21st Century Campaigns, 20th Century Media

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Matt Lauer’s embarrassingly bad performance as moderator of last week’s so-called Commander-in-Chief forum highlighted a recurring problem in this year’s Presidential Election. It is true that Lauer is not really a journalist and can’t be taken as representative of all reporters.  Nonetheless, it is equally true that the media has often fallen short in its role of informing and enlightening the public about the two candidates seeking to become the next President.

This is in many ways a presidential election unlike any we have ever had before. One candidate is a pathological liar and the other is a woman.  Some members of the media have not adjusted well to these new challenges.  Too many reporters have been striving for an unwarranted mechanical balance in their coverage.  Others keep getting manipulated.  And some, consciously or unconsciously, betray a deeply ingrained sexism.

Donald Trump’s willingness to continuously repeat allegations shown over and over again to be false shouldn’t be that much of a challenge for reporters. But apparently it is.  Lauer blew an easy and predictable opportunity to call Trump on his assertion that he had never supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Chris Wallace, who will moderate the Third Presidential Debate, has already announced that he doesn’t see his job as being a truth squad. Does that mean he views his role as just an empty conduit who brings no knowledge or expertise to the evening?  A robot could be programmed to ask questions and replace Wallace on the stage.

Trump’s unprecedented approach to campaigning helps explain why the press struggled early in the primary process, but they have had enough time to get their act together.   Too often, he has been allowed, without challenge, to lie, to throw out vague generalities without detail and to make slanderous assertions attributable to “someone.”   Some reporters act as if they are scared of Trump.

Another part of the problem is sexism.  Hillary Clinton has clearly been held to a different standard because she is a woman.  Frank Bruni of the New York Times wrote a blunt column describing the unevenness of the coverage, but he stands almost alone in pointing it out.  What she wears and what her voice sounds like may be relatively trivial examples, but they represent an underlying mind-set which helps illustrate the differences in her coverage from Trump’s.

There are too many examples.  Why is the press still repeating unfounded claims about Benghazi while Trump’s record of racial discrimination in housing that he owned gets little attention?  Why is the Clinton Foundation described in terms of unsubstantiated allegations about corruption while an apparent bribe to the Florida Secretary of State from Trump receives almost no coverage?  Following Clinton’s diagnosis of pneumonia over the weekend, will reporters demand access to Trump’s health records?

Too often  journalists fall prey to the siren call of false equivalency.  If Trump makes some outlandish claim, the press feels the need to point out that Clinton once said something similar.  The pseudo-professional standard of balance has distorted the goal of seeking the truth.

Trump has run a campaign almost totally devoid of substance or detail.  Clinton has released numerous position papers and demonstrates a mastery of public policy that is wonkish at times.  Yet, the press treats their command of the key challenges facing the country as if there is little difference between them.

Lauer, who apparently is not conversant in current affairs, spent an inordinate amount of time at the Forum on Clinton’s emails.  While I concur that her public discussion of the server decision and the handling of emails has often been convoluted and even deceptive, we now know an awful lot about it and can make our own judgments.  As both Bernie Sanders and the Washington Post have argued, the press has gone overboard on this issue.  Let’s give this story a decent burial and move on.

Why didn’t the media spend an equal amount of time and effort asking about Trump University? Has Trump been challenged about the reports of students racking up debt without gaining either knowledge or credit? There have been a couple of brief flurries of interest, but nothing resembling the attention paid to Clinton’s emails.

Significantly, we still don’t have Trump’s tax returns, detailed information about his foundation or his claimed charitable contributions. Perhaps most ominously, we have had no serious inquiry into his business dealings in Russia.  I for one am eagerly awaiting the drumbeat of incessant questions to him about these topics.

Trump, for too many members of the press, is treated as more celebrity and entertainer than possible president.  He is constantly given the benefit of the doubt as a political newcomer.  Trump’s stunning ignorance about the world is not highlighted.  His praise of Vladimir Putin offers a disturbing insight into his values which warrants close attention from the press.  So far, however, the press has treated it as more a curious oddity than as a revelation about his character or his patriotism.

Soon we will have the Presidential Debates to capture our attention.  While the moderators should have no trouble exceeding the “Lauer Standard”, they still will have a challenging job.  Trump, during the Republican debates, ignored time limits, felt totally unconstrained by any specific question, and engaged in ad hominem attacks on his opponents.  If the moderators allow him to continue that behavior in the debates, the losers will be the American people.  Moreover,a growing disgust with politics–a pox on all of their houses–benefits Trump if it reduces voter turnout.

Notwithstanding Wallace’s personal standards, the press must do more than be disengaged questioners or passive observers.  I realize that none of them want to be the main story, but look at how Lauer in fact became the headline by his inept performance.  Debates should not be cage wrestling matches or free-for-alls.  Those tell us nothing about how the candidates would handle the job of being president.  A moderator must moderate, keep control, enforce the rules and push candidates to respond to questions.

The press needs to do better than it has so far in the 2016 campaign.  I realize that being well-informed doesn’t necessarily lead to wise decisions, but being ill-informed almost guarantees bad outcomes.  In this time of venerating the Founders of our political system, it’s worth remembering that Thomas Jefferson’s vigorous defense of freedom of the press was based on his belief that it would lead to a well-informed public.  This year seems to be testing both sides of that proposition.