Political journalism trends toward equivalence. There is the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, and while they diverge in ideas, the media assumes they share their foibles and flaws, their minor and major corruptions, their grasping and opportunistic politicians. This is the foundational premise upon which political coverage rests: The policies of the two parties are different, but the institutions and personnel are broadly similar.
We can argue whether that’s true in any year (Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins’s Asymmetric Politics marshals considerable evidence that it isn’t, I think), but it’s definitely not true in this year. And that’s throwing media coverage of the campaign into chaos — with example A being last night’s candidate forum on NBC.
The problem, as I have written and as has been proven out again and again, is this election pits a normal political party and a normal presidential nominee against an abnormal political party and an abnormal presidential nominee. To put it in the simplest possible terms, one party chose a candidate who believes Vladimir Putin is praiseworthy, who thinks Ted Cruz’s father possibly participated in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and who is clearly feared and mistrusted by virtually all of the party’s top officials. The other party didn’t.
Some journalists have responded by tossing out the conventions of automatic equivalence, a phenomenon I wrote about here. But other journalists have tried to bring the candidates into rough alignment, no matter how absurd the result. On Wednesday, NBC’s Matt Lauer showed how that’s done — by recasting Clinton's tawdry, but fundamentally normal, behaviors as shocking while recasting Trump’s shocking behaviors as normal.
Take the disastrous contrast between Lauer’s treatment of Clinton’s private email server and his treatment of Trump’s baldfaced lie about his opposition to the Iraq War, for instance.
Six of Clinton’s first seven questions were about her email practices
The questioning of Clinton began straightforwardly enough. "What is the most important characteristic that a commander in chief can possess?" Lauer asked.
"Temperament and judgment," Clinton replied.
It was the opening Lauer was waiting for.
"The word ‘judgment’ has been used a lot around you, Secretary Clinton, over the last year and a half, and in particular concerning your use of your personal email and server to communicate while you were secretary of state," he replied. "You've said it's a mistake. You said you made not the best choice. You were communicating on highly sensitive topics. Why wasn't it more than a mistake? Why wasn't it disqualifying, if you want to be commander in chief?"
By making a question on Clinton’s private email server the first substantive query of the night — and by framing it as a plausibly disqualifying fact of her past — Lauer signaled to his viewers that this issue is of epochal, overriding importance. But it didn’t stop there: In total, six of the first seven questions lobbed at Clinton were about the email server.
One way viewers judge how important various issues are is by assessing how much time the media gives them. Clinton went on to get one question about her vote for the Iraq War, two (and I’m counting generously here) about her proposals for fighting ISIS, and zero questions about China.
This is flatly ridiculous. Clinton was wrong to use a private email server while at the State Department. But Colin Powell used a private server and advised Clinton to do the same, and no one thinks the most important fact of Powell’s tenure was his email management practices, because thinking that would be absurd.
So too is it absurd here. Wednesday’s NBC candidate forum was meant to discover the kind of commander in chief Clinton would make. But no one seriously believes the best way to understand how Clinton would make decisions of war and peace is to more closely scrutinize her email setup. No one honestly believes the toughest questions Clinton will face as leader of America’s armed forces relate to her views on retaining the use of her private BlackBerry.
If it needs to be said again, Clinton was wrong to use a private email server at the State Department. But she was wrong in a normal way — she took what Powell had done before her and made it a bit more brazen, a bit more aggressive. Politicians often cut corners in the interest of secrecy and convenience, and Clinton is no different, and perhaps even a bit worse. She deserves criticism.
But she does not deserve — and the country does not deserve — to see questions about her emails replace the questions that need to be asked about her ideas. There is much more scandal in Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War than in her inbox.
Trump’s biggest, baldest, easiest-to-fact-check lie
Fact-checking politicians is often difficult. They don’t lie so much as they shade the truth, twist it, omit key information from it. "Fact-checking," in these situations, is more of a recontextualizing — there’s a reason articles on sites like PolitiFact tend to run for thousands and thousands of words.
