As the first presidential debate approaches, media figures across the political spectrum are actively lowering the bar for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, both by setting lower standards themselves and by pushing the lower-standard narrative. Yet at the same time, many media figures are acknowledging that the press is employing a double standard in its treatment of Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Clinton And Trump To Square Off At First Presidential Debate
Lester Holt Tapped To Moderate First Debate. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton will face off for the first presidential debate on September 26, in what is expected to be “one of the most watched political programs” of the election. NBC anchor Lester Holt will moderate. [NBC News, 9/20/16]
Media Figures Lower The Bar For Trump, Normalize A Double Standard In The Debates
NBC's Andrea Mitchell: Trump Can Misstate Facts During The Debate As Long As He Looks “Smooth” And Adopts An “Acceptable New Norm” Of Behavior. NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell said that it won't be “appealing” for Clinton to look like “the studious schoolmarm constantly saying you're wrong about that, that's a lie” in the debate, but she said that Trump “could go 90 minutes, misstating facts let's say, but looking smooth, being the performer” as long as he adopts “an acceptable new norm” of behavior rather than “bullying her.” From the September 21 edition of MSNBC's Meet The Press Daily:
RICK TYLER: The debate could in this sense could be problematic for him. Particularly, and I don't know what Lester Holt is going to do, but if we got into deep specifics on issues, Hillary Clinton should shine there. And Donald Trump usually stays on the mountaintops with big, broad statements, but that voting segment that he’s losing now to the Democrats, they really are interested in policy, they really are interested in specifics. They want to know exactly what you're going to do. They want to chew on it and think about it. And he's not offering it to them.
KAI WRIGHT: The reality is, the appeal of Donald Trump is if you are afraid or you feel a sense of loss, that is a message that is powerful. And college-educated white men are not feeling those things right now. And so that's his challenge.
ANDREA MITCHELL: But the other real risk for him is that if he comes out bombastically and performing and insulting her and bullying her, and pulling a Rick Lazio is the way I phrase it, going back to the 2000 campaign, yeah that's a problem if he blows up. But I think that Kellyanne Conway, you know how skilled she is, I think he could come out and be an acceptable new norm, and that's what the Clinton campaign is concerned about. He could go 90 minutes, misstating facts let's say, but looking smooth, being the performer, and she is the studious schoolmarm constantly saying you're wrong about that, that's a lie. It’s not an appealing persona. [MSNBC, Meet The Press Daily, 9/21/16]
The Hill’s Bob Cusack: “The Bar For Hillary Clinton … Is Higher Than Trump.” Hill editor-in-chief Bob Cusack claimed that “the bar for Hillary Clinton, because she has been a politician, been in a lot more debates than Donald Trump, is higher than Trump." He added that if Trump "can do the prep work and land some zingers … he could really make up some ground in the battleground states.” From the September 7 edition of Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor:
BILL O’REILLY (HOST): So, Hillary Clinton now has to regain momentum. The only way I see her doing that is in a big debate performance in three weeks. That's pretty much where she can stop the bleeding.
BOB CUSACK: Yep. First debate, most important debate. Mitt Romney did very well in his debate against Obama. Turned that race around. But then Obama was able to recapture momentum. So, that debate is the biggest one. And I also think the bar for Hillary Clinton, because she has been a politician, been in a lot more debates than Donald Trump, is higher than Trump. So, there is an opportunity for Trump, if he can do the prep work and land some zingers, that he could really make up some ground in the battleground states. That's where he has got to worry about now. But is he right there? Has he recovered from a very rough August? Yes, he has. [Fox News, The O’Reilly Factor, 9/7/16]
Fox’s Charles Krauthammer: If Trump “Just Shows Up Not Foaming At The Mouth … He Wins Automatically.” Fox contributor Charles Krauthammer said Clinton has “set the bar so low for Trump that if he just shows up not foaming at the mouth, if he looks normal, relaxed, and sort of reasonable, he wins automatically.” From the September 9 edition of Fox News’ The Kelly File:
MEGYN KELLY (HOST): So anything can happen with Donald Trump on that stage, and [Clinton’s] got to find it very disconcerting. Here we are about two weeks out from the first debate.
CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: That's true, and I think she might have made a strategic error because she's been very extremely heavy in the criticism, calling him everything, unstable, essentially psychopathic, racist. I mean these are a string of attacks that maybe might have been more strategically placed after the debates because what she has done is she has set the bar so low for Trump that if he just shows up not foaming at the mouth, if he looks normal, relaxed, and sort of reasonable, he wins automatically. I think that's happened a lot in the past as well. I think in 1980, the strategy of the Carter campaign was to make Ronald Reagan extreme, somebody that you couldn't possibly imagine, somebody unstable that would be a danger to the world. [Fox News, The Kelly File, 9/9/16]
CNN Commentator John Phillips: “Expectations For Hillary Are Going to Be Very High In These Debates. The Expectations For Donald Trump, Not As Much.” CNN political commentator and Trump supporter John Phillips said, “The bar has been set so low that he's going to go out there and I think he's going to shock people and show them that there's a lot more to him,” adding that “expectations for Hillary are going to be very high in these debates. The expectations for Donald Trump, not as much.” CNN’s Bakari Sellers also conceded that “we have extremely low expectations for Donald Trump.” From the September 8 edition of CNN Tonight:
JOHN PHILLIPS: I think there are consequences for spending every day of the last year calling him a reality show vulgarian who only opens up the newspaper to read the astrology section. The bar has been set so low that he's going to go out there and I think he's going to shock people and show them that there's a lot more to him than that description. Hillary, of course, is billed as the wonk who’s just someone who spent all of her life in politics, people expect her to do well in these debates. America likes an underdog. Go back to the 2000 election when Al Gore was running against Bill Bradley. Al Gore had every possible advantage that you could possibly have in that race and he went out and he said I consider myself to be the underdog in this Democratic primary. He did that for a reason, because he was trying to lower expectations. The expectations for Hillary are going to be very high in these debates. The expectations for Donald Trump, not as much. I think the point spread favors Donald Trump.
DON LEMON (HOST): Well, and Bakari, even with that, because the same poll, it finds voters see Clinton as better able to handle the public scrutiny that comes with being president, 52 to 43 percent. I mean, what do you think that means for Trump, even during the debates here?
BAKARI SELLERS: Well, I think what we've been seeing throughout this entire process, I believe it was George W. Bush who talked about the soft bigotry of low expectation; we have extremely low expectations for Donald Trump. [CNN, CNN Tonight, 9/8/16]
The Atlantic’s James Fallows: A Low Bar For Trump And “Expected Perfection From Hillary Clinton” Will Be A “Factor” In Debates. After CNN host Brooke Baldwin asked if Trump will “win” the debate because “the bar is so low” and there is “expected perfection from Hillary Clinton,” The Atlantic’s James Fallows said, “Yes, I do think that is going to be part of the factor, especially for the first debate.” Baldwin also played a video of Dilbert creator Scott Adams saying, “Expectations for his debate performance are going to be sort of low in terms of how much command of the details he has.” From the September 14 edition of CNN Newsroom:
BROOKE BALDWIN (HOST): Do you think that the bar is so low for Donald Trump that if he performs just a smidge above that, that the perceived outcome will be a win versus expected perfection from Hillary Clinton? This is what Scott Adams was saying to me the other day, the creator of Dilbert and someone who has really studied behavior and psychology.
SCOTT ADAMS: The expectations for his debate performance are going to be sort of low in terms of how much command of the details he has. So if he shows up knowing just a little bit more than people expected, they are going to be impressed and they’re going to say, hey, you must be heading in the right direction, things are going in the right direction for somebody who’s trying to be president. Whereas Clinton has to be perfect and then maybe a little extra because we already expect that she knows the details, she knows the policies.
[END VIDEO CLIP]
BALDWIN: What do you think about that?
