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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

False Equivalence Still Reigns Inside Beltway

From Erik Wemple’s “Top Beltway journalists cling to heinous assertion of Trump-Clinton false equivalence” at The Washington Post:

When top Beltway journalists Carol Lee of the Wall Street Journal and Jeff Mason of Reuters made the case in a USA Today op-ed that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump posed similar threats to a free and independent press, they weren’t suffering a momentary lapse of judgment. Or writing imprecisely in a rush to meet a deadline. Or some other such innocent explanation.

They meant it.

In a statement to the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone, Lee and Mason — the outgoing and incoming presidents, respectively, of the White House Correspondents’ Association — explain what they were explaining:

“The White House Correspondents’ Association defends the First Amendment in the context of the presidency, and, as such, speaks up when a presumptive nominee from either party falls short. Our op-ed laid out legitimate and different concerns that we have about each candidate with regard to the press. We did not render a verdict on which candidate poses more of a problem; people can draw their own conclusions about that. To suggest that we were somehow presenting a “false equivalency” misses our point.

This is not about comparing one candidate with the other; it is about scrutinizing how the candidates would conduct themselves in the White House in relation to the press. We were clear in our op-ed about what concerns we have with Hillary Clinton and with Donald Trump on that specific point. We will advocate strongly for the winner in November to respect a free press based on the principles of the First Amendment, not on a scale shaped by his or her rival.”

That statement lacks one thing, which is the ring of truth.

The offending USA Today op-ed by Lee and Mason actually compared “one candidate with the other”; it actually presented “false equivalency”; it actually blurred and steamrolled the significant differences between the candidates. It’s all in these two paragraphs:

The public’s right to know is infringed if certain reporters are banned from a candidate’s events because the candidate doesn’t like a story they have written or broadcast, as Donald Trump has done.

Similarly, refusing to regularly answer questions from reporters in a press conference, as Hillary Clinton has, deprives the American people of hearing from their potential commander-in-chief in a format that is critical to ensuring he or she is accountable for policy positions and official acts.

Bolding added to highlight the smoking gun of false equivalency: that the anti-media policies of these two candidates are similar. The headline helps level the playing field, too: “Trump, Clinton both threaten free press.” As does the piece’s kicker: “Both Clinton and Trump can do better.”

The beauty of journalism is that once you’ve written a piece, you may retain the byline or even the copyright, but you don’t own the interpretations. That’s the prerogative of readers. Here, the message is clear — Clinton and Trump are co-threats to a free press in the United States. There was no effort to contextualize this message, no qualifiers, no reality check. That Lee and Mason chose to recommit themselves to a deeply flawed piece says a great deal about the catechism of “fairness” in old-line media organizations. They’re all bad, equally bad, goes the apparent thinking.

And let’s directly attack the common and facile fallback line that “people can draw their own conclusions.” Oh, no they cannot, Lee and Mason, because you two didn’t provide a comprehensive list of Trump’s and Clinton’s transgressions. You abridged the list to facilitate false equivalency. This is awful.

To recap the imbalance between Trump’s and Clinton’s approaches to the media, we’ll re-run the list of offenses cataloged in this blog’s initial post on this absurdity:

Trump campaign:

• Bashing outlet after outlet after outlet in his speeches, often using descriptors like “disgusting” and even calling one reporter a “sleaze” on national television;

• Singling out camera operators at his rallies for failing to pan the crowd. “Look at the guy in the middle. Why aren’t you turning the camera? Terrible. So terrible. Look at him, he doesn’t turn the camera. He doesn’t turn the camera,” said Trump;

• Promising to “open up” the country’s libel laws to make it easier to sue media organizations;

• Denying press credentials to various news organizations based on unfavorable coverage. They include the The Post, Politico, the Daily Beast, Univision, Fusion, the Des Moines Register and the Huffington Post;

• Expressing frustration with the media for investigating his record of charitable donations;

Suing a former campaign aide for violating a confidentiality agreement by speaking with the media;

• Hassling reporters for not staying in their designated pen at rallies;

• Boycotting a Fox News debate over vague concerns about one of its hosts;

Grabbing and pushing reporters;

• Hyping a bogus National Enquirer story that spun conspiracy theories about the father of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.);

• Failing to condemn the anti-Semitic backlash against a reporter who’d written about Trump’s wife, Melania Trump.

Clinton campaign:

• Herding media reps into a roped-off area at a New Hampshire event in 2015;

• Failing to make herself available to reporters on the campaign trail and in news-conference settings.

An alert Twitter user added to the lopsidedness:

This is a good piece, but you left “mocked a reporter’s medical condition” off the Trump list. https://twitter.com/ErikWemple/status/753680754580807680 

Some insightful comments from readers follow at the end of Wemple’s post.

2 comments on “False Equivalence Still Reigns Inside Beltway

  1. Connie on

    This is indeed a good article, however I think you are over generous in describe this as being about journalism. I see journalism as a profession with educated people. I think you have to earn a title of journalist by being none partisan, willing to and actually doing clear, deep investigation of your subject even though you may not be the first to get the headline. Good journalism doesn’t mean copying and pasting Twitter comments from twits. Good journalism involves fighting for your profession even though the “owners” only see profits, a journalist an ethical responsibility to investigate and present a truthful article without filtering it through a greedy corporate management. Since most our mainstream media is owned by corporations who only see dollars signs that leaves a “real” journalist gasping for air in an ever shrinking opportunity field without completely selling his or her soul. As far as I can see the fourth estate no longer exists in the main, but has become an empty lot littered with hyperbole, misdirection, gleeful untruthful writing and canned material copied and pasted from tweets. We have lemmings following the crowd not journalists.


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