But not with Trump. He makes it easy.
"What have you done in your life that prepares you to send men and women of the United States into harm's way?" Lauer asked.
"Well, I think the main thing is I have great judgment," Trump replied. "I have good judgment. I know what's going on. I've called so many of the shots. And I happened to hear Hillary Clinton say that I was not against the war in Iraq. From a — you can look at Esquire magazine from '04. You can look at before that."
You can look before that. And here’s what happens if you look before that: It turns out Trump is lying. Flatly, clearly, obviously lying. We have documentary evidence of it. We have audio of it. Here was Trump in 2002, on The Howard Stern Show:
HOWARD STERN: Are you for invading Iraq?
DONALD TRUMP: Yeah, I guess so. I wish the first time it was done correctly.
On the eve of war, Trump said he supported the invasion of Iraq. This is well-known and well-documented. It is not hard to explain or difficult to verify.
This level of dishonesty actually is shocking in a presidential candidate — but Lauer let it pass unchallenged. He took something that is genuinely abnormal about Donald Trump and normalized it through silence and acquiescence.
Trump has persisted in lying about his support for the Iraq War despite the fact that his lie has been completely, conclusively disproven. This is not immaterial to his candidacy. His opposition to Iraq was literally his explanation of why he should be commander in chief. It is the core of the argument he makes about his judgment. Unlike Clinton’s email servers, it is the kind of judgment he will have to make, over and again, as commander in chief, and he both got it wrong and refuses to admit he got it wrong.
Normalizing the Trumpian abnormal
Lauer’s entire interview with Trump was like this. Outlining his ideas on Iraq, Trump argued, "I've always said [we] shouldn't be there, but if we're going to get out, take the oil." This manages to combine a lie (again, he hasn’t always said we shouldn’t be there) with a war crime (invading another country and taking their natural resources). It is a genuinely shocking policy idea — albeit one that Trump has promoted for some time.
Lauer, however, seemed flummoxed by how to respond. "How were we going to take the oil?" he asked, as if the problem with a policy that would end with America violating international law and uniting the Middle East — and perhaps the world — against us is that it would be technically difficult to pull off.
Later in the interview, Lauer wondered about Trump’s promise to ask the military’s generals for a plan to defeat ISIS, given that Trump has previously said he knows more about ISIS than America’s generals do.
"Well, they'll probably be different generals, to be honest with you," Trump replied. "I mean, I'm looking at the generals, today, you probably saw, I have a piece of paper here, I could show it, 88 generals and admirals endorsed me today."
So Trump stood on a stage and said he would replace today’s generals with a list of generals who have endorsed him — in other words, a partisan purge of our military’s officer class. Can you imagine the reaction if Clinton had suggested the same?
Any one of these comments is both more relevant and more shocking than anything that’s happened with Clinton’s emails. But if you watched the two interviews without paying close attention, you would think it was Clinton who had betrayed the norms of American politics. Lauer, in his bid to treat both candidates equally, flattened the very real differences between them.
In part, it’s because Clinton’s ideas and background are so normal that interviews with her tend to focus so much on her emails: There aren’t a lot of obvious and easy-to-understand controversies to ask about, so some journalists focus on the one controversy everyone has heard about. Trump, by contrast, offers so much crazy to choose from that it’s hard to focus in one place, so interviews with him can feel more scattered and less pointed.
But the motivation here is less important than the result. Lauer’s forum treated a normal candidate as an abnormal one and an abnormal candidate as a normal one. He abdicated the press’s role to ask the most important questions even when they aren’t the most controversial ones, and to challenge candidates when they lie to the American people or offer policy proposals that would put the country in terrible danger.
Lauer didn’t do this because he is biased, or because he is inattentive — he did it because he is used to reporting on elections from a place of rough equivalence, and he is flummoxed by this election, which offers no such safe harbor for journalists uncomfortable with the very real differences between the two parties’ nominees.