In her latest column, New York Times public editor Liz Spayd discussed the threat of “false balance” in media coverage of this year’s presidential election, and the accusations that the paper engages in it. False balance, or false equivalence, is generally understood in this year’s campaign to mean the practice of journalists, in Spayd’s words, “unfairly equating a minor failing of Hillary Clinton’s to a major failing of Donald Trump’s.”
In a recent Trumpcast, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg (who is quoted in Spayd’s piece) and Michelle Goldberg discussed the issue of false balance and the challenges journalists face in covering Clinton aggressively but fairly in the age of Trump.
Here’s an excerpt from their conversation, which took place amid reporting on the Trump Foundation’s $25,000 contribution to Florida attorney general Pam Bondi just before she decided not to launch an investigation into Trump University:
Jacob Weisberg: So I was on CNN’s Reliable Sources over the weekend, talking about whether Trump is the beneficiary of false equivalence. Does the media inflate issues and scandals about Hillary Clinton and grade Trump on a curve, to try to seem fair and make the race closer? Well, duh, yes. That’s what the press does! Can you say Corey Lewandowski?
Anyhow, when Brian [Stelter] asked me what I thought, I said the problem was that the usual structure of campaign coverage was an apple versus an orange. You know, they’re both fruits, they’re both different, take your pick. And the problem was that this one, is sort of like an apple versus rancid meat. And that the press didn’t really have a way of pointing that out while still being fair.
Michelle Goldberg: I mean it’s amazing that after many days of the appearance-of-impropriety stories about Hillary Clinton, or stories about something the Clinton Foundation did that quote-unquote raises questions, here we have something that looks a lot like a genuine quid pro quo [the Pam Bondi contribution story]. And I think when you look at how the two of them are covered, it seems like their misdeeds just sort of expand to fit the available space, but the space is kind of the same with both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, so you just get a lot more things competing for attention on his side. And with Clinton you just have a couple of things occurring over and over again because there’s kind of nothing else to compete with them.
Weisberg: One thing a thousand times versus a thousand things one time. But I mean, talk about diabolical brilliance, I mean, to have a new scandal every seven hours ensures that no scandal will go very deep because it’s just gonna be, you turn the page and you’re on to the next one.
How do you not have a double standard but be fair as a reporter in this campaign? I mean, I was sort of thinking over the weekend, there are real investigative stories to do about the Clinton Foundation. There’s some sleaziness around the Clinton Foundation. Adam Davidson was describing on the Political Gabfest a couple of weeks ago how he participated in this Clinton global summit event, and the whole thing just felt gross. There was all this sort of sleaziness about it. My feeling is, look, we don’t have that luxury right now. In a normal campaign, you would focus on it. Here, it’s beside the point because you have another candidate who is massively sleazy and corrupt and awful and dangerous in every way, that who cares about the little Clinton Foundation scandal. But the press can’t—the kind of neutral press kind of can’t do that.
Goldberg: Right, especially if you’re on the Clinton beat, you’re on the Clinton beat. And you have to kind of go chase these leads wherever they take you. And that seems perfectly legitimate. I think where I wish there was more self-reflection, is not that they should go easy on Hillary Clinton because she’s running against this diabolical lunatic, but just—that they should just be conscious of not repeating the same kind of mistakes that always seem to dog coverage of the Clintons, which is, getting into this dynamic where any hint of impropriety is blown up out of all proportion. The Clintons react by shutting down and becoming really paranoid and secretive. And then that secretiveness is itself taken as further confirmation of wrongdoing. So you have these huge, kind of pseudo-scandals that, when you actually deconstruct them, there’s nothing at the center of them. I mean, that was Whitewater, that’s been so many of the Clinton scandals. And it seems like a lot of that is the foundation. There’s a lot of raising questions, there’s a lot of appearance of impropriety, but when you dig down to it, there’s never any there there. And with so much at stake in this election, you know, go after Hillary Clinton for things that are fair, but it seems like they should be being extra careful about this sort of habitual pattern that straight journalists fall into when covering the Clintons.
Weisberg: Well, with the Clinton Foundation, I think if you really look into it, you’ll find mismanagement, you’ll find conflict of interest, you’ll find a lot of stuff that is deplorable.
Goldberg: I mean, what mismanagement? Didn’t they get an A from what is the big charity-rating agency? [Editor’s note: Charity Watch gave it an A.] They’re rated higher than the Red Cross in terms of their actual functioning as a charity.
Weisberg: They’ve done a tremendous amount of good, and they support good causes. But anyway, I’m just sort of positing that there’s something there. And then you have on the Trump side, you know trying to corrupt the attorney general of Florida, an actual kind of quid pro quo corruption scandal, if you are the AP or some press organization doing your best to be fair. What should you do? Should you give every one of these things kind of a 1-to-10 rating and do the Trump 9s before you get to the Clinton 3s and 4s? I mean what’s a fair way to cover them both?
Goldberg: God, I mean, I don’t know. Do you know? It seems like on the one hand, the very structure of even the physical product of a newspaper, or the kind of physical length of a newscast mitigates against the proper proportions. You know what I mean? You can’t have 20 articles about Trump’s misdeeds for every one article about Clinton’s, or 20 articles about Trump’s things that disqualify him for every one article raising questions about Clinton’s record. But the disproportion between the two candidates would suggest that that’s what a kind of properly weighted investigation of both of them would look like.
Weisberg: The structure of coverage is that there are two choices to be made, and they’re not the same, but generally they’re both valid choices.
Goldberg: Right, and this is one of the reasons Donald Trump is such a challenge. He’s kind of like an epistemological challenge. By its very nature, the Republican nominee for president, you don’t have a way to treat that as not being a valid choice.