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The apotheosis of false equivalence


Following up on Scott’s various posts on this extraordinarily important topic, a new Harvard Kennedy School study finds that Hillary Clinton received more negative press coverage over the entire course of the presidential campaign than Donald Trump:

Criticism dogged Hillary Clinton at every step of the general election. Her “bad press” outpaced her “good press” by 64 percent to 36 percent. She was criticized for everything from her speaking style to her use of emails.

As Clinton was being attacked in the press, Donald Trump was attacking the press, claiming that it was trying to “rig” the election in her favor. If that’s true, journalists had a peculiar way of going about it. Trump’s coverage during the general election was more negative than Clinton’s, running 77 percent negative to 23 percent positive. But over the full course of the election, it was Clinton, not Trump, who was more often the target of negative coverage (see Figure 1). Overall, the coverage of her candidacy was 62 percent negative to 38 percent positive, while his coverage was 56 percent negative to 44 percent positive.

Consider how utterly astonishing this finding ought to be, at least in any halfway sane world (obviously I’m positing a hypothetical here).  Donald Trump is, by an enormous margin, the least-qualified candidate to ever receive a major party nomination for president.  This is true even without reference to his extensive history of personal corruption, his lack of any apparent interest in public policy, his overt unapologetic racism, sexism, etc. etc.

It gets worse:

Even those numbers understate the level of negativity. Much of the candidates’ “good press” was in the context of the horserace—who is winning and who is losing and why. At any given moment in the campaign, one of the candidates has the momentum, which is a source of positive coverage. Figure 2 shows the tone of the nominees’ coverage on non-horserace topics, those that bear some relationship to the question of their fitness for office—their policy positions, personal qualities, leadership abilities, ethical standards, and the like. In Trump’s case, this coverage was 87 percent negative to 13 percent positive. Clinton’s ratio was identical—87 percent negative to 13 percent positive. “Just like Tweedledum and Tweedledee,” as Barry Goldwater said dismissively of America’s two parties in the 1960s.

How’s that for fair and balanced?

You can believe, as I do, that Hillary Clinton was a flawed candidate in all sorts of ways, and that belief is still just completely irrelevant to evaluating this level of false equivalence.  It’s as if the sports media were to compare a far from optimal NFL quarterback — say, Trevor Siemian — to somebody who has never even played football, only to reach the conclusion that neither was a “good” quarterback.

Well now we’re going to get random person off the street quarterbacking our team for the next four years.  Actually worse than random person off the street — I would quite literally prefer a random person as POTUS to Donald Trump, and that’s true even if the random selection pool included infants, lunatics, and Jill Stein.

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