Carlos Maza

Author ››› Carlos Maza
  • VIDEO: How False Equivalence Ruins Trump-Clinton News Coverage


    News outlets covering the presidential election have made the mistake of treating Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as two equally flawed candidates. That false equivalence has made it harder for voters to understand the categorical differences between their options on November 8.

    In typical elections, news outlets often treat both major presidential candidates as relatively similar -- comparing their flaws, scrutinizing their respective scandals, and framing the election as a choice between two comparable options.

    That approach hasn’t been appropriate this election cycle. Clinton is not a flawless candidate -- her campaign has been dogged by conspiracies surrounding the Clinton Foundation and her use of a private email server as secretary of state. But she is a relatively conventional one -- abiding by both constitutional and political norms.

    Trump, on the other hand, represents a dramatic break from mainstream American politics. He threatens the First Amendment, demonizes minority groups, cozies up to white supremacists, championed the birther movement, invites Russian interference in the election, promises to arrest his political opponent, lies constantly, lacks the most basic interest in and knowledge of public policy, says he may not accept the results of the election because he believes it to be “rigged” -- the list goes on and on.

    These are not equally flawed candidates. But a number of news outlets have treated them as such, devoting similar amounts of attention and ink to Clinton and Trump’s respective controversies.

    The New York Times has been criticized for its disproportionate focus on Clinton’s email server and the Clinton Foundation, so much that the paper’s public editor penned a defense of the paper’s coverage:

    The problem with false balance doctrine is that it masquerades as rational thinking. What the critics really want is for journalists to apply their own moral and ideological judgments to the candidates.


    If Trump is unequivocally more flawed than his opponent, that should be plenty evident to the voting public come November. But it should be evident from the kinds of facts that bold and dogged reporting unearths, not from journalists being encouraged to impose their own values to tip the scale.

    That approach, treating both candidates’ scandals equally and hoping voters come to the correct conclusion, is a big part of the reason that voters view Trump and Clinton as being similarly untrustworthy, and view their missteps as similarly concerning. Audiences internalize the way the media covers each candidate in relation to the other.

    Treating two wildly different candidates as if they’re equally flawed is not “fairness” -- it’s a journalistic failure. And news outlets that have failed to explain the categorical differences between the controversies dogging Trump and Clinton’s presidential campaigns have done a real disservice to voters who want to understand what’s at stake in November.

    Illustrations by Dayanita Ramesh.

  • Chris Wallace And The Banality Of Conservative Dishonesty

    Blog ››› ››› CARLOS MAZA

    Fox News anchor Chris Wallace has received widespread praise for his performance as moderator of the final presidential debate, despite repeatedly injecting right-wing framing and misinformation into his questions. The celebration of Wallace’s performance highlights the extent to which conservative spin has become normalized in national politics.

    Following the October 19 debate, commentators across the political spectrum praised Wallace for his performance as moderator. Wallace was lauded for his “blunt questions,” “evenhanded approach,” and “sterling performance,” and he was even described as the “one clearcut winner” of the debate.

    Some of this praise is legitimate -- Wallace repeatedly grilled Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on questions of policy and at times forced him to stay on topic in his answers. And the most newsworthy moment of the debate -- Trump's refusal to say whether he’d accept the results of the elections -- came in response to Wallace’s pointed, repeated questioning near the end of the event.

    But Wallace also exposed his audience to a large dose of right-wing misinformation:

    • His question about the economy began with the false premise that President Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan damaged the economy.
    • His question about immigration took Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s 2013 comments about “open borders” grossly out of context.
    • His question about abortion access invoked the right-wing myth of “partial-birth” abortion, a non-medical term invented by anti-abortion groups.
    • His question about the national debt falsely alleged that programs like Social Security and Medicare are going to run out of money and add to the debt absent short-term cuts, echoing Republican talking points about entitlements.

    Wallace also failed to fact-check Trump’s frequent falsehoods -- following through on his promise not to be a “truth squad” during the debate.

