Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Published with permission from Media Matters for America.

Like cigarette smokers who have admitted they have a nicotine problem but can’t stop puffing, can journalists who have already admitted they use a weaker standard to score Republican nominee Donald Trump make a clean break while grading the Republican’s debate performance next week?

By all indications, reporters know using the double standard is wrong, and that it’s not okay to demand Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton regularly clear higher hurdles than her opponent. They know adopting different standards to grade presidential candidates disregards rules of campaign fair play for the press.

Yet even though the double standard has been widely acknowledged in recent weeks, there’s still a likelihood it will be employed for debate analysis. That’s how strong the allure seems to be.

Already we’re hearing rumblings that Clinton has more to lose at the debate, and that if Trump manages to not insult large portions of the electorate, the event will represent a victory for him. What’s doubly concerning is that Trump already appears to be actively trying to intimidate the debate moderators in hopes they’ll go easy on him. (According to network news executives, moderators Lester Holt from NBC and Fox’s Chris Wallace were chosen to “appease” Trump.)

If Trump bullies the moderators and the press uses a weaker standard to grade him, then the debates are no longer fair campaign fights because a media-sanctioned ‘victory’ for Clinton will be that much harder to obtain.

“He won’t have to win policy arguments or outshine Clinton’s qualifications – anyone who’s been watching this race will already know he can’t do either,” noted U.S. News & World Report contributor Cary Gibson, who noted that Trump is “generally held to a lower bar than Clinton and this dynamic is likely to prevail during the debates.” She continued, “But if he makes it through the debates with no major gaffes and his composure intact, his performance could get high marks anyway.”

Must be nice.

And from CNN’s Dana Bash:

But I do think that the stakes are much higher in this debate and all the debates for Hillary Clinton because the expectations are higher for her because she is a seasoned politician, she is a seasoned debater. Yes, we saw Donald Trump in the primaries debate for the first time, but he is a first-time politician. So for lots of reasons, maybe it’s not fair but it’s the way it is, the onus is on her.

Fact: Republicans opted to nominate a political novice as their nominee, knowing the possible drawbacks. There’s no reason the Republican nominee should then get special treatment from the press for being a political novice.

Meanwhile, I certainly can’t recall any presidential election where so many journalists conceded, in real time, the double standard at play in the unfolding coverage. In the past, journalists almost always denied that one candidate was being treated differently — being graded easier — than the other. To make that admission was to admit a complete unfairness in the coverage.

But this year the acknowledgments keep coming simply because the double standard in play has been so obvious:

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough: “Donald Trump is held to a lower standard. He just is.”

Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin: “Trump is doing things that if Clinton did, she would be hit a lot harder. We shouldn’t do that.”

New York Times’ Maggie Haberman: “The bar has been lowered for Trump repeatedly.”

CNN’s Brian Stelter: “It is true that Trump is held to a different standard than Clinton.”

The evidence of this is everywhere. When The Washington Post reported that the Trump Foundation had to pay a fine to the IRS for making an illegal $25,000 donation to a PAC supporting the re-election campaign of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, broadcast news networks devoted just a third as much time to the story as they did to a recent flawed Associated Press story on the Clinton Foundation that proved no ethical misconduct.

Meanwhile, Clinton this month has been regularly attacked in the press for not being transparent, when in fact she’s been far more transparent via personal disclosures than Trump has been.

And recall how last week The New York Times reported on Trump’s proposal for child-care and maternity leave plan and noted, “But in selling his case, Mr. Trump stretched the truth, saying that his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, has no such plan of her own and ‘never will.’”

Trump didn’t “stretch the truth.” He flat out lied: Clinton does have a plan of her own and she unveiled it last year.

Concerns about the media embracing a double standard for debate coverage were rekindled following the NBC’s televised presidential forum earlier this month, and how commentators often rewarded Trump for doing far less than Clinton. The event was hosted Matt Lauer, who came under withering criticism for the drastically different approaches he took to interviewing each candidate that night.

“Lauer’s gentle questioning of Trump — after grilling Clinton over her use of the private email server and her 2003 vote in favor of the Iraq War — is but one example of television journalists treating the GOP nominee with kid gloves,” noted Politico in a piece headlined, “Why Donald Trump Gets A Pass.”

But again, the media schizophrenia remains ever present: Just days before, Politico used a sliding scale for analyzing the NBC forum. Politico stressed both candidates did poorly because “she look[ed] uncertain while he sound[ed] uninformed.” And “Clinton wobbled on style. Trump stumbled on substance.” (Why not hold both accountable for style and substance?)

So one day after Politico clearly graded the two candidates using a different scale, Politico conceded the media uses a different scale when grading the two candidates.

Please ditch this for the debate.