One of the mental traps that we all fall into, journalists included, is to perceive politics through narratives.
Former American President Gerald Ford had been a star football player, yet somehow we in the media developed a narrative of him as a klutz — so that every time he stumbled, a clip was on the evening news. Likewise, those in the media wrongly portrayed former United States president Jimmy Carter as a bumbling lightweight, even as he tackled the toughest challenges — from recognising China to returning the Panama Canal.
Then in 2000, media painted Al Gore as inauthentic and having a penchant for self-aggrandising exaggerations, and the most memorable element of the presidential debates that year became not George W. Bush’s misstatements, but Gore’s dramatic sighs.
I bring up this checkered track record because I wonder if once again the American media’s collective reporting isn’t fuelling misperceptions.
A CNN/ORC poll this month found that by a margin of 15 percentage points, voters thought Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was “more honest and trustworthy” than his Democratic counterpart Hillary Clinton. Let’s be frank: This public perception is completely at odds with all evidence.
On the PolitiFact website, 13 per cent of Hillary’s statements that were checked were rated “false” or “pants on fire”, compared with 53 per cent of Trump’s. Conversely, half of Hillary’s were rated “true” or “mostly true” compared to 15 per cent of Trump statements.
Clearly, Hillary shades the truth — yet there’s no comparison with Trump.
I’m not sure that journalism bears responsibility, but this does raise the thorny issue of false equivalence, which has been hotly debated among journalists this US presidential campaign season. Here’s the question: Is it journalistic malpractice to quote each side and leave it to readers to reach their own conclusions, even if one side seems to fabricate facts or make ludicrous comments?
US President Barack Obama weighed in last week, saying that “we can’t afford to act as if there’s some equivalence here”.
I’m wary of grand conclusions about false equivalence from 30,000 feet. But at the grass roots of a campaign, I think the media can do better at signalling that one side is a clown. There are crackpots who believe that the Earth is flat, and they don’t deserve to be quoted without explaining that this is an, er, outlying view, and the same goes for a crackpot who has argued that climate change is a Chinese-made hoax, who has called for barring Muslims from America and who has said that he will build a border wall and that Mexico will pay for it.
The American media owes it to its readers to signal when they are writing about a crackpot. Even if he’s a presidential candidate. No — especially when he’s a presidential candidate.
There frankly has been a degree of unreality to some of the campaign discussion: Partly because Hillary’s narrative is one of a slippery, dishonest candidate, the discussion disproportionately revolves around that theme. Yes, Hillary has been disingenuous and legalistic in her explanations of emails. Meanwhile, Trump is a mythomaniac who appears to have systematically cheated customers of Trump University.
Hillary’s finances are a minefield, which we know because she has released 39 years of tax returns; Trump would be the first major-party nominee since Ford not to release his tax return (even Ford released a tax summary). And every serious analyst knows that Trump is telling a whopper when he gleefully promises to build a $25 billion (Dh91.95 billion) wall that Mexico will pay for.
Then there’s the question of foundations. Yes, Hillary created conflicts of interest with the family foundation and didn’t fully disclose donors as promised. But the Trump Foundation flat-out broke the law by making a political contribution (which may have been a bribe to avoid an investigation, but that’s another story).
It’s also worth avoiding moral equivalence about the work of the two foundations: The Clinton Foundation saves lives around the world from AIDS and malnutrition, while the Trump Foundation used its resources to buy — yes! — a large painting of Trump, as a gift for Trump (that may violate Internal Revenue Service rules as well).
The latest dust-up has been health care. Neither candidate has been very open about health, but Hillary has produced much more detailed medical records than Trump and an actuarial firm told the Washington Post Fact Checker that Hillary has a 5.9 per cent chance of dying by the end of a second term in office, while Trump would have an 8.4 per cent chance.
So I wonder if journalistic efforts at fairness don’t risk normalising Trump, without fully acknowledging what an abnormal candidate he is. Historically, those in the news media have sometimes fallen into the trap of glib narratives or false equivalencies, and they should try hard to ensure that doesn’t happen again. The media should be guard dogs, not lap dogs, and when the public sees Trump as more honest than Hillary, something has gone wrong.
For my part, I’ve never met a American politician as ill-informed, as deceptive, as evasive and as vacuous as Trump. He’s not normal. And somehow that is what the media’s barks need to convey.
— New York Times News Service
Nicholas Kristof is an American journalist, author, op-ed columnist and a winner of two Pulitzer Prizes.