Hillary Clinton may have been attempting a joke when she tried to save face during an ill-timed coughing attack by saying she’s allergic to Donald Trump, but it’s no joke that many in the political media have allergic reactions to nearly anything the man says or does. A good portion of Trump’s media coverage woes are his own doing. He is a self-aggrandizing, self-contradicting, cartoonish figure who has steadfastly avoided anything resembling a traditional or disciplined campaign. He communicates well with his sizable base, but not as well with other humans.
However, journalists in particular seem unable — thanks to bias, defensiveness, or other issues — to parse what he says or means. They seem unwilling and unable to even try to understand him or cover him with any impartiality.
I’m not exaggerating. No less than the New York Times ran a front-page article defending and justifying explicit media bias against Trump on August 8. The situation isn’t markedly better at many other publications.
Trump is spending a lot of time complaining about the media being biased against him, which is both true and a good indicator of how unfocused his campaign is. The media are always biased against Republican candidates and Trump supposedly knew how to handle this problem better than other Republican candidates.
A better candidate might stay on message for more than 12 minutes a day. But apart from Trump’s non-traditional campaign style, many reporters are not serving the public with their emotional reactions to Trump that eat up all their time and energy. Here are just a few of the many stories the media should cover well even if the candidate they can’t cover dispassionately brought them up.
1) Hillary Clinton’s Health
A few weeks ago, Trump’s social media and rally-to-the-base campaign was laser-focused on Hillary Clinton’s health. It still is.
Mainstream media never covered Hillary’s massive “hacking”
or coughing attack, yet it is #1 trending. What’s up?
Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 6, 2016
He’s said she doesn’t have the mental or physical stamina to handle the challenges the country faces.
Many in the media said this was a dog whistle, although they disagreed on precisely which dog was being whistled at. Media coverage has been generally defensive toward Clinton on this point. Bizarrely so.
CNN ran an article headlined “Clinton’s health is fine, but what about Trump?” that never explained how anyone was to know her health was fine, exactly. A Sanjay Gupta report on CNN did the same thing. Gupta is a former Clinton advisor who now reports on medical issues for CNN. This Don Lemon-led panel discussion also said Clinton’s health was fine and that Trump’s was the problem.
— CNN Tonight (@CNNTonight) August 24, 2016
In fact, neither Trump nor Clinton have been terribly forthright about their health. We know little about either of them, apart from what their personal doctors have shared. But there are issues with Clinton that could use a bit more exploration. No, I’m not talking about coughing fits, which presumably could happen to most adults tasked with much public speaking.
Last Friday, there was a document dump of Clinton emails that showed, as the Washington Post put it, “Hillary Clinton told the FBI she couldn’t recall something more than three dozen times.” The report from the FBI interview was unclear about precisely how this related to her health, although it linked the two things:
“Clinton stated she received no instructions or direction regarding the preservation or production of records from [the] State [Department] during the transition out of her role as secretary of state in 2013,” the report says. “However, in December of 2012, Clinton suffered a concussion and then around the New Year had a blood clot. Based on her doctor’s advice, she could only work at State for a few hours a day and could not recall every briefing she received.”
If a blood clot in her brain made her forget important information and allowed her to work only a few hours each day, that’s a big deal. Yes, this injury was well-publicized at the time on account of how it caused her to miss hearings, but few would say they have a good understanding of what the overall picture of her health is.
So headlines like this at the Washington Post yesterday aren’t welcome:
Or the question I heard posed at that first gaggle Clinton held in her plane — not anything substantive about her physical fitness but a question about whether questions regarding her health were sexist. That’s a journalistic failure on multiple levels.
The responsibilities of the U.S. presidency are enormous and both major party candidates are around 70 years old. The electorate might not care that much about the health of the presidential candidates, so long as the far more liked vice presidential candidates are doing fine, but it’s a legitimate journalistic query for both of them.
This morning CNN ran yet another piece saying Clinton’s coughing is no big deal. But remember in the 2008 race, when no less than the Associated Press ran a story about how John McCain had good odds of dying in office? Eight years later, he has just won his latest primary for another Senate term. Or remember how the media had no problem when Obama was mocking McCain in 2008 as an old guy who couldn’t work his way around a computer.
Hard-hitting health reporting shouldn’t be deployed against candidates you dislike and in favor of those you do. Just cover it more evenly — even if Trump brings it up.
2) Electoral Security
Whenever Republicans voted against Trump in the primary, he’d claim the election had been rigged. When they voted with him, everything was fine. It was a bit transparent. Facing polling problems a month or so ago, Trump again ramped up his regular use of the term “rigged” to describe the general election battle. Following the WikiLeaks revelations of Democrats rigging their process to ensure a Hillary Clinton victory in her primary battle, the term had added resonance.
This went over like a lead balloon among journalists, who quickly rushed out stories pooh-poohing the claim. One Washington Post reporter cheered on a CNN reporter who said that Trump’s claims were preposterous, calling it a “danger to our democracy.”
On CNN, media journalist Brian Stelter gave lengthy remarks against Trump’s comments, saying they were delegitimizing our democratic process and that it was unpatriotic for any journalist or interviewer to help Trump advance this claim by failing to fight it vigorously. He said the media couldn’t let such comments seep into the discourse as if they were normal and dismissed it as Third World fever dreams. He downplayed concerns about voter fraud.
Leave aside the fact that questioning the legitimacy of an election is a time-honored political tactic, one that quite recently was taken seriously by journalists, one that a full third of voters (and majority of Trump supporters) worry about.