    Wallace’s rave reviews from Republicans and Democrats alike highlight the extent to which right-wing dishonesty -- made ubiquitous by Fox News and conservative media -- has become normal in national politics. Wallace’s network has spent years repeating and mainstreaming these types of lies -- the stimulus failed, Democrats want open borders, et cetera. Viewers have heard them so often that it can feel passé to go through the motions of debunking them over and over. Journalists become so numb to the talking points that they can hear them being repeated by a debate moderator during a presidential debate without batting an eye.

    That’s how political propaganda works -- not by outright convincing people, but by treating a lie as so routine and unremarkable that people slowly stop being suspicious of it.

    Journalists’ willingness to accept and overlook Wallace’s bullshit is even greater when it’s being compared to the absurdity of Donald Trump. When Trump is on stage claiming his opponent should be disqualified from running for office or suggesting he might not accept the results of the election, it feels nitpicky to worry about the misleading nature of many of Wallace’s questions. Trump’s unhinged, out-of-control campaign style makes everything around him seem normal and tame by comparison. We’re willing to forgive Wallace’s occasional dishonesty because we’re so grateful that he pointed out Trump is literally threatening a core democratic principle.

    But becoming numb to Wallace’s casual, subtle dishonesty is incredibly dangerous. Fox News’ modus operandi is making right-wing misinformation so pervasive and constant that it becomes unnoticeable -- it becomes part of the noise we just take for granted in American politics. What makes Wallace such an effective purveyor of dishonesty is that he’s good at playing the part of the reasonable, “even-handed” journalist, even when what he’s saying is wrong.

    It’s easy to challenge bullshit when it’s being delivered wildly by Trump on a debate stage. It’s much harder to challenge it when it’s being subtly baked into questions from a moderator whose employer has spent years trying to blur the lines between serious journalism and right-wing fantasy.

  • CNN Is Paying For Pro-Trump Sexual Assault Apologism

    Blog ››› ››› CARLOS MAZA

    CNN’s on-staff Trump apologists have reacted to allegations about Trump’s history of sexual harassment and assault by smearing the accusers, downplaying the severity of Trump’s comments and alleged behavior, and trivializing the impact of sexual assault. And CNN is paying them to do it.

    For months, CNN has been criticized for its decision to hire and pay a number of professional Trump surrogates -- people the network puts on air to downplay and dismiss Trump’s frequent campaign controversies.

    Since The Washington Post published 2005 audio of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, CNN’s Trump surrogates -- Corey Lewandowski, Jeffrey Lord, Kayleigh McEnany, and Scottie Nell Hughes -- have been playing defense for their candidate by dismissing the comments as “locker room” talk, denying that Trump was talking about sexual assault, calling the controversy a “distraction,” blaming his comments on 50 Shades of Grey, accusing critics of being “politically motivated,” and generally downplaying the significance of a major party’s presidential candidate talking so flippantly about groping women without their consent. “Nobody cares,” announced Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski.

    Those CNN surrogates were forced to change their message after multiple news outlets reported victims’ allegations of being sexually assaulted by Trump. Following their candidate’s lead, the network’s professional Trump apologists have repeatedly attacked the credibility of the accusers, claimed the media is ginning up the story to distract from Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and attempted to derail segments about the accusations by bringing up bogus attacks on Clinton’s work as a court-appointed defense attorney in the 1970s.

    It goes without saying that the reaction of CNN’s Trump surrogates has been deplorable -- a train wreck of normalizing and making excuses for sexual assault. In their rush to protect Trump, CNN’s Trump surrogates have described talk of sexual assault as something mundane, ordinary, and even expected. “No woman woke up affected by these words,” declared CNN’s Scottie Nell Hughes, ignoring the tremendous harm inherent when men talk about women as sexual objects to be dominated or acted upon. The message to viewers is clear: talking about sexually assaulting women is fine, so long as you’re behind closed doors and don’t actually go through with it.

