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Media should stop treating Clinton and Trump as equals

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Donald Trump spoke in Aston, Pa., on Tuesday.Mark Makela

There are a gulf of differences between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The former is qualified to be president; the latter has repeatedly demonstrated a lack of knowledge about the Constitution, basic democratic norms and the power of the presidency.

Clinton shades the truth and exaggerates; Trump lies consistently and repeatedly and in ways that are easily verifiable. Trump is running on a nativist and racist platform that would bar adherents of an entire religion entry to America and would deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. Clinton is not.

These are facts, but if the public editor of the New York Times, Liz Spayd, is to be believed, they are "a partisan's explanation passed off as a factual judgment."


In a much-discussed defense against growing complaints that the mainstream media's political coverage this year has fallen victim to "false equivalence," between Trump and Clinton, Spayd argued that what critics of the Times and others "really want is for journalists to apply their own moral and ideological judgments to the candidates."

This is a rather traditional journalistic defense, but it's one that desperately needs to be revisited in the era of Trump. It simply is not possible for any news organization to pretend that Clinton and Trump are cut from the same presidential cloth or, as Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, said to me that "you're simply talking about two different people that are equally honorable and have different ideas." This simply isn't the case.

Yet this is precisely what Spayd is arguing.

She compared coverage of Clinton's use of a private e-mail server with Trump encouraging Russia to hack Clinton's e-mails and worried that the next step would be "for a paternalistic media to barely cover Clinton's e-mail so that the public isn't confused about what's more important."


But no one is suggesting that Clinton's e-mail shouldn't be covered.

If anything the most vocal complaints of the coverage of these stories is that they have been misleading and inaccurate.

But reporters and editors should be able to exercise judgment on the differences between these two stories. Call me a partisan, but there really is no comparison between Clinton using a private e-mail server and a presidential candidate encouraging a foreign government to hack into his opponent's e-mails.

The notion that it is nothing more than a partisan insinuation to call Trump's catalog of political sins more venal or more potentially damaging to the future of the country is journalistic objectivity at its absolute worst.

But the issue of balance goes even deeper. There has been too little examination of the various policy proposals of the two candidates. This abdication is far more serious because Trump's ideas are, frankly, much more outside the historical realm of American politics.

Here's a candidate who has talked openly about violating the law by bringing back torture. He's said that he will tear up trade deals and negotiate better ones — and in part by coercing key allies. He's said that he will weaken US support for its treaty-bound allies, like NATO and Japan and South Korea, unless they pay up. Of course, he's also said he will build a wall on the Mexican border that Mexico will pay for; and he will deport 11 million undocumented immigrants.

At home he's said that he will push huge new investments in military, infrastructure and border security spending, leave social insurance programs like Medicaid and Social Security untouched … all the while passing a massive tax cut. It's simply not possible for these numbers to add up and Trump has given no indication of how he'll pay for all this.


This doesn't mean that Clinton's ideas don't merit scrutiny too, but no matter what you think of them they are consistent with the policy approaches that candidates of both parties have taken in the past.

According to Kennedy, who has written on the issue of balance in this election, there seems to be an assumption about Trump that "his policy ideas are not serious" and thus not worthy of greater investigation. And he suspects that "many elements of the media have gotten tired of the whole Trump storyline" so they figure "let's do our due diligence on Clinton. But that's not really their job to shift their attention to Clinton while easing up on Trump."

After all, what Trump is proposing on both domestic and foreign policy is fantastical and severely lacking in detail. Considering their highly disruptive nature — particularly in foreign affairs — they merit far greater examination than what Clinton is recommending.

I have enormous sympathy for reporters trying to cover Trump and accurately capture the full scope of his mendacity.

But Americans get much of their political news through a media filter. They rely on the news judgment of reporters — not just in how they cover a story, but also in deciding to cover a news story in the first place. It is an abdication of news judgment and a disservice to readers to pretend that these two candidates are operating on the same political plane. Indeed, to argue they are the same is perhaps as biased a view of this campaign that there can be.


Michael A. Cohen's column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.