There is a sympathetic gloss on the media’s horribly botched coverage of the 2016 elections that is not entirely without merit. Donald Trump, one could argue, was so unprecedentedly unfit that there was no way of conveying this within conventional journalistic norms — the sheer number of what would be campaign-ending scandals for anyone else presented any single one from taking hold, and given that reporters would also be covering Clinton the gap between the two candidates in terms of fitness, corruption, and preparation was never going to be fully conveyed.
I buy this to a point in re: the coverage of Trump. And it’s true that 2016 was not a case like 2000, in which the Republican candidate got largely fawning coverage while the Democratic candidate was being savaged. But, as Brian Beutler argues, where the defense completely fails is in the full complicity of the media with ridiculous Republican snipe hunts:
Late on Monday we learned that President Trump has stubbornly resisted staff efforts to secure his smartphones, leaving his cameras and microphones vulnerable to bugging, and turning his lengthy evening gab sessions with friends and former aides into broadcasts for the world’s intelligence services.
It has been airbrushed out of popular lore, replaced with gauzy platitudes about populism, but the 2016 election turned to a comical degree on a fabricated consensus among Republicans and the political media that strict adherence to information security protocols was a central qualification for the presidency. Specifically, Republicans pretended to believe Hillary Clinton had committed a disqualifying and imprisonable crime by using a personal email server to do work when she was secretary of state, and reporters pretended to believe that these infosec concerns were offered up in good faith.
The notion that Republicans didn’t actually care about infosec practices, and that reporters knew they didn’t care, isn’t just bitter gloss on bygone reporting decisions. It is a fact reporters themselves have let on in their collective response to serial Trump-era infosec lapses. It is so taken for granted in the halls of power that Republicans don’t actually care about this issue, and never did, that nobody even bothers to ask them to square their hair-on-fire behavior in 2016 with their insouciance today. Two years ago, House Speaker Paul Ryan repeatedly and publicly requested that Clinton be stripped of her security clearance because of her email practices. On Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the Trump phone-breach story broke, he held a routine Capitol briefing for reporters and fielded zero questions about it.
There’s a broad (and correct) media consensus that Republicans feign outrage about alleged infractions, then proceed to do much worse when in power—that right-wing politics is built on a foundation of feigned outrage and bad faith. But there’s also a broad (and incorrect) consensus that this should not factor in to how journalists interpret and report on the parties.
If the standard journalists set for themselves is that anything Republicans claim to be outraged about must be treated as a live controversy, then journalists disclaim a major potential point of failure, and become conduits for propaganda. This insulates media organizations from accountability for their handling of the email server matter, but also guarantees that the patterns of the past years will repeat themselves. One month ago, a handful of conservatives pretended to be upset about a standup comedy routine at the White House correspondents dinner, which they pretended to consider indecorous. Everyone knew they were pretending because they had a wonderful time at the dinner and continued to hobnob with their supposed elite media antagonists at black-tie afterparties when the dinner ended. Everyone knew they were pretending because these self-professed keepers of decorum support Donald Trump. And yet rather than dismiss their complaints as obvious fabrications, the White House press corps publicly disassociated itself with the comedian Michelle Wolf, who was the correspondents association’s invited guest.
The Wolf incident was the talk of the chattering classes for several days, but for all the wrong reasons. It was only really important as a window into the future. It showed that when the balance of political power shifts again, the right will resume pretending to be outraged over nonsense as if the Trump presidency had never happened, and most reporters will proceed as if it’s all sincere. This standard of newsworthiness can be changed in theory, but only if our media institutions decide that bad faith politics should be treated as such, and not rewarded indefinitely at the expense of the truth.
Trump did, in fact, present unique problems. But nothing about Trump justifies treating what would be a one day back-page story about any other candidate a campaign-defining scandal. Nothing about Trump justifies writing one Clinton Foundation story after another that had 43 grafs of “troubling questions cast” innuendo preceding a 44th graf conceding that there’s no evidence anybody did anything wrong. (When the Times tried something similar with McCain in 2008, the story was correctly treated derisively and was ignored the rest of the campaign. There’s nothing inevitable about ginned-up bullshit being treated as a major scandal.) Nothing about Trump justifies taking top reporters off the Clinton beat to write story after story about mind-numbing inside-baseball trivia that feeds into a scandal frame because of innumerate assumptions that the election was “over.” These are choices, and they were bad choices. Treating bad faith claims as if they were serious and singling out candidates for disproportionate treatment is just flat-out bad journalism.