Over the past three weeks, influential liberals have placed the issue of proportionality in political journalism at the center of a national debate. Joined by many conservatives, these liberals note that Donald Trump lies brazenly; lacks any identifiable grasp on the public policies he’ll be tasked with executing; and has been admonished by the Republican House speaker, among others, for racism. So why, they ask, aren’t these facts persistently dominating news coverage of this election? How can such dangerous matters be bumped beneath the fold of the front page, or to b- and c-block discussions on TV, by comparably minor developments like Hillary Clinton’s factually accurate observation that many Trump supporters are deplorable?
Journalists who are the targets of this criticism have responded with reflexive defensiveness of the work they’ve done, citing their real and solemn duty to scrutinize all major party presidential candidates, without fear or favor, but have largely ignored the central critique: Is it possible that political journalists will pave the way to a Trump presidency by underplaying the risks he poses to American democracy?
In a column last weekend titled “The Truth of ‘False Balance,’” New York Times public editor Liz Spayd dismissed out of hand the idea that the coverage decisions news outlets make can and should be influenced by judgments about what’s most important for news consumers to know.
“There are plenty of times when the media does a sloppy job of making coverage decisions,” she wrote. “It overplays stories, reaches unfounded conclusions and publishes pieces that ought to be killed. But these calls should be based on the individual merits of the stories, not a guiding philosophy that encourages value judgments.”
Instead, Spayd echoed the defensiveness of her colleagues, attributing the liberal backlash to partisanship:
I can’t help wondering about the ideological motives of those crying false balance, given that they are using the argument mostly in support of liberal causes and candidates. CNN’s Brian Stelter focused his show, ‘Reliable Sources,’ on this subject last weekend. He asked a guest, Jacob Weisberg of Slate magazine, to frame the idea of false balance. Weisberg used an analogy, saying journalists are accustomed to covering candidates who may be apples and oranges, but at least are still both fruits. In Trump, he said, we have not fruit but rancid meat. That sounds like a partisan’s explanation passed off as a factual judgment.
It’s natural for people in Spayd’s position to be skeptical of ref-working by people who have ideological interests in the outcome of the election. But why are the high-minded concerns of liberal intellectuals given the shortest shrift?
It could be that reporters are disciples of a religion of false balance, or that news organizations are filled with intellectually myopic people. It could be that Trump is such an underdog that reporters feel obligated, honorably, to scrutinize Clinton more aggressively than Trump; or that Clinton disclosures have tended to dribble out slowly and strategically over the time, whereas Trump disclosures have leaked like water from a stone because he refuses to release any information about himself. Or it could be a mix of these factors, none of which is mutually exclusive. All of them likely contribute to the phenomenon.
But I think there’s a more economical way to explain why the media’s behavior this election is so troubling to liberal intellectuals, and it has less to do with partisan liberal biases or the media’s powers of judgment than with basic anthropological facts about the press itself.
The press is not a pro-democracy trade, it is a pro-media trade. By and large, it doesn’t act as a guardian of civic norms and liberal institutions—except when press freedoms and access itself are at stake. Much like an advocacy group or lobbying firm will reserve value judgments for issues that directly touch upon the things they’re invested in, reporters and media organizations are far more concerned with things like transparency, the treatment of reporters, and first-in-line access to information of public interest, than they are with other forms of democratic accountability.
That’s not a value set that’s well calibrated to gauging Trump’s unmatched, omnidirectional assault on our civil life. Trump can do and say outrageous things all the time, and those things get covered in a familiar “did he really say that?” fashion, but his individual controversies don’t usually get sustained negative coverage unless he is specifically undermining press freedom in some clear and simple way.
Even then, though, the press has no language for explicating which affronts to press freedom are more urgent and dangerous than others. All such affronts are generally lumped together in a way that makes it unclear whether the media thinks it’s worse that Trump blacklists outlets and wants to sue journalists into penury or that Clinton doesn’t like holding press conferences.
The result is the evident skewing of editorial judgment we see in favor of stories where media interests are most at stake: where Clinton gets ceaseless scrutiny for conducting public business on a private email server; Trump gets sustained negative coverage for several weeks when his campaign manager allegedly batters a reporter; where Clinton appears to faint, but the story becomes about when it was appropriate for her to disclose her pneumonia diagnosis; where because of her illness, she and Trump will both be hounded about their medical records, and Trump will be further hounded for his tax returns—but where bombshell stories about the ways Trump used other people’s charity dollars for personal enrichment have a hard time breaking through.
News outlets are less alarmed by the idea that Trump might run the government to boost his company’s bottom line, or that he might shred other constitutional rights, because those concerns don’t place press freedoms squarely in crosshairs. Controversies like his proposal to ban Muslim travel into the U.S., create a deportation force to expel millions of immigrants, and build a wall along the southern border are covered less as affronts to American values than as gauche ideas that might harm his poll numbers with minorities. Trump’s most damaging scandal may have been his two-week political fight with the Khan family, but even there, the fact that Trump attacked the Khans’ religious faith was of secondary interest to questions like whether attacking a Gold Star family of immigrants would offend veterans and non-whites who might otherwise have voted for him.
Against that backdrop, it’s no surprise that when liberal intellectuals argue the press’ coverage of Trump and Clinton is out of whack, in ways that imperil the democracy itself, members of the media don’t see a world-historical blindspot that must be urgently corrected. They see an attack on the trade itself—and reflexively rush to protect it.