    Moreover, CNN’s surrogates are putting on a master class on why women who experience sexual assault frequently don’t come forward with their stories -- using their national platform to paint Trump’s accusers as liars, political operatives, and villains in the name of defending Trump. Admitting that you’ve been victimized by a major party’s presidential nominee is hard enough. Having to see your credibility repeatedly questioned on national TV is unimaginable.

    But what makes CNN’s situation so uniquely grotesque is that the network is paying these surrogates to be professional Trump attack dogs. And in this case, it’s the surrogates’ jobs to find any way to defend their candidate on national television, even if it means downplaying the problem of sexual violence or attacking Trump’s accusers. In other words, CNN is giving these surrogates a financial incentive -- and national platform -- to peddle some of the most damaging and harmful tropes about survivors of sexual assault.

    It’s one thing for Trump’s campaign to engage in the most toxic kind of sexual assault apologism. It’s quite another for a national news network to sponsor it.

  • VIDEO: CNN Has A Trump Surrogate Problem

    The Network Is Paying Professional Trump Supporters To Derail Negative Segments About Trump


    CNN’s decision to hire and pay full-time Trump apologists -- supporters who are willing to go on air and defend Trump’s missteps -- has resulted in some of the most explosive and viral news segments of the election. But it’s also turned CNN’s election coverage into a series of ridiculous, uninformative screaming matches that mainstream bullshit in the name of “balance.”

    Over the course of the 2016 election, CNN hired four Trump supporters -- Kayleigh McEnany, Scottie Nell Hughes, Jeffrey Lord, and Corey Lewandowski -- to act as full-time Trump surrogates and defend their candidate on-air. CNN has defended its hirings by suggesting that surrogates like Lewandowski are needed to provide “balance,” especially after several of CNN’s traditional Republican commentators expressed their opposition to the GOP presidential nominee.

    CNN’s decision to hire professional Trump apologists has made for some fascinating -- if not excruciating -- television. Their appearances frequently result in screaming matches, with hosts and other panelists trying desperately (and fruitlessly) to deal with the surrogates’ barrage of talking points, misdirection, and blind stubbornness. The Trump surrogates do a masterful job of avoiding being pinned down -- they change the subject, argue in circles, make things up, and generally do whatever they can to sidetrack any negative discussion about Trump.

    So a segment about Trump’s hesitance to disavow David Duke turns into an absurd argument about whether Democrats used to support the KKK.

    A segment on Trump’s attacks on Alicia Machado’s weight becomes a debate about whether it’s actually offensive to be called an “eating machine.”

    And a segment about Trump’s recorded comments describing sexually assaulting women gets sidetracked into a decade-old smear about Hillary Clinton’s work as a court-appointed defense attorney in the 1970s..

    By the end of most segments, everyone else on the panel is yelling, in shock, or has been flustered to the point of giving up.

    This isn’t entirely the fault of the professional Trump surrogates. CNN pays them to be Trump apologists; their jobs depend on them defending their candidate regardless of how ridiculous it makes them sound. In other words, the network incentivizes them to be intractable.

    That’s especially true in the case of Lewandowski, who is still effectively working for -- and, until recently, being paid by -- the Trump campaign while being employed at CNN. Lewandowski likely signed a non-disparagement agreement with the Trump campaign, meaning he can’t speak ill of his former boss on CNN even if he wanted to.

    None of this is meant to suggest that Trump gets a free pass on the network. CNN’s Trump surrogates are regularly grilled and challenged, both by other panelists and by hosts.

    And it all makes for highly entertaining reality television.

    But for a news network, these segments are a disaster. These constant screaming matches offer nothing of substance to audiences who want to make sense of the election. Instead, they desensitize voters to bullshit -- elevating ridiculous and even blatantly dishonest defenses of Trump’s campaign into mainstream political debates. The presence of CNN’s Trump surrogates makes any segment they appear in more likely to devolve into the kind of absurdist bickering that makes many viewers tune out or give up on being politically engaged altogether.

