Donald Trump listens as Hillary Clinton answers a question from the audience during a debate in St. Louis in October. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

U.S. media organizations are locked into such a negative mind-set that they portrayed Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as equally pernicious and scurrilous pretenders to the presidency. That, at least, is the conclusion of a study by Thomas E. Patterson in the fourth of his series of studies on media coverage of the presidential campaign for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

“False equivalencies abound in today’s reporting,” writes Patterson. “When journalists can’t, or won’t, distinguish between allegations directed at the Trump Foundation and those directed at the Clinton Foundation, there’s something seriously amiss. And false equivalencies are developing on a grand scale as a result of relentlessly negative news. If everything and everyone is portrayed negatively, there’s a leveling effect that opens the door to charlatans.” This chart from the Harvard study puts things into perspective:


As the fine print relates, this equivalency hovers over the category of presidential “fitness for office” and includes themes such as “policy positions, personal qualities, leadership abilities [and] ethical standards.” Consider that the time period for these figures spanned from mid-August to the day before Election Day — which is to say, the weeks during which The Washington Post published the now-famous “Access Hollywood” tape that had Trump boasting about sexual assault, and the resulting flood of on-the-record allegations from women that he did just that. That the media somehow produced an equivalent amount of negative stories regarding Clinton would appear to cement its dedication to the proposition that they’re all bastards.

In an email to the Erik Wemple Blog, Patterson confirms that the “Access Hollywood” story was among the issues driving his 87 percent negative standing in the “fitness for office” category. For Clinton, here’s the full laundry list of “fitness” issues, as compiled by Patterson:

Personal taxes
Reputation
Foreign policy
Revenue, tax policy
Family
Hacking
Personality
Donations
Economic policy
International terrorism
Trade agreements
Relation to party
Leadership qualities
Personal qualities
Political platform
Relationship with donors
Scandals
Integrity/corruption
Investigations
Health
Email scandal

Those are arranged in ascending order. “The emails got the most attention of any of the subjects listed,” writes Patterson to this blog. At a Harvard event last week, Clinton campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri called the email stuff “the most grossly overrated, over-covered and most destructive story in all of presidential politics.”

High-level aides to both the Clinton and Trump campaigns became involved in a heated exchange Dec. 1, during a post-election forum sponsored by Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. (Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government)

The corresponding components for Trump are as follows (also in ascending order):

Gun laws
Investigations
Relationship with business
Reputation
Tax policy
Domestic security
Election/voter fraud
Trade agreements
Relationship with donors
Asylum/deportation
Integrity/corruption
International terrorism
Personal taxes
Scandals
Personality
Foreign policy
Personal wealth
Economic policy
Leadership qualities
Health
Rape/Sexual Abuse
Discrimination against women
Political platform
Personal qualities
Racism
Immigration

False equivalency is tough to prove in the macro, in large part because the media is such a sprawling and almost uncharacterizable beast. The Shorenstein Center has tried to bring a finite sanity to the chore by limiting its examination to the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and USA Today and just the primary newscasts: ABC’s “World News Tonight,” “CBS Evening News,” CNN’s “The Situation Room,” Fox News’s “Special Report” and “NBC Nightly News.” On the mirco level, this blog highlighted a couple of the campaign’s more egregious false-equivalency fouls, such as the time that two top journalists with the White House Correspondents’ Association wrote a USA Today op-ed under the headline, “Trump, Clinton both threaten free press.” A better version would have said, “Trump poses mortal threat to First Amendment, Clinton prone to secrecy.”

On the May evening when the general-election matchup became clear, NBC News’s Chuck Todd riffed that Clinton would follow Trump to the “low road.” Yet no one captured the mood of false equivalency more tightly than ABC News chief political analyst Matthew Dowd: “Either you care both about Trump being sexual predator & Clinton emails, or u care about neither. But don’t talk about one without the other,” he wrote in a Nov. 1 tweet.

That sentiment captures the Patterson chart in one sour capsule.

As we’ve noted in this space, media organizations did tremendous work in investigating Trump’s background, from his treatment of women to his business dealings to his constant lying to his attacks on free expression to his highly inflated charitable record and on and on. According to Patterson, however, very little of that content stuck in the final stages of the campaign:

Clinton’s controversies got more attention than Trump’s (19 percent versus 15 percent) and were more focused. Trump wallowed in a cascade of separate controversies. Clinton’s badgering had a laser-like focus. She was alleged to be scandal-prone. Clinton’s alleged scandals accounted for 16 percent of her coverage—four times the amount of press attention paid to Trump’s treatment of women and sixteen times the amount of news coverage given to Clinton’s most heavily covered policy position.

And in a campaign that featured frequent complaints from Trump that the system is “rigged,” perhaps the media should look at its own tilted playing ground. As the Patterson report makes clear, outlets all too often allowed Trump — with his repetitive rallies and his nonstop Twitter account — to step in and provide the frame of reference for Hillary Clinton. From the report:

There wasn’t much in Clinton’s general election news coverage that worked in her favor….Stories about her personal traits portrayed her as overly cautious and guarded and ran 3-to-1 negative. News reports on her policy positions trended negative by a ratio of 4-to-1. Everything from her position on health care to her position on trade was criticized, often in the form of an attack by Trump or another opponent. Her record of public service, which conceivably should have been a source of positive press, turned out differently. News reports on that topic were 62 percent negative to 38 percent positive, with Trump having a larger voice than she did in defining the meaning of her career. He was widely quoted as saying, “She’s been there 30 years and has nothing to show for it.”

The system is rigged, all right — in favor of loudmouths.