Leave aside the larger missed opportunity to talk about a major driver of support for both Trump and Bernie Sanders is a feeling that the “system is rigged” in ways that the general population is upset about.
Leave aside the general media maelstrom that occurred when word leaked that a Trump campaign official had merely registered to vote at a home he never lived in, suddenly suggesting they could treat voter fraud as if it were a serious issue.
Both parties have expressed concern about the election being tampered with. Harry Reid wrote a letter to FBI Director James Comey about concerns over Russia controlling the election outcome. Weeks after the initial Trump brouhaha, the Post ran a story headlined, “Could hackers tip an American election? You bet.” Other media outlets published pieces such as “The Election Won’t Be Rigged. But It Could Be Hacked,” as if hacking isn’t one form of rigging.
Last week, Politico reported, “FBI alert sparks fears that state voting systems are under digital assault,” about two state voting systems that had been breached in what “could be a sign that investigators are worried that foreign actors are attempting a wide-scale digital onslaught.”
And the Department of Homeland Security began floating the idea that it should have some role in protecting the security of state voting systems. See also Politico’s piece headlined “Elections security: Federal help or power grab? Some state election officials say offers to aid the fight against hackers could lead to Washington taking greater control.”
Questions about electoral security shouldn’t be dismissed but answered. They’re not legitimate in years when Republican candidates win but illegitimate in years when Democrats are winning. Whether it’s folks who are foreign or domestic, state actors or pranksters, security of the electoral process is a legitimate concern even if Trump is unable to explain much about why he’s claiming as much.
Even though Trump was the one to bring it up, rigging for or against either candidate is something serious and a legitimate concern for people to have.
3) Immigration Problems
It’s not that immigration policy is ignored by the media so much as poorly covered. Trump’s rise within the GOP was thanks largely to his rhetoric about the need for a different immigration policy. The political and media elite’s control of the conversation about immigration, including denigration as bigotry of any differing views on whether to grant amnesty to those who entered or remained in the country illegally, is largely responsible for the voter revolt that is now roiling the country.
Last week, Trump visited Mexico then returned to the United States, where he gave a lengthy speech on immigration policy. I’m one of those rare Americans who somehow doesn’t care much about immigration policy, which is admittedly not to my credit. But it does allow me to just listen to different perspectives with an open mind. The speech was interesting. He said a good immigration policy would include the much-discussed wall, deporting illegal immigrants, strengthening law enforcement, and an end to sanctuary cities. National Review editor Rich Lowry, not a Trump fan, described it as “substantive and realistic.”
Listening to the speech while following journalists on social media was a bizarre experience. No matter how common sense the suggestion — say, that current immigration laws regarding consequences for illegal entry be enforced, or that prospective immigrants demonstrate an ability to be financially secure in their new country — the media treated it as if it were shocking and unacceptable. Many of these “unhinged” reactions to the piece were from journalists.
The media dislike any restrictions on immigration more than they dislike Donald Trump. This is a bad combination for thoughtful, restrained coverage of immigration policy and its intended and unintended consequences. Let’s have fewer stories hunting for distasteful people who dislike current immigration policy and more that reflect the concerns of Americans about economic and national security in relation to immigration. This is particularly important because even if the media succeed in their stated goal of electing Hillary Clinton, immigration debates will continue to be a major political issue.
4) Lack of Global Respect for Obama
China dramatically snubbed President Barack Obama last week when he arrived for the G20 summit by refusing to provide a staircase for him to leave the plane. He was forced to disembark through a staircase in the plane’s belly. Once he got on the ground, the problems continued. There were heated altercations — fisticuffs nearly broke out — between Obama’s aides and Chinese officials.
“The reception that President Obama and his staff got when they arrived here Saturday afternoon was bruising, even by Chinese standards,” the New York Times reported in an earlier version of this story.
“Barack Obama ‘deliberately snubbed’ by Chinese in chaotic arrival at G20,” read The Guardian. This was like that Iraqi journalist throwing a shoe at George W. Bush, except much, much worse. But then Trump tweeted about it:
He said he would not stand for such treatment if he were elected president. Even though it’s Trump saying it, there is a lot to be said for this. As one American put it, “Yo BarackObama, I know you’re still getting the hang of being President, but when another power slights you, you have tools to cure it. China is the most powerful country in Asia except us. Might not be the worst time to remind them of this. I’ll help: ‘Um, ladies and gentlemen, let me be clear: I’m proud to open Taiwan’s new embassy to the United States.'”
Strength in the face of such snubs is important for the security of the nation going forward. Just as the Chinese couldn’t care to emulate the media’s gentle treatment of Obama, they won’t care to emulate the media’s protective treatment of Clinton. This could pose real problems in a couple years.
But because Trump was saying these things, the media suddenly decided that the snubs weren’t such a big deal. The Washington Post downgraded the slight to a “logistical flap” in order to make light of Trump’s statements that he would have left the summit if treated the same way.
In fact, the overarching and inescapable (even for political journalists!) narrative of Obama’s global humiliation just magically disappeared once Trump talked about it. Listen, if we could milk weeks of breathless coverage out of a journalist throwing a shoe, we could stand to consider America’s weakened position globally, and much more how that weakening affects voter attitudes at home.
Just because Trump noted the obvious is no reason to swing to the opposite view that Obama didn’t experience humiliation. Such an attempt to view long-term global problems simply in terms of how it affects the next election is a good way to be caught flat-footed with regard to Chinese actions and intentions.