    If CNN wants to feature pro-Trump voices in its election coverage, it can rely on guests who actually work for the campaign. But rewarding professional bullshit artists like Hughes, McEnany, Lord, and Lewandowski with CNN salaries and job titles sets a dangerous precedent for a news network: a move toward “balance” even when it comes at the cost of reasonable, useful coverage.

  • VIDEO: Trump Is Dodging Interviews With Spanish-Language News Networks


    Donald Trump hasn’t done an interview with a Spanish language news network in 14 months, magnifying a dangerous rift between the Republican Party and networks like Univision and Telemundo.

    The last time Trump sat down for an interview with a Spanish language news network was in June 2015. Trump had just launched his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants “criminals” and “rapists,” and Telemundo’s José Díaz-Balart was ready for him. Díaz-Balart grilled Trump on his comments, using statistics to debunk his fearmongering about immigrants and asking “is this what you think of the Latino community in the United States?”

    Since then, Trump has essentially declared war on Telemundo and Univision, the two largest Spanish speaking news networks in the country.

    He filed a $500 million lawsuit against Univision after the network dropped its coverage of Trump’s Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants. When Univision’s Jorge Ramos sent Trump a handwritten letter asking for an interview, Trump published the letter -- along with Ramos’ personal cellphone number -- and mocked the network for “begging” him for an interview.

    At a July 2015 press conference, Trump shouted down Díaz-Balart after being asked again about his immigration comments, calling the question a “typical case of the press with misinterpretation” and saying “Telemundo should be ashamed.” In August 2015, Trump infamously threw Jorge Ramos out of a press conference, telling Ramos to “go back to Univision.” His campaign went on to deny press credentials to an Univision correspondent in October 2015.

    The standoff has continued into 2016, with the Trump campaign denying the networks’ repeated requests for interviews and even taunting Ramos’ interview requests by soliciting him for a campaign donation.

    The lack of outreach to Spanish speakers goes beyond just interviews -- Politico noted that Trump’s “English-only campaign” has failed to create a Spanish-language version of Trump’s website or purchase any Spanish-language ads.

    But the problem extends beyond Trump. RNC officials are growing increasingly skeptical of their relationship with Spanish-language networks. For the first time in 3 election cycles, Republicans didn’t have a presidential forum hosted by Univision. And the RNC tried to pull the plug on a Telemundo Republican primary debate, citing concerns about fairness. Telemundo eventually joined with CNN to host a Republican debate, during which Trump answered a question about his support with Latino voters by declaring “I don’t believe anything Telemundo says.”

    Given how anti-immigrant extremism -- has come to define the GOP front runner’s campaign, it’s not surprising that Trump has avoided contact with Spanish-language news networks. But blacklisting Spanish news networks means not talking to a huge chunk of American voters and setting a troubling precedent for Republicans who want to avoid answering tough questions.

  • VIDEO: Lester Holt Proved We Need Fact-Checking In Debates


    Lester Holt challenged Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on claims he made during the first presidential debate, highlighting the value of having moderators who are willing to fact-check false claims in real-time.

    During the September 26 presidential debate, moderator Holt challenged Trump on inaccurate claims the candidate made about releasing his tax returns, promoting the birther conspiracy, and supporting the war in Iraq:

    Holt stayed out of much of the debate, but intervened when Trump made glaring factual errors about his own record. Holt’s restraint made his fact-checks more powerful, drawing significant attention to Trump’s falsehoods, and tripping up the candidate before he could turn those lies into attacks on his opponent.

    Holt’s fact-checking likely had a significant impact on the millions of voters for whom the debate was a first hard look at the candidates. But it’s just one battle in the larger struggle over whether moderators should fact-check the candidates in real-time. Both campaigns have argued over the issue, with Trump’s campaign predictably arguing that moderators should stay out of factual disputes during the debates.