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes, I do think that is going to be part of the factor, especially for the first debate. Of course there are going to be three. The beginning and the ending one are going to be policy debates. The middle one is a town hall and, very much as Scott Adams was saying, there's this sense that Hillary Clinton is so much in her area of strength and so I think that in the first debate that may be part of the reaction to it. By the time there have been three of these, it's actually a lot of time for people to be on stage, lots of times to answer questions on foreign policy and how you’re going to deal with taxes and immigration and all the rest. So I think it is something I will have in mind for the first debate of how Hillary Clinton will play that expectations imbalance for her. [CNN, CNN Newsroom with Brooke Baldwin, 9/14/16]
NY Times’ Yamiche Alcindor: If Trump “Can Even Get Out A Good Sentence And Show Off His Experience,” Then People Will Think “He’s Doing Well.” New York Times reporter Yamiche Alcindor said the Clinton campaign has “been battling this idea that … she's in some ways held to a higher standard than Donald Trump” while a "lot of people are going to look at Donald Trump and think, hey, if he can even get out a good sentence and show off his experience, then he's doing well.” From the September 21 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe:
WILLIE GEIST (CO-HOST): [It’s] difficult, Yamiche, to prepare for a guy where you don't know which version of the man you're going to get that night, whether he's going to try to be disciplined and bring some policy or be the guy he was in in those primary debates?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I agree. I think it's going to go back to this idea of what Donald Trump are we going to see during the debates. This idea that Hillary Clinton really wants to come off looking strong but she also wants people to really understand that they can trust her and that they can like her and in some ways that's really tough for the Clinton campaign. They've been battling this idea that she's not someone who's honest, that she's really someone who’s flip-flopped in the past and that she's in some ways held to a higher standard than Donald Trump. A lot of people are going to look at Donald Trump and think, hey, if he can even get out a good sentence and show off his experience, then he's doing well.
GEIST: Get out a good sentence, he's doing well. There’s a bar for you. [MSNBC, Morning Joe, 9/21/16]
MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough: Trump “Is Graded On A Curve.” Morning Joe co-host Joe Scarborough said Trump is “graded on a curve” and that he can make statements that would force other candidates “out of the race” without facing any backlash. From the September 21 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe:
JOE SCARBOROUGH (CO-HOST): Donald Trump has two things going for him. One, he's graded on a curve. If, let's say another Republican candidate -- let's say Ben Carson -- had said, “You know, what I think we ought to do is we ought to have the military have their own legal system,” he would be out of the race. He just would. Anybody would. Donald Trump says that stuff, and he just keeps on keeping on, baby. It's just like it -- so that's one thing he has going for him. Second, he's been a TV star for over a decade. He knows the medium better than anybody else in politics. So he's underestimated when actually he knows TV better than anybody else. That's a pretty powerful combination and hard for Hillary Clinton to get past. [MSNBC, Morning Joe, 9/21/16]
CNN's Dana Bash: “Expectations Are Higher” For Clinton In The Debates. CNN’s chief political correspondent, Dana Bash, said that “the expectations are higher for [Clinton] because she’s a seasoned politician, she’s a seasoned debater,” adding that “the onus is on her” because Trump is a “first-time politician.” From the September 6 edition of CNN’s Wolf:
SUSAN PAGE: I think there is no reason to expect that that first debate won't just increase, just intensify the attacks we've heard from each of these on the other. Because remember, each of them wants this election to be a referendum on the other guy.
WOLF BLITZER (HOST): You agree, Dana?
DANA BASH: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. 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’s a seasoned politician, she’s 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. [CNN, Wolf, 9/6/16]
Fox's Howard Kurtz: Trump Has A “Lower Bar To Clear Certainly In Terms Of Debates” Than Clinton. Fox News media critic Howard Kurtz claimed that Trump “has a lower bar to clear certainly in terms of debates,” noting that a "lot of people who might be expecting him to be fulminating, attacking Crooked Hillary might see a more sober figure if he chooses to go that way.” From the September 16 edition of Fox News’ The Kelly File:
