For political reporters at the New York Times, it seems every horrible new revelation about the Republican presidential nominee—say, he hired a guy who boasts about providing the internet platform for white supremacists and who was charged with domestic violence—requires some tortured comparison suggesting the Democratic nominee is just as bad.
On Monday, Maggie Haberman, one of the paper’s lead political correspondents, joined their ranks with a particularly noxious tweet, drawing a false equivalence, wrapped in a false narrative:
The problem for Clinton team – after Democrats repeatedly pointed to Bannon personal past, going to be hard to argue Weiner is off limits
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) August 29, 2016
Stephen K. Bannon, the Breitbart News chief executive Donald Trump hired to lead his campaign, not only boasted to journalist Sarah Posner that, under his leadership, Breitbart provided the platform for the racist “alt right” movement; he was also revealed to have a credible charge of domestic violence against him, Politico reported. The charge was dropped only when authorities were unable to locate the woman who had made the charge. (Police called to the scene of the incident had a corroborating eyewitness report of evidence that the complaint made by Bannon’s then-wife was credible.)
Meanwhile, Anthony Weiner, the former congressman caught—yet again—tweeting photos of his Jockey-clad, bulging crotch to a woman who is not his wife, was never hired by Hillary Clinton to do anything. Plus, no one in the Clinton campaign has ever argued that Weiner is “off-limits.”
Weiner is married to longtime Clinton aide Huma Abedin. What happened was that Abedin issued a statement saying that, in the wake of revelations of the latest Weiner sexting scandal by the New York Post, she and Weiner are separating, and asked that the couple’s privacy be respected. That’s it.
To recap: Haberman is essentially saying that the scandalous behavior of someone Hillary Clinton never hired—Anthony Weiner—reflects as poorly on her as Donald Trump’s decision to hire—as his campaign chief—a known stoker of a racist movement who was credibly charged with domestic violence reflects on Trump.
Don’t get me wrong, Anthony Weiner is a despicable person whose willingness to humiliate his wife suggests no small measure of misogyny on his part. But he is not part of the Clinton campaign.
n the other hand, Stephen Bannon gleefully spreads the poison of a racist, misogynist movement, and was hired by Donald Trump, whose people likely knew of Bannon’s domestic violence issue (assuming they vet their hires), as his campaign’s chief executive officer.
Sure, those two things are just like each other—not. It’s almost as if certain mainstream reporters get scared every time they have to report the truth about Donald Trump: that he’s running a campaign based on racism, xenophobia and misogyny, facts that are irrefutable. But, crap, Republicans will accuse us of bias! they fret. Well, of course they will; what other defense do the Republicans have? And since when is it your job to make sure they’re kept happy?
At the Times, the making of such false equivalencies by its political reporters is an ongoing problem. As Eric Alterman reported in June:
In the paper of record’s political coverage, false equivalence often appears to be the rule rather than the exception. For instance, on March 13, while most political observers were approaching panic over the chaos that Trump’s followers were causing—even Fox’s Chris Wallace felt compelled to tell the candidate, “You have condoned violence in rally after rally”—a front-page story in the Times investigated the question of responsibility for Trump-rally violence. The article, by Barbaro, Ashley Parker, and Trip Gabriel, quoted the corporate-friendly Democrat William M. Daley observing, “Both sides are fueling this.” Neither Daley nor the authors offered any evidence to support this accusation. It wasn’t even clear who represented “the other side.”
While the practice of such false-equivalent framing of political stories is all too common throughout the media, the Times‘ stubborn adherence to it is particularly damaging to the body politic. Since the New York Times is regarded as the paper of record, the way in which its stories are framed often sets the parameters of political debate. Its pronouncements are given outsized credence. It’s time for the paper’s political reporters to take their responsiblity seriously.
Adele M. Stan is AlterNet’s senior Washington editor. Follow her on Twitter @addiestan.