    That argument has gained some notable supporters -- NBC’s Matt Lauer was harshly criticized for failing to fact-check Trump’s claims about opposing the Iraq War during this month’s presidential forum. Fox News’ Chris Wallace, who will moderate the final presidential debate, has already said he doesn’t believe it’s job to be a “truth squad.” Even the executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates told CNN recently that moderators shouldn’t be fact-checkers.

    But leaving the fact-checking to the candidates, rather than the moderators, can contribute to spreading misinformation among voters. Research suggests that audiences that watch this kind of “he said/she said” debate end up feeling less capable of figuring out the truth, causing some to give up trying to resolve factual disputes altogether. Moderators who can carefully choose to intervene during important factual disputes offer a powerful antidote to that kind of passive misinformation.

    Lester Holt’s performance set a powerful example of the value that measured fact-checks can have in keeping candidate’s honest. If the other debate moderators follow his lead, they’ll be doing voters, and the whole of campaign journalism, a real service.

  • WATCH: Three Minutes Of Race Baiting From CNN’s Paid “Law Enforcement Analyst” Harry Houck

    "Where Is The Crime? African American Neighborhoods. Hispanic Neighborhoods."

    Blog ››› ››› CARLOS MAZA

    On September 22, CNN’s law enforcement analyst Harry Houck attempted to defend the police shooting of Terence Crutcher, the unarmed black man who was killed in Tulsa, OK, after his car broke down on the road. Houck argued Crutcher was being uncooperative and might have been making a “furtive move” for a weapon in his car. Prior to that appearance, Houck accused critics of the shooting of “playing [the] race card,” describing outrage over Crutcher’s death as part of “the war on police.”

    Since being hired as CNN’s law enforcement analyst in May 2015, Houck has used his national platform to defend police officers accused of violence and other misconduct by peddling racist tropes about black criminality, demonizing the Black Lives Matter movement, and blaming black victims of police violence.

    One month after the death of Freddie Gray -- as cable news networks debated racial bias in the criminal justice system -- CNN hired former New York Police Department Detective Harry Houck as a “law enforcement analyst.” During one of his first appearances on the network as a paid analyst, Houck specifically thanked anchor Anderson Cooper for helping get him the job, saying, “This man is responsible for this occurrence.”

    Houck appeared on CNN 204 times between May 18, 2015, and August 1, 2016. And while he’s often invited to discuss crime stories like active shooter situations, Houck is best known for his absurd defenses of police officers accused of mistreating African-Americans. In dozens of segments, Houck has found ways to blame black victims of police violence, deny the existence of racial profiling in law enforcement, and peddle racist tropes about black criminality.

    Race Baiting And Black Criminality

    Houck has repeatedly suggested that African-American and Hispanic communities are policed more aggressively than white communities because “they’re not behaving.” He frequently echoes the racist myth that people of color are more likely to commit crimes, prompting pushback from other CNN guests who have repeatedly had to respond to his race-baiting remarks. During the July 11, 2016, edition of New Day, when asked by a fellow guest if he was suggesting that black people are “prone to criminality,” Houck responded, “They are!”

    Houck also downplays the reality of racial profiling in the criminal justice system, calling it “something that somebody made up.” He regularly dismisses evidence showing unequal treatment for minorities in the criminal justice system, mocking comprehensive studies and academic research showing that African-Americans are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. In Houck’s view, African-Americans are targeted by law enforcement because they’re the ones committing crime.

    On Twitter, Houck is even less subtle about his race baiting. He regularly tweets about the threat posed by “black thugs,” decries what he calls “black thug privilage” (sic), and even tweeted a link to a white supremacist website. In July, Houck posted a link to a video from “men’s rights” activist Tommy Sotomayor calling on President Obama to “ban niggas.”

