Memo to the media: You cannot have it both ways on the double standard applied to presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
After NBC’s Commander in Chief Forum, reporters and pundits proclaimed that media have held the two presidential nominees to different standards of knowledge and conduct, yet these media figures have also perpetuated the double standard by excusing Trump’s behavior and applauding him any time he shows a veneer of conventionality.
Numerous media figures criticized Matt Lauer, host of the September 7 forum, for employing different questioning toward Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Lauer allowed Trump to lie about opposing the Iraq war, yet he used eight of his first nine questions for Clinton to grill her over her emails. Several media figures said Lauer’s line of questioning embodied the “double standard” that reporters across the board use to analyze the two candidates.
If Media Figures Note The Double Standard ...
- MSNBC's Mike Barnicle: Trump Is The “Continued Beneficiary Of A Huge Double Standard.” The morning after the forum, MSNBC’s Mike Barnicle told Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough that 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.”
- 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.
- Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin: “Trump Is Being Held To A Less High Standard.” ” Prior to the forum, Bloomberg’s 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.” Co-host John Heilemann agreed with Halperin, despite having defended the double standard the week prior, when he said that “sometimes … you have to set the bar low” for Trump.
- NY Times' Maggie Haberman: “The Bar Has Been Lowered For Trump Repeatedly.” New York Times political correspondent Maggie Haberman said on CNN’s New Day leading up to the forum that Trump “keeps getting graded on a curve” and “the bar has been lowered for Trump repeatedly.” Haberman criticized media figures who assess Trump by asking, “Does he merely pass?” And then if he does, they record it as Trump “did very well.”
- NY Times’ James Poniewozik Slams 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.”
- CNN’s Brian Stelter: “It Is True That Trump Is Held To A Different Standard Than Clinton.” The day after the forum, CNN media reporter 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.”
... But Have Perpetuated It ...
Despite all this commentary, media figures have consistently perpetuated the double standard, holding Trump to a lower bar than they do Clinton in terms of behavioral and ethical conduct -- and in measures of veracity. Most recently, when a report came out that Trump paid a fine to the IRS for making an illegal $25,000 donation to the 2013 re-election campaign of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, broadcast news networks devoted a third as much as time to the matter as they provided to a flawed Associated Press story on the Clinton Foundation that proved no ethics breaches.
Media figures have previously repeatedly pardoned Trump’s widely criticized rhetoric, policy flip-flops, and divisive comments because he’s “not a politician” and is “learning as he goes”:
- Fox Hosts Excused Trump's Abortion Comments Because “He's Learning As He Goes.” Hosts of Fox News’ Fox & Friends excused Trump’s statement in March that there should be some kind of punishment for women who obtain abortions, suggesting that Trump should not be expected to answer questions about abortion because they’re usually reserved for more experienced politicians. Co-host Steve Doocy excused Trump, saying, “He only became a politician about six or seven months ago.”
- CNN’s Mark Preston: “You Have To Expect” Trump Will Abandon His Positions; He Can’t Be Thought Of In “Conventional Terms.” CNN political executive editor Mark Preston told New Day host Chris Cuomo in May that he was not surprised the presumptive nominee “took a half-step back” on banning Muslim immigrants because he can't be thought of in “conventional terms,” but rather “in Donald Trump terms.”
- The Daily Beast’s Jackie Kucinich: “Consistency Should Be An Argument Against Donald Trump,” But Trump “Isn’t A Normal Candidate.” Daily Beast Washington bureau chief Jackie Kucinich claimed in May that while “consistency should be an argument against” Trump “in a normal political system,” Trump is “not a normal candidate” and thus his policy reversals might not affect him.
Media have also absurdly applauded Trump any time he has appeared to assume even the slightest veneer of conventional, tempered behavior:
- Reading A Speech From A Teleprompter: Media figures praised Trump as “presidential” in early June for delivering one speech with the aid of a teleprompter. Fox anchor Megyn Kelly praised Trump for being “a little bit more controlled using the teleprompter, which is something we almost never see him do, staying on message.”
- Delivering One Speech Devoid Of Racist Attacks: Following the same speech, media figures also praised Trump as “presidential” for refraining from launching racist attacks against the federal judge presiding over Trump University lawsuits, which Trump had done for multiple days prior. CNN host Don Lemon said the “new, more presidential Donald Trump” is what “people in Washington wanted to see.”
- Rebutting A Joke About His Penis Size: Fox doctor Keith Ablow praised Donald Trump for “show[ing] an incredible degree of psychological strength” in responding to a joke about the size of his hands by referencing the size of his penis.
- Not Calling Then-Opponent Ted Cruz “Lyin’ Ted”: Following Trump’s April victory in the New York primary, Fox’s Megyn Kelly and ABC’s Tom Llamas said Trump was becoming “more presidential” and “trying out a more presidential style” because he did not call his opponent, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), “Lyin’ Ted.” Trump returned to using the phrase the next day.
... Will They Change?
Now that political media have admitted their own shortcomings in the cautionary tale of Lauer, will they level the playing field between Clinton and Trump?
Researcher Tyler Cherry contributed research to this post.