The Trump Standard: Inequity Claims Dominate the Discourse

On the September 16th edition of NPR’s “On the Media,” acting host Bob Garfield opened the show with a recording of Hillary Clinton’s now infamous “basket of deplorables” comment. Offering his own commentary, Garfield said “sure, [Trump] has built his entire campaign on disparagement, but look! The robot in pearls was caught generalizing.”

After airing clips from several media pundits criticizing Clinton, Garfield introduced writer Ta-Nehisi Coates to talk about a recent article he wrote in the Atlantic, where he argued that Clinton was actually correct in her statements about the viewpoints of “half” of Trump supporters.

Towards the end of the conversation, Garfield asked Coates whether the media’s reaction to Clinton’s comments constituted another sign of the “false equivalency problem, wherein the press, in order to show that it isn’t in the tank for Hillary Clinton metes out public opprobrium, just to show that it’s an independent force?

“I think one of the real problems that the press has is this notion of objectivity,” Coates responded. “It was made for a world where you can take both candidates seriously, where they both exist within the realm of respectability.”

Coates’s comments parallel a growing consensus among many other prominent media critics, who believe the press has appropriated Trump’s lies and improprieties so much that they now hold him to an entirely different (and lower) standard than Clinton. But is this true?

On September 8th, Mike Barnicle said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that Trump is “continued beneficiary of a huge double standard.” Errol Louis of NY1 offered this same analysis, saying on a September 13th CNN segment that coverage of Trump and Clinton is “not even close.”

After Matt Lauer’s botched interview with Donald Trump, Vox’s Ezra Klein castigated journalists like Lauer for trying “to bring the candidates into rough alignment, no matter how absurd the result” and for “recasting Clinton’s tawdry, but fundamentally normal, behaviors as shocking while recasting Trump’s shocking behaviors as normal.”

CNN’s Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter also expressed frustration with Lauer’s softball questions. “I think it is true that Trump is held to different standards than Clinton on a number of different issues,” Stelter said.

Amy Davidson, a New Yorker staff writer, similarly asserted that “Clinton’s flaws aren’t just smaller than Trump’s, they are not on the same scale.” Davidson also mentioned a Harvard study published in July which found that “Clinton received a far higher proportion of negative coverage than any other candidate” in 2015.

Even Ben Shapiro, the conservative commentator and founder of the Daily Wire, said on PBS’ “Charlie Rose” that “the news standard for normal campaigning has been left behind. If they used the same standard as they used for Mitt Romney there’s no way the Trump candidacy would have gotten so far.”

Many media pundits as of late have said that Trump is being “graded on a curve.” However, before the Lauer-Trump interview, media commentators focused on how the media dished out an excessive amount of negative coverage not about Clinton, but about Trump.

Before the interview, Klein wrote in an August 16th article that “the media has felt increasingly free to cover Trump as an alien, dangerous, and dishonest phenomenon.”

“While it’s ridiculous to suggest the media likes Hillary Clinton,” Klein continued, “the media is increasingly biased against Trump. He really is getting different, harsher treatment than any candidate in memory.” Klein went on to point out how CNN’s chyrons actively fact check Trump’s statements, a level of media scrutiny Clinton had not experienced at the time.

Moreover, the same Harvard study Davidson used to show media bias against Clinton also found the media’s treatment of Trump became increasingly negative after he secured the Republican nomination.

“Negative statements outpaced positive ones by 10 to 1,” the study’s author, Thomas Patterson, wrote. Sixty-one percent of media coverage about Trump was negative in tone, whereas only 51 percent of coverage of Clinton was negative, Patterson said.

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