This election is about voters choosing the least worst candidate. That's where we are in our politics.
— Chris Cillizza (@TheFix) September 4, 2016
That tweet from Chris Cilizza of the Washington Post's The Fix blog is cleverly framed to be about the voters' view of this campaign. Both candidates do have high unfavorable ratings among the public (as does the congress and pretty much every other institution, including the press.) However, that jaded comment by a member of the media illustrates something important. Some members of the press are not just commenting on a reality, they are pushing the theme of two equally unpalatable candidates and it just isn't true.
The main problem for Clinton is that people think she is a congenital liar. When asked what it is she lied about most people can't point to anything specific they just know she's dishonest and corrupt. The fact that she's been dogged by political enemies and investigated by special prosecutors, the media and the congress with unlimited budgets and every possible means of getting to the truth and has been exonerated doesn't seem to register. Indeed, the fact-checkers all find her to be more honest
than virtually anyone in politics
while Donald Trump, by contrast, lies more than he tells the truth.
In order to understand how this came to be, you have to go back to a column from 1996 in the New York Times by vicious right wing columnist William Safire
who first dubbed her a "congenital liar.
" All the crimes he accused her of committing and lies he insisted she told later proved him to be the liar (or badly misinformed) but it didn't matter. For many reasons, not the least of which was simple sexism, it was set in stone that this feminist, lawyer first lady was devious, calculating and power mad -- Madame DeFarge and Evita rolled into one. The political press has filtered their coverage of her through that lens ever since.
As Amanda Marcotte documented in this piece
the current "lock her up!" fever, that burning desire to see her her humiliated and imprisoned (or in some cases executed for treason
) is not new. And it's no less disturbing now than it was then. It's fed by the press's insatiable appetite for juicy right wing tidbits doled out piece by piece, each story building on itself to create a narrative of crisis and criminality despite there being no evidence of it being true.
The assumption in the "Clinton Foundation scandal" is that the mere possibility of "impropriety" is a form of corruption despite there being absolutely no proof that any favoritism or transaction actually took place. (The fact that every politician in Washington from President Obama to lowly congressman have contacts every day with people who give them money for their campaigns directly doesn't put any of that in perspective for some reason.) She alone is being held liable for the systemic big money problem that infects our system from top to bottom.
Recently, there has been some push back coming from several journalistic quarters which is new. The erroneous AP report that Clinton had pretty much given exclusive access to Clinton Foundation donors was ably dispatched by Matthew Yglesias at Vox
. Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has challenged several stories
, including the breathless "exposé" about a Clinton associate asking for diplomatic passports
to rescue two journalists in North Korea. James Fallows in the Atlantic
revisited his book from 20 years ago called "Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy" and lamented how the current coverage shows little improvement since then. Paul Waldman in the Washington Post took on the two competing "foundation" scandals
, Trump's being an actual case of flat out bribery and Clinton's being ... nothing. And Paul Krugman devoted his column to a scathing critique of the press
comparing it to the treatment of Al Gore in 2000, also a fake "liar" meme propagated by right wing oppo organizations to tar him as dishonest and mentally unstabl
e. We all know how well that turned out.
Much of the criticism in general is focused on the New York Times which seems to have a strange institutional vendetta against both Clintons. It's hard to understand why this would be true over so many years but perhaps Jonathan Allen explained it best in this brutally honest piece called "Confessions of a Clinton reporter: The media's 5 unspoken rules for covering Hillary."
This, I think can fairly be said to apply across the board, not just to the Times:
The Clinton rules are driven by reporters' and editors' desire to score the ultimate prize in contemporary journalism: the scoop that brings down Hillary Clinton and her family's political empire. At least in that way, Republicans and the media have a common interest.
This problem has deep roots in our political culture and it's potentially creating a serious crisis in 2016. If Donald Trump were to pull out a win the ramifications will be extreme. And he could. Nate Silver and the 538 gang of statisticians don't give him good odds but they do not believe it's impossible:
[Our model] shows Trump as having gained about 2 points over two weeks. If Trump keeps gaining 1 percentage point a week, he’ll beat Clinton by a couple of percentage points on Nov. 8. Hence, Clinton should probably not be picking out the White House drapes just yet.
Anyone who is sanguine about Trump losing needs to rethink their position. And the press needs to do a serious gut check about how they're conducting their campaign coverage. As Paul Krugman wrote in his Monday column, "America and the world can’t afford another election tipped by innuendo."