The GOP’s unabated rightward march is testing the limits of political journalism’s reliance on a frame of equilibrium. We’re now two months past the time when leading “reformicons” had figured Donald Trump’s campaign would fade (he was supposed to crumble by September), and the only opponent close to dethroning him is Ben Carson. This has left mainstream news sources in a bind: Political reporters can’t provide accurate and fair campaign coverage without reporting on the two frontrunners’ outlandish policy proposals, or the escalating series of bizarre Carson stories. But the natural result of these stories (for both reporter and reader) is a corrosive skepticism which threatens to undermine the rough equilibrium that frames most conventional political analysis. This pits the cherished value of accuracy against the cherished trope of balance.
That tension is one way to interpret the strained conclusions of a front-page piece in yesterday’s New York Times, in which an already exasperated (the election’s still a year away!) Michael Barbaro laments that “in the 2016 presidential campaign, the truth is starting to look deeply out of fashion.” The “old and powerful structure of the venerable news media as a gatekeeper,” Barbaro writes, is “crumbling,” as contempt for the press “has allowed candidates to duck, dodge, and ridicule” the facts. The exposure of lies or exaggerations no longer shames candidates—indeed, it no longer even seems to induce corrections or attempts to massage the truth. Instead, Barbaro claims, an unusually emboldened set of dissemblers have learned to shout at journalists and debate moderators until pesky questions disappear, robbing the press of its crucial role as arbiter of fact and fiction.
It’s not that politicians have never lied or exaggerated before. But consider Barbaro’s conclusions about the leading candidates. On Carson: He has “harshly” turned questions about discrepancies in his biography “back on the reporters who asked them.” On Fiorina: she “refused” to back down from a Planned Parenthood video description that was “roundly disputed,” one of her first speeches at HP “was almost entirely inaccurate,” and her “campaign aides seemed unperturbed by the discrepancies and declined to make the candidate available for comment.” And, of course, on Trump: “His grandiose and sweeping claims have generated an entirely new category of overstatement in American politics. Several of his statements are so outlandish that they cannot even be disproved.”
The article opens an interesting discussion about whether this campaign’s falsehoods are unusually bold, or unusually impervious to media fact-checkers. But it veers badly off-course about halfway through, with this bizarre proclamation: “The tendency to bend facts is bipartisan.” Alongside so many damning statements from the Republican candidates, one naturally expects to see similarly unapologetic whoppers from Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Instead, we get the decidedly dull revelation that while Clinton has claimed that all her grandparents were immigrants, her paternal grandmother was in fact born in the United States shortly after the family had arrived—a fact which her campaign, in contrast to the bombastic denials of Trump, Carson, and Fiorina, duly acknowledged and corrected when pressed by reporters. Barbaro’s other smoking gun: “Mrs. Clinton has rationalized her reliance on a private server for both her personal and State Department emails by saying she preferred using a single electronic device, even though she used multiple devices, like an iPad, to read and send email.” Does it really need to be pointed out that there is no contradiction here? However ill-advised Clinton’s use of a private server, her desire to minimize her number of electronic devices used isn’t at all disproven by the fact that she couldn’t get the number down to just one.
That is the entirety of Barbaro’s evidence for the claim that both sides do it. Unless, that is, you include his references to the vigorous denials which greeted the Gennifer Flowers accusations against Bill Clinton. And that, it seems worth noting, was 23 years ago—making it poor evidence for the claim that misinformation is a newly profound problem right now, in 2015.
The more obvious conclusion is that we are facing a particularly bold form of indifference to the truth, a surprising rejection of deference to the press’s traditional role, and an alarming acceptance of these trends among voters—and that these extreme trends are pretty much confined to the right. This point deserves to be repeated: The tactical and ideological extremism of the contemporary GOP is enabled by the media’s refusal to admit that this is not a bipartisan problem. The Republican Party has gotten away with its drift towards extremism in large part because political reporters are loath to admit that not all pathologies are bipartisan. In this case, the evidence’s stubborn refusal to fit that familiar trope should have been a signal that the old formula doesn’t apply here. You could call this a reluctance to admit the sad truth, but it actually reads more like a refusal—one born of a misguided worry that the appearance of one-sidedness represents a more dangerous threat to journalism than simple inaccuracy.