The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Top Beltway reporters promulgate absurd false equivalence on Clinton, Trump

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in March. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The campaign of Donald Trump has offended the notion of a free press in some of the following ways:

• Bashing outlet after outlet after outlet in his speeches, often using descriptors like “disgusting” and even calling one reporter a “sleaze” on national television;

Singling out camera operators at his rallies for failing to pan the crowd. “Look at the guy in the middle. Why aren’t you turning the camera? Terrible. So terrible. Look at him, he doesn’t turn the camera. He doesn’t turn the camera,” said Trump

• Promising to “open up” the country’s libel laws so as to make it easier to sue media organizations;

• Denying press credentials to various news organizations based on unfavorable coverage. They include the  The Post, Politico, the Daily Beast, Univision, Fusion, the Des Moines Register and the Huffington Post;

• Expressing frustration with the media for investigating his record of charitable donations;

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Suing a former campaign aide for violating a confidentiality agreement by speaking with the media;

• Hassling reporters for not staying in their designated pen at rallies;

• Boycotting a Fox News debate over vague concerns about one of its hosts;

Grabbing and pushing reporters;

• Hyping a bogus National Enquirer story that spun conspiracy theories about the father of Ted Cruz;

• Failing to condemn the anti-Semitic backlash against a reporter who’d written about Trump’s wife, Melania Trump.

The campaign of Hillary Clinton has offended the notion of a free press in some of the following ways:

• Herding media reps into a roped-off area at a New Hampshire event in 2015;

• Failing to make herself available to reporters on the campaign trail and in news-conference settings.

It’s a lopsided tally, no matter your politics.

Yet two highly respected Washington reporters — Carol Lee of the Wall Street Journal and Jeff Mason of Reuters (outgoing and incoming presidents of the White House Correspondents’ Association)  — see nothing but equivalence. They have co-authored a piece in USA Today under the headline “Trump, Clinton both threaten free press.” The gist emerges from these two paragraphs:

The public’s right to know is infringed if certain reporters are banned from a candidate’s events because the candidate doesn’t like a story they have written or broadcast, as Donald Trump has done.
Similarly, refusing to regularly answer questions from reporters in a press conference, as Hillary Clinton has, deprives the American people of hearing from their potential commander-in-chief in a format that is critical to ensuring he or she is accountable for policy positions and official acts.

That’s preposterous. Yes, Clinton has a deep-set distrust of the media; she’d rather talk to voters and pretend that campaign-trail reporters just don’t exist. “Look, she hates you. Period. That’s never going to change,” a Clinton veteran once told a Politico reporter. Her e-mail setup at the State Department attests to a policy of secrecy that defeats government transparency and a drains a critical feeding tube for investigative reporting — FOIA.  In other campaign cycles, her treatment of the media would stand out.

Not in 2016, however. Trump has shown not only a personal animus toward independent, investigative reporting, via bans on certain outlets and insults hurled at particular reporters; he has also vowed to somehow pursue a policy — loosening libel laws — that would cripple criticism of elected officials. If elected, he’d turn the White House into a staging area for non-disclosure agreements. And to give credit where it’s due, he has made himself extraordinarily available to certain media outlets.

On balance, though, Trump is a hazard to the media; Clinton runs from it. Veteran reporters like Lee and Mason are trained to draw such distinctions, yet they appear to believe that the concept of fairness requires a finding of equal culpability between the presidential contenders.