Times columnist and Clinton supporter Paul Krugman implicitly criticized his own colleagues, arguing that Trump is “being graded on a curve.” 

If he manages to read from a TelePrompter without going off script, he’s being presidential. If he seems to suggest that he wouldn’t round up all 11 million undocumented immigrants right away, he’s moving into the mainstream. And many of his multiple scandals, like what appear to be clear payoffs to state attorneys general to back off investigating Trump University, get remarkably little attention. Meanwhile, we have the presumption that anything Hillary Clinton does must be corrupt, most spectacularly illustrated by the increasingly bizarre coverage of the Clinton Foundation.

In response, The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald characterized Krugman’s column as a work of campaign surrogacy rather than fair-minded opinion journalism. “The absolute last metric journalists should use for determining what to cover is the reaction of pundits who, like Krugman and plenty of others, are singularly devoted to the election of one of the candidates,” Greenwald argued. “[T]his emerging narrative that Clinton should not only enjoy the support of a virtually united elite class but also a scrutiny-free march into the White House is itself quite dangerous.”

Although Krugman and Greenwald have written columns that reside at cross-purposes with one another, they are both largely unobjectionable in their particulars. That’s because neither column captures what’s really going on. At bottom, this isn’t a debate over whether Clinton scrutiny is merited, or whether the press can cover her fairly, but over the judgment news outlets use when devoting resources to stories, and how they gauge competing stories in proportion to one another, in ways that shape public perception of candidates.

For liberals, last week was faith-shaking. Major outlets saturated the news environment with innuendo-heavy reports, creating an aroma of malfeasance around Clinton unsupported by their actual findings.

One Times piece claimed that recently released emails were “raising new questions about whether people tied to the Clinton Foundation received special access at the department”—even though Bill Clinton’s aides were appropriately denied diplomatic passports to accompany the former president on a hostage rescue mission to North Korea. A Washington Post headline declared, “Emails reveal how foundation donors got access to Clinton and her close aides at State Dept.,” but the story noted in the fifth paragraph that “in these and similar cases, the donors did not always get what they wanted, particularly when they sought anything more than a meeting.”

Over the same stretch, Trump benefitted from comparable indifference to his more fully documented ethical failures, and from what members of this self-same press corps describe as “rock-bottom expectations.” Viewed as a snapshot, it reminded Krugman and others of the blinkered reportage that helped George W. Bush become president 15 years ago.

Greenwald is correct that the media has adapted in meaningful ways, over the course of months, to treat Trump’s unprecedented campaign with the alarm it deserves—a development Krugman glossed over altogether. It may stand to reason that, with the press poised to pounce on every new, racist Trump utterance, any objection to scrutiny of Clinton is tantamount to a plea for leniency. “Even with the overwhelming bulk of the national media so openly aligned against Trump,” Greenwald adds, “with an endless array of investigative stories showing Trump to be an unscrupulous con artist and pathological liar—Clinton supporters seem to genuinely believe that the media is actually biased against their candidate.”

I don’t think it’s quite so clear cut. Many Clinton supporters do in fact believe that the relationship between Clinton and the political media is irremediably toxic. That belief factors into recent contretemps. But it does not explain them in their entirety. Krugman, for instance, was responding to the nature and volume of reporting on Clinton’s charitable foundation, and her four-year tenure at the State Department, on its own terms, yes, but also relative to the coverage of her opponent.

Like conservatives, liberals are rarely satisfied with the bent of campaign reporting. But this election, they view the onus on the press corps differently than they have in past elections: not just to report on the election in substantive ways, but to be consistently mindful of the asymmetry between the candidates. An ignorant, unethical, racist authoritarian who horrifies the political leaders of his party on the one hand; and a conventional, if flawed and unpopular politician on the other. The overarching expectation isn’t that the press should campaign for Clinton or help her escape scrutiny, but that they resist the urge to normalize Trump by portraying both candidates as inhabiting similar moral and ethical planes.

Krugman’s concern, and that of other liberals, isn’t to preemptively discredit all scrutiny of Clinton; as Greenwald acknowledges, Krugman specifically says it’s “right and appropriate” to investigate the Clinton Foundation. Rather, it is with how to present findings in ways that are both accurate and proportional when viewed in their partisan contexts.

We know reporters, editors and producers are able to make consistent judgements about proportionality, because they do it all the time in other arenas. Anyone who’s had the depressing experience of watching local TV news is familiar with how these judgments shape coverage: crime and politics take precedence over other local stories, followed by weather, sports, and finally some heartwarming tale from the community to round out the broadcast. This basic formula repeats itself night after night across the country, unless a natural disaster or a war or some other, larger event alters it, because for better or worse it reflects judgments driven by editorial values and the need to drive ratings. The key difference is that the subject matters of these stories aren’t locked in zero-sum political conflict with one another.  

What alarmed liberals last week is that, amid a feeding frenzy over newly released Clinton emails, the political press didn’t bother to apply any kind of analogous judgment. The same week that the Times and Post were “raising questions” about Clinton—questions with simple answers like “no evidence of corruption”—Trump, among other things, gave one of his most extreme immigration speeches yet, in which he detailed his plan for an “ideological certification” for immigrants. 

This is not unlike leading a newscast with a weather report, or a story about firefighters pulling a kitten out of a tree, in the midst of an ongoing national emergency. As Greenwald argues, journalists shouldn’t treat Clinton and Trump’s “various sins and transgressions as equivalent: nothing in the campaign compares to Trump’s deport-11-million-people or ban-all-Muslim policies, or his attacks on a judge for his Mexican ethnicity, etc.” But news consumers gauge the relative importance of stories through their framing, and the weight news outlets place on them. Last week, a casual news consumer wouldn’t have come away thinking Clinton’s and Trump’s sins were equivalent; they would have instead learned that Clinton’s sins were real and Trump’s trivial or non-existent. 

For instance: Only this week has the media rediscovered the fact that Trump donated $25,000 to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi days before she dropped her office’s investigation into Trump’s fraudulent real estate “university.” The Clinton Foundation story is ripe with quids, but the quos, such as they are, generally amount to the continuation of some status quo ante. Clinton met with the Crown Prince of Bahrain, a foundation donor—as had previous secretaries of state. Clinton oversaw arms sales to Gulf states, which have donated to the Clinton Foundation—consistent with U.S. policy that preceded her and continues to this day. In the case of Trump and Bondi, the appearance wasn’t of pay-to-play, but of bribery—the quid—and the quo is right there—Bondi dropped the investigation. The only thing we can’t prove without telepathy is the “pro.”  

The contrast underlines the proportionality problem exquisitely. Last week’s liberal outcry was less about circling wagons around Clinton per se than about preventing the disparity in coverage that prevailed last week from becoming a trend. 

There’s no reason to think the earlier dynamic, in which clear-eyed journalists saturated the media with combative Trump coverage, won’t return. Perhaps it will be in response to criticisms like Krugman’s; or perhaps it will simply reflect, per Greenwald, the base state of affairs in the media this election cycle. But the question of whether candidates are covered in proportion to one another is an important one, and not just in this election. The shared concern shouldn’t be that the media will report things that reflect poorly on Clinton, or that opinion writers will thumb the scales for their preferred candidates, but that in an effort to demonstrate balance, outlets will abandon judgment about the weightiness of the stories they tell, while behaving as if their collective judgment is infallible.