The Media is Making This a Real Horse Race

Educating the public takes second place to an exciting finish.

Count me among those blaming the media for the tightening polls. Yes, polling data predictably tightens after Labor Day. Yes, those running Hillary Clinton’s campaign against Donald Trump expected a close race from the start. But it’s also true that our media has held the candidates to vastly different standards. For Clinton, anything less than perfection is cause for suspicion. For Trump, anything more than a toxic chemical spill is cause for celebration.

As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie rightly noted on Twitter: “I’d say [Clinton]’s greatest danger is bad press (emails [from her time as secretary of state] and the [Clinton Foundation]) and the shockingly low bar the media has for Trump.”

Allow me to underscore “shockingly.”

In the past month, it has been revealed that Donald Trump had business ties to organized crime; failed to pay campaign staffers; failed to pay 10-year-old girls cheerleading at his rallies; broke immigration law by hiring (then failing to pay) European models; and appears to have bribed at least two state attorneys general not to join class-action lawsuits against his fraudulent Trump University.

And: He donated thousands to the Clinton Foundation, thus indicting himself in accusing Clinton of pay-for-play.

Yet none of this has stopped him.

In the past, I have been forgiving of our media. I have suggested that well, reporters are like a pack of wolves who are confused by too many scandals coming at them all at once. At some point, I said, a scandal will come along that’s big enough to arouse a media feeding frenzy.

But it’s already September. When will that be?

For 275 days, the media’s top figures groaned and wailed about the fact that Clinton has not held a press conference. They said it was about principles, particularly transparency and accountability. Among top media types the thinking was that access to Clinton would ultimately serve voters as they prepare to chose their next leader in November.

That has turned out to be a monumental fraud.

On Labor Day, after Clinton finally held a press conference on her new campaign jet, some reporters said, well, that’s not a real press conference (wrong) while others reported nothing more than the fact that she held a press conference. Nothing about her views on pressing issues, which are things important to voters, who are the people top media figures said, for 275 days, they serve.

Again, a complete fraud.

In retrospect, none of this should be surprising. The media has always confused access for honesty. During the 2000 election, novelist David Foster Wallace wrote about the John McCain campaign for Rolling Stone (later called “Up, Simba” in his essay collection Consider the Lobster).

Wallace noticed campaign reporters spent a lot more time talking to McCain, and writing about his famed maverick character, than they did listening to his speeches during which the Republican candidate outlined his views.

If they had spent more time reporting his speeches, Wallace wrote, voters would have seen that McCain, for all his “piss-and-vinegar candor,” espoused “sometimes extremely scary right-wing stuff,” such as invading Latin American countries as part of the War on Drugs and putting draconian limits on First Amendment rights.

To the media, access is honesty — a clear picture of the candidate. But that’s not what voters got. Instead of seeing a man with a 100 percent conservative rating, putting him on the margins of what most voters considered mainstream, they saw “McCain the Maverick.”

In other words, a dishonest portrayal.

In other words, even when reporters are given an abundance of access, they still can’t get it right.

Yesterday, Clinton gave a speech in Florida during which she announced the publication of a book that outlines her views and policy proposals. If our media were really in the business of serving voters, it would have put significant time and energy into covering this speech as it put into capsule form everything voters might need to know.

But that didn’t happen.

Instead, all three cable news networks, including the “liberal” MSNBC, put Clinton in a tiny box on the screen along side Trump’s head while he blathered on about something — it doesn’t matter; it didn’t make sense.

If the cable news networks had given Clinton equal time and energy, voters would have seen that she proposes a massive jobs program putting Americans to work rebuilding our infrastructure; expanding broadband access; installing half a billion new solar panels by 2020; creating apprenticeship programs in advanced manufacturing; free community college; a moratorium on college loan debt for entrepreneurs; raising the minimum wage; equal work for equal pay; and paying for it all, Clinton said, with a higher marginal tax rate on the “top 1 to 10 percent.”

I haven’t lost all hope, but time is running out.

As Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald put it on Twitter:

“I’m a reporter. Have been for 30 years. I’ve worked at several top publications & news networks in the world.

“I am ashamed of my profession.”

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.