As the political mood turns away from party infighting and toward the general election in November, economist turned partisan hack Paul Krugman column delivered yet another smug media lecture to his readers. In his latest New York Times column, Krugman warned his journalistic colleagues to avoid “false equivalence” between honest Hillary Clinton and the lying racist Republicans who support Donald Trump, in “Truth and Trumpism.”
How will the news media handle the battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump? I suspect I know the answer -- and it’s going to be deeply frustrating. But maybe, just maybe, flagging some common journalistic sins in advance can limit the damage. So let’s talk about what can and probably will go wrong in coverage -- but doesn’t have to.
Oh joy. Krugman’s Friday lecture proceeded.
First, and least harmful, will be the urge to make the election seem closer than it is, if only because a close race makes a better story. You can already see this tendency in suggestions that the startling outcome of the fight for the Republican nomination somehow means that polls and other conventional indicators of electoral strength are meaningless.
The truth, however, is that polls have been pretty good indicators all along. Pundits who dismissed the chances of a Trump nomination did so despite, not because of, the polls, which have been showing a large Trump lead for more than eight months.
But what if Hillary is not doing so hot in a particular poll? Ignore it, of course.
Oh, and let’s not make too much of any one poll. When many polls are taken, there are bound to be a few outliers, both because of random sampling error and the biases that can creep into survey design. If the average of recent polls shows a strong lead for one candidate -- as it does right now for Mrs. Clinton -- any individual poll that disagrees with that average should be taken with large helpings of salt.
Krugman mounted his favorite hobby horse, “false equivalence” to fight old battles against the Bush Administration.
A more important vice in political coverage, which we’ve seen all too often in previous elections -- but will be far more damaging if it happens this time -- is false equivalence.
This isn’t a new phenomenon: Many years ago, when George W. Bush was obviously lying about his budget arithmetic but nobody would report it, I suggested that if a candidate declared that the earth was flat, headlines would read, “Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.” But this year it could be much, much worse.
And the Tea Party? A bunch of racists.
That is, after all, what happened after the rise of the Tea Party. I’ve seen claims that Tea Partiers were motivated by Wall Street bailouts, or even that the movement was largely about fiscal responsibility, driven by voters upset about budget deficits.
In fact, there was never a hint that any of these things mattered; if you followed the actual progress of the movement, it was always about white voters angry at the thought that their taxes might be used to help Those People, whether via mortgage relief for distressed minority homeowners or health care for low-income families.
Still, Krugman is quite confident sweet reason will prevail.
In the end, bad reporting probably won’t change the election’s outcome, because the truth is that those angry white men are right about their declining role. America is increasingly becoming a racially diverse, socially tolerant society, not at all like the Republican base, let alone the plurality of that base that chose Donald Trump.
Still, the public has a right to be properly informed. The news media should do all it can to resist false equivalence and centrification, and report what’s really going on.
Krugman has delivered this smug lecture before. He labors under the delusion that the media are engaged in “false equivalency,” by giving Republicans and conservatives the benefit of the doubt. He patted the press on the head for displaying its usual liberal bias in May 2010: "News organizations have taken notice: suddenly, the takeover of the Republican Party by right-wing extremists has become a story."
Krugman in July 2011 denounced the "centrist cop-out" of balance, singling out the Associated Press for not exclusively blaming the ongoing debt ceiling impasse on the Republican Party. He derided his journalistic colleagues: "The problem with American politics right now is Republican extremism, and if you're not willing to say that, you're helping make that problem worse."
In “An Orgy of False Equivalence,” a September 2012 blog post, he wrote of the then-concluded Republican National Convention, while already knowing the Democratic one would be far more honest: “That’s what I expect over the next three days from the news media. There was no way to gloss over the extraordinary dishonesty on display in Tampa -- but the urge to be ‘balanced’ will probably mean enormous efforts to portray whatever Joe Biden, for example, says as being just as bad as Ryan’s barrage of deceit. Never mind whether there’s any real equivalence, which there probably won’t be.”
Apparently finding his word choice non pareil, he used it later in another blog headline: “Hunt for False Equivalence” in April 2014 targeted centrism in general: “America, it goes without saying, has a powerful, crazy right wing. There’s nothing equivalent on the left -- yes, there are individual crazy leftists, but nothing like the organized, lavishly financed madness on the right.”