HOWARD KURTZ: Well this race isn't over in Trump's favor any more than it was over in Hillary's favor a month ago when she had that 10- to 12-point lead and a lot of people were just speculating about who she'd have in her cabinet. So Hillary Clinton still has the built-in Electoral College advantage, that will help. But in terms of -- Rich makes a really good point, which is Donald Trump now has a lower bar to clear certainly in terms of debates. A lot of people who might be expecting him to be fulminating, attacking Crooked Hillary might see a more sober figure if he chooses to go that way. I really think that Hillary Clinton has to fashion some kind of appeal to those white working-class voters who are tempted by the Trump brand, who might ordinarily vote Democratic. She has to offer them something about improving their lives. But when she talks about policy, she's kind of boring and it's hard for her to break through the static. She doesn't have the showmanship. [Fox News, The Kelly File, 9/16/16]
Fox’s Melissa Francis: Clintons Have Set The Bar For Trump So Low That If He Isn’t “Frothing At The Mouth” Or “Wearing A Swastika” It Won’t “Look Like A Victory” For Her. Fox's Melissa Francis blamed the Clintons for setting “the bar so low for Donald Trump that if he doesn't walk” into the debate “frothing at the mouth and, you know, wearing a swastika, then I don't think that it's going to look like a victory” for Clinton. From the September 15 edition of Fox News’ The Five:
MELISSA FRANCIS: I don't know, whenever somebody starts falling behind in the headline, they start parsing down below to try and find is there any good news in here anywhere. What I think is very interesting about this race is that it has been more elastic than almost any I've seen. Where somebody's way ahead and they can't come back and then somebody else is way ahead and the other side can't come back. So I wouldn't count anyone out. I think Trump very much has the momentum right now. I agree with you that I think it is all about that first debate. The problem is that the Clintons have set the bar so low for Donald Trump that if he doesn't walk in sort of frothing at the mouth and, you know, wearing a swastika, then I don't think that it's going to look like a victory. [Fox News, The Five, 9/15/16]
Yet Commentators Also Acknowledged Double Standard In Discussing NBC Commander-In-Chief Forum
MSNBC's Mike Barnicle: Trump Is The “Continued Beneficiary Of A Huge Double Standard.” The morning after NBC’s Commander-In-Chief Forum, MSNBC’s Mike Barnicle told Morning Joe co-host Joe Scarborough that NBC’s Matt Lauer interviewed Trump “as if he were the co-host or the host of The Apprentice,” rather than a presidential candidate, noting, “Syria wasn’t mentioned. Aleppo wasn’t mentioned. The refugee crisis wasn’t mentioned.” He noted that the forum showed Trump is the “continued beneficiary of a huge double standard.” [MSNBC, Morning Joe, 9/8/16]
Wash. Post Contributor Paul Waldman: “Hillary Clinton Gets Examined In A Very Different Way Than Donald Trump Does.” Following the forum, Washington Post contributor Paul Waldman explained that Clinton “gets examined in a very different way than Trump does” by the media. Speaking on the September 7 edition of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes, Waldman faulted media for taking an “all hands on deck mentality” when reporting Clinton news -- saying that “everybody will investigate every nook and cranny to see if there’s anything there that looks untoward. And even if there isn’t, it becomes this story that drags out over the course of days and even weeks” -- as opposed to “strings of issues” about Trump that are reported once and then forgotten. [MSNBC, All In with Chris Hayes, 9/6/16]
Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin: “Trump Is Being Held To A Less High Standard.” Prior to the NBC forum, Bloomberg Politics’ Mark Halperin told co-host John Heilemann that “the Clinton campaign is right” that “Trump is being held to a less high standard” by reporters and that “the press is just not holding him accountable.” Halperin continued, “Trump is doing things that if Clinton did, she would be hit a lot harder,” and he urged media to “work on fixing that.” Heilemann agreed with Halperin, despite having defended the double standard the week prior, when he said that “we’re setting the bar low, but that’s sometimes where you have to set the bar” for Trump. [Bloomberg, With All Due Respect, 9/6/16, 8/31/16]
NY Times' Maggie Haberman: “The Bar Has Been Lowered For Trump Repeatedly.” The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman said on CNN’s New Day leading up to the NBC forum that Trump “keeps getting graded on a curve” and “the bar has been lowered for Trump repeatedly.” Haberman criticized media figures who say Trump “did very well,” when really the questions is, “Does [Trump] merely pass?” [CNN, New Day, 9/7/16]
NY Times’ James Poniewozik Slammed Lauer For Questioning Trump On A Curve. New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik scolded Lauer for treating Clinton “like someone running for president” but Trump “like someone running to figure out how to be president, eventually.” Poniewozik wrote that after grilling Clinton on her private email server, Lauer pitched Trump “the kind of whiffle ball job-interview” questions “you ask the boss’s nephew you know you have to hire anyway.” [The New York Times, 9/8/16]
CNN’s Brian Stelter: “It Is True That Trump Is Held To A Different Standard Than Clinton.” The day after the NBC forum, CNN senior media correspondent Brian Stelter told CNN host Ashleigh Banfield that “it is true that Trump is held to a different standard than Clinton” and said that “no doubt, at the forum, there was different treatment for Trump versus Clinton.” [CNN, Legal View with Ashleigh Banfield, 9/8/16]