One of the mental traps that we all fall into, journalists included, is to perceive politics through narratives.
President Gerald Ford had been a star football player, yet somehow we in the media developed a narrative of him as a klutz — so that every time he stumbled, a clip was on the evening news. Likewise, we in the media wrongly portrayed President Jimmy Carter as a bumbling lightweight, even as he tackled the toughest challenges, from recognizing China to returning the Panama Canal.
Then in 2000, we painted Al Gore as inauthentic and having a penchant for self-aggrandizing exaggerations, and the most memorable element of the presidential debates that year became not George W. Bush’s misstatements but Gore’s dramatic sighs.
I bring up this checkered track record because I wonder if once again our collective reporting isn’t fueling misperceptions.
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A CNN/ORC poll this month found that by a margin of 15 percentage points, voters thought Donald Trump was “more honest and trustworthy” than Hillary Clinton. Let’s be frank: This public perception is completely at odds with all evidence.
On the PolitiFact website, 13 percent of Clinton’s statements that were checked were rated “false” or “pants on fire,” compared with 53 percent of Trump’s. Conversely, half of Clinton’s are rated “true” or “mostly true” compared to 15 percent of Trump statements.
Clearly, Clinton shades the truth — yet there’s no comparison with Trump.
I’m not sure that journalism bears responsibility, but this does raise the thorny issue of false equivalence, which has been hotly debated among journalists this campaign. Here’s the question: Is it journalistic malpractice to quote each side and leave it to readers to reach their own conclusions, even if one side seems to fabricate facts or make ludicrous comments?
President Barack Obama weighed in this week, saying that “we can’t afford to act as if there’s some equivalence here.”
I’m wary of grand conclusions about false equivalence from 30,000 feet. But at the grass roots of a campaign, I think we can do better at signaling that one side is a clown.
There are crackpots who believe that the earth is flat, and they don’t deserve to be quoted without explaining that this is an, er, outlying view, and the same goes for a crackpot who has argued that climate change is a Chinese-made hoax, who has called for barring Muslims and who has said that he will build a border wall and that Mexico will pay for it.
We owe it to our readers to signal when we’re writing about a crackpot. Even if he’s a presidential candidate. No — especially when he’s a presidential candidate.
There frankly has been a degree of unreality to some of the campaign discussion: Partly because Hillary Clinton’s narrative is one of a slippery, dishonest candidate, the discussion disproportionately revolves around that theme. Yes, Clinton has been disingenuous and legalistic in her explanations of emails. Meanwhile, Trump is a mythomaniac who appears to have systematically cheated customers of Trump University.
Clinton’s finances are a minefield, which we know because she has released 39 years of tax returns; Trump would be the first major party nominee since Ford not to release his tax return (even Ford released a tax summary). And every serious analyst knows that Trump is telling a whopper when he gleefully promises to build a $25 billion wall that Mexico will pay for.
Then there’s the question of foundations. Yes, Clinton created conflicts of interest with the family foundation and didn’t fully disclose donors as promised. But the Trump Foundation flat out broke the law by making a political contribution (which may have been a bribe to avoid an investigation, but that’s another story).
It’s also worth avoiding moral equivalence about the work of the two foundations: The Clinton Foundation saves lives around the world from AIDS and malnutrition, while the Trump Foundation used its resources to buy — yes! — a large painting of Trump, as a gift for Trump (that may violate IRS rules as well).
The latest dust-up has been health care. Neither candidate has been very open about health, but Clinton has produced much more detailed medical records than Trump, and an actuarial firm told The Washington Post Fact Checker that Clinton has a 5.9 percent chance of dying by the end of a second term in office, while Trump would have a 8.4 percent chance.
So I wonder if journalistic efforts at fairness don’t risk normalizing Trump, without fully acknowledging what an abnormal candidate he is. Historically we in the news media have sometimes fallen into the traps of glib narratives or false equivalencies, and we should try hard to ensure that doesn’t happen again.
We should be guard dogs, not lap dogs, and when the public sees Trump as more honest than Clinton, something has gone wrong.
For my part, I’ve never met a national politician as ill informed, as deceptive, as evasive and as vacuous as Trump. He’s not normal. And somehow that is what our barks need to convey.