He’s the false-equivalency president.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, the national news media’s misguided sense of fairness helped equate the serious flaws of Hillary Clinton with the disqualifying evils of Donald Trump.
“But her emails . . .” goes the ironic line that aptly summarizes too much of the media’s coverage of the candidates. In short: Clinton’s misuse of a private email server was inflated to keep up with Trump’s racism, sexism and unbalanced narcissism — all in the name of seeming evenhanded.
In a devastating post-election report, Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center concluded that media treatment was rife with false equivalency: “On topics relating to the candidates’ fitness for office, Clinton and Trump’s coverage was virtually identical in terms of its negative tone.”
That was a factor — one of many — that helped to put Trump in the Oval Office.
Elected with the help of false equivalency, Trump is now creating some of his own.
In the aftermath of last weekend’s disaster in Charlottesville, he is being widely criticized for treating white supremacists and those who protest them as roughly equal.
His phrases are all too memorable. There were “some very fine people” on both sides, he said, backing up his initial condemnation of the violence “on many sides.”
Winston Churchill — a politician with a moral core — disparaged this idea for all time: “I decline utterly to be impartial as between the fire brigade and the fire.”
And Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino, told the New York Times that comparing the leftist protesters to the white supremacists is like “comparing a propeller plane to a C-130 transport.”
“Using the fact that some counterprotesters were, in fact, violent, creates a structural and moral false equivalency that is seriously undermining the legitimacy of this president,” he said.
With the issue of false equivalency front and center once again, a profound question arises for journalists: What does true fairness look like in covering this president?
We’re starting to see some answers.
CBS News on Tuesday night took the rare step of giving over its whole evening news broadcast to the aftermath of Charlottesville.
On CNN, Jake Tapper’s commentary was blunt: “To anybody out there [thinking]: ‘I thought that the Klan and neo-Nazis and white supremacists, I thought there was no debate about this among civilized people?’ There isn’t a debate about it.”
And a Washington Post analysis by Philip Bump dispassionately observed that Trump had doubled down on what he originally said: “He’s sympathetic to the goals of the men who marched Saturday night carrying Confederate and Nazi flags — and even to the ‘peaceful’ torchlight protest on Friday in which marchers chanted anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans.”
All had impact. Does finding these powerful ways to frame the situation amount to abandoning journalistic impartiality?
“The whole doctrine of objectivity in journalism has become part of the [media’s] problem,” Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, said this week in a talk at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York. He believes that journalists must state their biases up front and not pretend to be magically free of the beliefs or assumptions that everyone has.
If objectivity is a “view from nowhere,” it may be out of date. What’s never out of date, though, is clear truth-telling.
Journalists should indeed stand for some things. They should stand for factual reality. For insistence on what actually happened, not revisionism. For getting answers to questions that politicians don’t want to answer.
At Tuesday’s contentious Trump Tower news conference, the president disparaged reporters, sometimes calling them — as if saying their names — “fake news.” Earlier that day, he circulated on Twitter a cartoon image of a CNN reporter being run down by the “Trump Train.” Appalling, yes, but nothing new, just another page in Trump’s blame-the-media playbook.
In response, reporters kept asking questions, bringing the president from his preferred topic of infrastructure to what was on everyone’s mind: racism and violence. Their words were respectful, their tenor insistent.
It looked about right to me. And yes, it was certainly fair.
Can journalism be both impartial and forceful? That’s not only a possibility but, more than ever, a necessity.
In dealing with the false-equivalency president they helped to get elected, the news media may have learned something.
The best way to be fair is not to be falsely evenhanded, giving equal weight to unequal sides. It’s to push for the truth, and tell it both accurately and powerfully.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan