Candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump stand on stage during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis in October 2016. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)
Media critic

So long as President Trump continues disgracing the Oval Office, thoughtful people will probe their own role in helping him get there.

Such appeared to be the motivation behind a mea culpa issued by CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin on comedian Larry Wilmore’s “Black on the Air” podcast. In a discussion of presidential politics, Wilmore argued that Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016, was the victim of a “coordinated attack” coming from Republicans. “Benghazi was … the expression of that attack. In fact, what’s his name, was it [former Rep. Jason] Chaffetz who actually kind of agreed that that’s what they were doing, was weakening her as a candidate.” (Wilmore may have been referring to Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who said in 2015, “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.”)

No question about the attack on Clinton, responded Toobin, citing “all that bogus stuff about the Clinton Foundation” — perhaps a reference to the Uranium One story or even to the pre-election reporting of Bret Baier — later withdrawn — that there would be an indictment relating to the foundation.

“And I hold myself somewhat responsible for that,” continued Toobin, a steady presence on CNN since 2002. “I think there was a lot of false equivalence in the 2016 campaign. That every time we said something, pointed out something about Donald Trump — whether it was his business interests, or grab ’em by the p–––y, we felt like, ‘Oh, we gotta, like, talk about — we gotta say something bad about Hillary.’ And I think it led to a sense of false equivalence that was misleading, and I regret my role in doing that.”

Those comments drive at one of the great media brain-busters of all time. On the one hand, media organizations in the run-up to November 2016 exposed and covered the hard-to-count scandals and outrages that Trump had generated over decades as a self-absorbed real estate mogul: the thousands of lawsuits, the mistreatment of women, the ambient lies, the racism, the stiffing of contractors, Trump University, the false promises of charity and much, much more. On the other hand, those same media organizations pounded away at Hillary Clinton’s email story. And many of them — CNN prominently included — gave Trump generous helpings of airtime for the rallies early in his campaign.

A study by Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy found that in the campaign’s final months, the media’s aggregate coverage performed pretty much as Toobin described to Wilmore. “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,” wrote Thomas Patterson in the Shorenstein study.

Whatever his regrets about campaign coverage, Toobin has been anything but soft on President Trump. Just after the abrupt firing of FBI Director James B. Comey in May 2017, Toobin appeared on CNN’s air to declare, among other things, that it was a “grotesque abuse of power by the president of the United States. This is the kind of thing that goes on in non-democracies.”

Wilmore told Toobin, “Well, America says, ‘Apology accepted.’”

Read more by Erik Wemple:

President Trump and Nikki Haley: Michael Wolff’s masterpiece of multimedia sleaze

Sean Hannity’s finest hour

CNN reinstates Ryan Lizza

Bill Kristol on Fox News host Tucker Carlson: ‘Close now to racism’

James O’Keefe says he never ‘intended to plant a fake story’ in The Washington Post