False “both sides” framing contaminates post-debate headlines

Presidential Debate

President Donald Trump regularly derailed Tuesday night’s presidential debate with former Vice President Joe Biden in unprecedented fashion. But the headlines multiple major newspapers used on their websites to sum up the night’s events flagrantly failed to depict this reality, instead falling back on a “both sides” framing.

As of shortly before 11 p.m., The New York Times’ top headline was “Sharp Personal Attacks and Name Calling in Chaotic First Debate.” The Washington Post’s read “Personal Attacks, sharp exchanges mark turbulent first presidential debate.” The Wall Street Journal was going with “Biden, Trump Trade Barbs in First Presidential Debate,” while USA Today’s takeaway was “‘China ate your lunch, Joe’: Trump, Biden end insult-filled debate.”

None of those descriptions comes close to capturing what happened.

Trump’s extremism was on display during the debate -- he refused to denounce white supremacists, encouraged the activities of a racist street gang, and again sought to delegitimize the election’s results. So was his lack of character -- he repeatedly deployed vicious smears and lies against Biden, and the often-flustered moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, had to urge him to follow the rules his campaign agreed to and stop interrupting. 

“That was the worst debate I have ever seen. In fact, it wasn't even a debate. It was a disgrace,” CNN’s Jake Tapper said immediately after its conclusion. “And it's primarily because of President Trump, who spent the entire time interrupting, not abiding by the rules that he agreed to, lying, maliciously attacking the son of the vice president.”

Journalists need to provide that kind of clarity. If they soft-peddle what happened or try to make it seem like both candidates are equally at fault, they fail their audiences. That sort of false equivalence permeated coverage of the 2016 election to devastating effect, and time is running out for the press to fix the problem.