A study for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy put some numbers to what we already knew: media coverage in 2016 was filled with false equivalency.
“False equivalencies abound in today’s reporting,” writes Patterson. “When journalists can’t, or won’t, distinguish between allegations directed at the Trump Foundation and those directed at the Clinton Foundation, there’s something seriously amiss. And false equivalencies are developing on a grand scale as a result of relentlessly negative news. If everything and everyone is portrayed negatively, there’s a leveling effect that opens the door to charlatans.”
A foundation that did genuinely good works and which violated no rules was treated the same—or worse—than a personal foundation that was treated as a slush fund and primarily served to help Donald Trump. Arcane details of handing email were treated as equivalent of … anything at all.
The result was that despite the clear differences, the media coverage came down the same: 87 percent of stories about Trump and Clinton indicated they were not fit for office.
But it was more than just the numbers that Clinton and Trump shared. It was the source. Donald Trump was allowed to define himself. He was also allowed to define Hillary Clinton.
… no one captured the mood of false equivalency more tightly than ABC News chief political analyst Matthew Dowd: “Either you care both about Trump being sexual predator & Clinton emails, or u care about neither. But don’t talk about one without the other,” he wrote in a Nov. 1 tweet.
In the media, no one did. As the range of Trump atrocities rained down, it wasn’t even necessary to find new items to press against Clinton. Accusations of wrongdoing in the Clinton Foundation generated far more stories than actual wrongdoing at the Trump Foundation— enough coverage to equal several additional topics. Even as Trump tossed off regular outrages, the media went back to the well to ensure that the number of negative stories about Clinton never faltered. When the media came up short, it knew where to go for more anti-Clinton rhetoric.
… in a campaign that featured frequent complaints from Trump that the system is “rigged,” perhaps the media should look at its own titled playing ground. As the Patterson report makes clear, outlets all too often allowed Trump — with his repetitive rallies and his nonstop Twitter account — to step in and provide the frame of reference for Hillary Clinton.
All too often, the media didn’t even bother to come up with their own words in making negative reports about Clinton. They just reported what Trump said, without bothering to refute lies and exaggerations. Though Clinton took pains to put out detailed statements on policy while Trump was content to toss out slogans, it didn’t matter, because the media reports on Clinton’s policy positions were just as negative as everything else—because most of these articles only reported on Clinton’s positions in terms of attacks framed by Trump.
There wasn’t much in Clinton’s general election news coverage that worked in her favor….Stories about her personal traits portrayed her as overly cautious and guarded and ran 3-to-1 negative. News reports on her policy positions trended negative by a ratio of 4-to-1. Everything from her position on health care to her position on trade was criticized, often in the form of an attack by Trump or another opponent. Her record of public service, which conceivably should have been a source of positive press, turned out differently. News reports on that topic were 62 percent negative to 38 percent positive, with Trump having a larger voice than she did in defining the meaning of her career. He was widely quoted as saying, “She’s been there 30 years and has nothing to show for it.”
Trump’s constant chatter made the media’s job easy. When it came to Trump, they just repeated what he said. When it came to Clinton, they just … repeated what Trump said.