The liberal media are freaking out over the possibility that Donald Trump might win the presidency.
They are denouncing their profession, decrying what they see as a press corps that coddles Trump and castigates Hillary Clinton, and demanding a change before it is too late.
Let’s take a deep breath and see if they have a credible case, or whether this is pure partisanship.
It’s been just 18 days since Politico reported that Hillary Clinton’s advisers were telling her to prepare for a possible landslide in the Electoral College. Now, with Trump pulling roughly even in national polls and ahead or within striking distance in most battleground states, a Trump administration is no longer some distant mirage.
Some folks on the left are so convinced that Trump would be a disaster, and so mystified why roughly half the country doesn’t view him with the same disdain, that they are lashing out at the media.
I would pose this question: Why do these pundits think they’re so much smarter than everyone else that they can clearly see Trump’s flaws but others are blinded by lousy media coverage?
I’d also pose this question: Can anyone seriously say there hasn’t been an avalanche of negative coverage about Trump and the birther issue, Trump and the Khan family, Trump and the comments about “Second Amendment people” taking care of Clinton, Trump and the Mexican-American judge, and on and on?
At the same time, I’ll confirm this point: Trump creates so many serial controversies that it’s hard for journalists to keep up with them all. He changes positions, such as on mass deportations, with barely an acknowledgement. He backtracks, such on his earlier birther crusade, without apology. I pressed him last week on the lack of any public record for his contention that he opposed the Iraq invasion. As reporters chase each story, other ones, such as his refusal to release his tax returns, slip off the radar.
But it’s not like Americans haven’t had sustained exposure to Trump’s strengths and weaknesses for more than 15 months.
Perhaps the most vociferous plea comes from Nick Kristof, the liberal, Pulitzer-winning New York Times columnist who often writes about human rights around the world. He thinks Trump is a “crackpot”:
“I wonder if once again our collective reporting isn’t fueling misperceptions.
“A CNN/ORC poll this month found that by a margin of 15 percentage points, voters thought Donald Trump was ‘more honest and trustworthy’ than Hillary Clinton. Let’s be frank: This public perception is completely at odds with all evidence....Clearly, Clinton shades the truth — yet there’s no comparison with Trump.
“I’m not sure that journalism bears responsibility, but this does raise the thorny issue of false equivalence…Is it journalistic malpractice to quote each side and leave it to readers to reach their own conclusions, even if one side seems to fabricate facts or make ludicrous comments?...
“We owe it to our readers to signal when we’re writing about a crackpot. Even if he’s a presidential candidate. No, especially when he’s a presidential candidate.”
Kristof is among the journalists making the case for false equivalence, that Trump is so much less credible than Clinton, even though Clinton has had problems with her private email server and family foundation. So it must be that the press is being too tough on her and not tough enough on Trump.
Another liberal Times columnist, the Nobel Prize-winning Paul Krugman, asks: “Why are the media objectively pro-Trump?”
I’m not sure how “objective” a strongly ideological commentator can be, but here’s his case:
“It’s not even false equivalence: compare the amount of attention given to the Clinton Foundation despite absence of any evidence of wrongdoing, and attention given to Trump Foundation, which engaged in more or less open bribery — but barely made a dent in news coverage.
Clinton was harassed endlessly over failure to give press conferences, even though she was doing lots of interviews; Trump violated decades of tradition by refusing to release his taxes, amid strong suspicion that he is hiding something; the press simply dropped the subject…
“And I don’t see how the huffing and puffing about the foundation — which ‘raised questions,’ but where the media were completely unwilling to accept the answers they found — fits into this at all.
“No, it’s something special about Clinton Rules. I don’t really understand it. But it has the feeling of a high school clique bullying a nerdy classmate because it’s the cool thing to do.”
Clinton has had testy relations with the press, in part because of that whole no-press-conference-for-nine-months thing (and her national interviews were rather infrequent). But is it really fair to say that journalists are “bullying” her, and enjoying it to boot?
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, in more measured tones that harken back to Spiro Agnew’s criticism of the press, says that Trump coverage has become “a new crisis of credibility”:
“There is the matter of Trump’s outsize access to television time during the primaries that dwarfed the attention given to his competitors. Liberals insist further that Trump is being held to a much lower standard than is Hillary Clinton, which, in turn, means that while relatively short shrift is given to each new Trump scandal, the same old Clinton scandals get covered again and again…
“But the coverage of Trump and Clinton does suggest that a media exquisitely sensitive to conservative criticism now overcompensates against the other side…
“Journalists need to ask whether they have created a narrative about Clinton that paints her as less trustworthy than Trump even though the factual evidence is overwhelming that he lies far more than she does.”
It’s worth repeating: The media may have covered too many of Trump’s primary rallies, but the big imbalance in coverage was largely due to his doing a zillion interviews while the likes of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush were hard to get.
And have journalists really “created a narrative” about Clinton that has made people distrust her? Isn’t this a problem that has been building in the quarter-century since the days of Whitewater and cattle futures, since she testified before a grand jury as first lady? Doesn’t she bear some responsibility for a lack of skill at defusing damaging stories?
Some on the left make their argument in more apocalyptic terms, such as Salon:
“According to what we’re observing online and via cable news, Hillary Clinton’s negatives are eons more grievous than Donald Trump’s missteps, even though they’re not, and even though this disparity unfairly elevates Trump and his poll numbers. This is how elections are titled toward despots and undisciplined strongmen. They’re legitimized and humanized despite their long menu of unprecedented gaffes, lies and treachery.”
And it’s not hard to see the way the tone has changed in news stories, such as this piece in the New York Times:
“Routine falsehoods, unfounded claims and inflammatory language have long been staples of Mr. Trump’s anything-goes campaign. But as the polls tighten and November nears, his behavior, and the implications for the country should he become president, are alarming veteran political observers — and leaving them deeply worried about the precedent being set, regardless of who wins the White House.”
There is plenty of room for debate about the quality and thoroughness of Trump’s coverage. But if the media get blamed for his recent surge, don’t they also get credit for his high negatives?
The fact is that Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush all won elections despite varying degrees of unsympathetic coverage from the press. The media need to be aggressive in holding both candidates accountable. But they can’t be blamed for the fact that tens of millions of American voters now favor the outsider candidate that many commentators, on the left and the right, detest.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.