This election is about voters choosing the least worst candidate. That’s where we are in our politics.
— Chris Cillizza (@TheFix)September 4, 2016
That tweet from Chris Cilizza of The Washington Post’s The Fix blog is cleverly framed to be about the voters’ view of this campaign. Both candidates do have high unfavorable ratings among the public (as does the Congress and pretty much every other institution, including the press.) That jaded comment by a member of the media, however, illustrates something important. Some members of the press are not just commenting on a reality; they are pushing the theme of two equally unpalatable candidates and it just isn’t true.
The main problem for Clinton is that people think she is a congenital liar. When asked what it is she lied about, most people can’t point to anything specific; they just know she’s dishonest and corrupt. The fact that she’s been dogged by political enemies and investigated by special prosecutors, the media and Congress with unlimited budgets and every possible means of getting to the truth and has been exonerated doesn’t seem to register. Indeed, the fact-checkers all find her to be more honest than virtually anyone in politics while Donald Trump, by contrast, lies more than he tells the truth.
To understand how this came to be, go back to a column from 1996 in The New York Times by vicious right-wing columnist William Safire who first dubbed her a “congenital liar.” All the crimes that he accused her of committing and lies he insisted that she had told later proved him to be the liar (or badly misinformed), but it didn’t matter. For many reasons, not the least of which was simple sexism, it was set in stone that this feminist, lawyer first lady was devious, calculating and power mad — Madame Defarge and Evita rolled into one. The political press has filtered its coverage of her through that lens ever since.
As Amanda Marcotte has documented, the current “lock her up!” fever, that burning desire to see her her humiliated and imprisoned (or in some cases executed for treason) goes back to the 1990s as well. And it’s no less disturbing now than it was then. It’s fed by the press’ insatiable appetite for juicy tidbits doled out piece by piece by right-wing operatives, each story building on itself to create a narrative of crisis and criminality despite there being no evidence of it being true.
The assumption behind the “Clinton Foundation scandal” is that the mere possibility of “impropriety” is a form of corruption despite there being absolutely no proof that any favoritism or transaction actually took place. (The fact that all politicians in Washington from President Barack Obama to lowly congresspeople have contacts every day with people who give them money for their campaigns directly doesn’t put any of that in perspective for some reason.) She alone is being held liable for the big money problem that infects our system from top to bottom.
Recently, there has been some pushback coming from several journalistic quarters, which is new. The erroneous AP report that Clinton had pretty much given exclusive access to Clinton Foundation donors was ably dispatched by Matthew Yglesias of Vox. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has challenged several stories, including the breathless “exposé” about a Clinton associate asking for diplomatic passports to rescue two journalists in North Korea. James Fallows in The Atlantic revisited his book from 20 years ago called “Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy” and lamented how current coverage shows little improvement since then.
Paul Waldman in The Washington Post took on the two competing “foundation” scandals, Trump’s being an actual case of flat-out bribery and Clinton’s being nothing. And The New York Times’ Paul Krugman devoted a column to a scathing critique of the press, comparing its coverage to the treatment of Al Gore in 2000, when a fake “liar” meme circulated, propagated by right-wing opposition organizations to tar him as dishonest and mentally unstable. We all know how well that turned out.
I had to laugh at Sunday’s silly New York Times story about Hillary Clinton hobnobbing with wealthy donors as if that were a shocking display of arrogant elitism. Compare and contrast that with this story from 2012 about President Obama hobnobbing with wealthy donors portrayed as an unpleasant but necessary duty in a time of big money dominance. One cannot escape the fact that Clinton is being held to a different standard.
Much of the criticism in general is focused on The New York Times which seems to have a strange institutional vendetta against both Clintons. It’s hard to understand why this would be true over so many years but perhaps Jonathan Allen explained it best in this brutally honest piece called “Confessions of a Clinton reporter: The media’s 5 unspoken rules for covering Hillary.” This, I think, can fairly be said to apply across the board not just to the Times:
The Clinton rules are driven by reporters’ and editors’ desire to score the ultimate prize in contemporary journalism: the scoop that brings down Hillary Clinton and her family’s political empire. At least in that way, Republicans and the media have a common interest.
This problem has deep roots in our political culture and it’s potentially creating a serious crisis in 2016. If Donald Trump were to pull out a win, the ramifications would be extreme. And he could. Nate Silver and the 538 gang of statisticians don’t give him good odds but they do not believe it’s impossible:
[Our model] shows Trump as having gained about 2 points over two weeks. If Trump keeps gaining 1 percentage point a week, he’ll beat Clinton by a couple of percentage points on Nov. 8. Hence, Clinton should probably not be picking out the White House drapes just yet.
People who are sanguine about Trump’s losing needs to rethink their position. And members of the press need to do a serious gut check about how they’re conducting their campaign coverage. As Paul Krugman wrote in his Monday column, “America and the world can’t afford another election tipped by innuendo.”
Heather Digby Parton, also known as “Digby,” is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.