Is the Press So Privileged That They Don’t Care Who Wins the Presidency?

By now, it’s clear Hillary Clinton’s main opponent is not the Republican Party’s nominee. It’s the press corps following her campaign.

Under normal circumstances, a presidential candidate diagnosed with pneumonia would be commended for honoring the roughly three thousand victims and heroes of Sept. 11. She’d be seen as tough and admirable, as would anyone who put aside their health to commemorate America’s fallen.

Instead of covering her very public near collapse on Sunday with respect — or mere impartiality — the press reported that her poor health played into a “narrative.”

Why is this happening?

Why are the press, people who should know better, effectively undermining 2016’s lone viable candidate, given that Donald Trump, as a former deputy director of the CIA has attested, cannot credibly serve as president; given he has plagiarized nearly every policy speech he has delivered since July; given he appears to have used other people’s money (charitable donations to the Trump Foundation) to fund a smear campaign against a New York Attorney General, who is spearheading a lawsuit against Trump University?

No one knows. Perhaps no one can know.

Before I continue, I should say my argument is not about conspiracy or intent. A vast majority of media pros are going about their business in normal ways indifferent to ideology or partisanship. Journalists are self-interested, but otherwise my argument is not about bias or worldview. It’s about behaviors endemic to our media, and the reasons behind them.

Some say it’s ratings. Cable news is poised to profit from a close race; there is some social science to back that claim. Others say it’s laziness. Campaign journalists aren’t held to the same rigorous standards as other journalists.

Others, like The New Republic‘s Brian Beutler, argue that the media functions similarly to a lobbying firm. Issues outside the media’s zone of interest, such as mass deportations and voting rights, usually end up being secondary to issues such as transparency, access, and press freedom.

“News outlets are less alarmed by the idea that Trump might run the government to boost his company’s bottom line, or that he might shred other constitutional rights, because those concerns don’t place press freedoms squarely in crosshairs,” Beutler wrote Tuesday.

Others, like me, blame the norms of journalism.

The very concept of newsworthiness depends somewhat on what’s considered normal. What’s “normal” is often determined by social stigma. One such stigma is that women should not do a man’s job, like the presidency (As Trump said, Clinton doesn’t “look” the part). When she “confirms” that stigma — say, by getting sick — that’s newsworthy.

Others point to something else.

Yahoo Politics‘ Garance Franke-Ruta theorized on Twitter that most journalists probably believe Clinton will win the election. They believe this without understanding the double standard governing their coverage could elect Trump. Indeed, polls show the gap between the candidates has narrowed since August, after the AP’s damaging and discredited report about the “appearance of corruption” at the Clinton Foundation.

Trump has received his share of negative press. But that doesn’t mean coverage of the candidates has been equitable. We see many reports that should disqualify Trump, but the media will not focus on Trump’s disqualifying aspects.

As Franke-Ruta theorized, since reporters believe she will win, they feel free to hammer her on issues most important to them, issues, as Beutler suggested, that include transparency and trust.

All of the above are worthy attempts to answer the question: Why is this happening? But maybe there isn’t a reason. This is what I fear the most.

In a piece called “Inside the Mind of the Undecided Voter,” Rebecca Nelson interviewed for GQ an unnamed 42-year-old political journalist in Washington who is anguishing over who to vote for. But that’s not all.

He said something that’s only conceivable if you believe that politics is a game, and that the outcome of the game can’t harm you.

“The things I like about [Trump] are: I believe that sometimes you just have to blow shit up to build it again, and I think that a Trump presidency would do that. … I think I would just have to sort of give in to my chaos theory of Trump and just hope that he surrounds himself with the right people. … So for me, four years of Trump, selfishly, sounds a lot more enticing, just because it’s going to be a dumpster fire.

“Gun to my head, I would probably vote Trump because of my feelings about Hillary, and my—I just want to see what happens.”

All of the above attempts to answer the question of why the media is effectively undermining the only viable candidate have one thing in common: stakes. They assume the election’s outcome will matter.

But perhaps that’s the wrong way of looking it.

Perhaps coverage of politics is more of a game played by privileged people graduated from privileged universities who can rest assured that their privilege will insulate them from whatever happens in November.

To be sure, I could be wrong.

I hope I am.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.