    Victim Blaming

    Houck has also used his CNN platform to blame high-profile African-American victims of police violence, going to absurd lengths to defend police officers while denying the existence of racial bias. Houck consistently finds ways to blame black victims for their mistreatment by police -- in his view, Eric Garner was resisting arrest, Sandra Bland was being “arrogant” and “uncooperative,” and Alton Sterling wasn’t complying with officers. He defended the police killing of Tamir Rice, saying officers “didn’t have a choice” but to shoot the 12-year-old boy. He defended a police officer who grabbed a South Carolina high school student and yanked her from her classroom desk, claiming the student “probably has no respect at home or on the street.”

    Houck’s victim-blaming often leads him to make blatantly false statements about these incidents on national television, like falsely claiming Bland refused to identify herself to police, and falsely claiming an officer informed a pregnant California woman she was being arrested before attempting to arrest her.

    Criticizing Black Lives Matter

    Houck has also used his CNN platform to demonize the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Houck has described the movement as part of the progressive “war on police,” claiming that “the left does not give a damn about police officers’ lives.” During the August 30, 2015, edition of CNN Newsroom, Houck compared BLM to hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Houck also blames the murder of police officers on protests against police brutality. After the December 2014 killing of two NYPD police officers, Houck went on CNN and declared, “Two dead police officers, and I guess Al Sharpton got what he wanted.”

    Houck has also used Twitter to attack BLM, describing it as a “thug group” and a movement to “turn criminals into victims and cops into criminals.” On August 15, 2016, Houck retweeted an image calling BLM “the new KKK.”

    Petition To Drop Houck

    CNN’s decision to continue employing Houck has been criticized by the group ColorOfChange, which launched a petition in October 2015 asking CNN to stop hosting him. ColorOfChange criticized Houck’s “character assassination” of the black 16-year-old South Carolina student who was thrown from her desk by a police officer, also noting Houck’s “blind hero worshiping of the officer.”

    In July 2016, following Houck’s comments about black criminality, ColorOfChange again asked the network to stop inviting him to discuss racial bias in law enforcement, writing:

    Racist statements like this drive the attitudes and stereotypes that lead police officers to regularly commit brutal acts of violence that result in Black people like Alton Sterling and Philando Sterling being killed.

    We are sick of CNN contributor and ex-NYPD detective Harry Houck’s one-man crusade against Black victims of law enforcement violence. Houck’s blind support of police abuse and reinforcement of racist stereotypes is dangerous.

    The group’s petition has garnered over 70,000 signatures, but that hasn’t stopped CNN from continuing to employ Houck as the network’s “law enforcement analyst.”


    Media Matters used iQ media and Nexis to search CNN transcripts for the name “Houck” between May 18, 2015 -- Houck’s first appearance as a network “law enforcement analyst” -- and August 1, 2016. Reruns and snippets from pre-recorded interviews were excluded. For blocks of ongoing coverage of active shooter situations, segments were counted only when the host would begin by introducing and identifying Houck for the audience.

    Top image created by Sarah Wasko.

  • CNN Law Enforcement Analyst: Outrage Over Terence Crutcher Shooting Is Part Of "The War On Police"

    Blog ››› ››› CARLOS MAZA

    CNN law enforcement analyst Harry Houck accused Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton of playing the “race card for black votes” following her comments about the police shooting of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, OK, describing the comments as part of "the war on police."

    On September 20, Clinton commented on several recent police shootings of black men, including Crutcher, who was unarmed when he was killed. Clinton lamented the shootings, calling Crutcher’s death “unbearable” and saying the country must “tackle systemic racism.”

    Following Clinton’s remarks, Houck took to Twitter to accuse her of playing the “race card for black votes”:

    Houck’s comments came shortly before he appeared on the September 22 edition of CNN’s New Day to discuss Crutcher’s death. During the segment, Houck argued that Crutcher wasn’t being compliant with the officer and that he might have been making a “furtive move” for a weapon -- continuing Houck’s long history of blaming black victims of police violence:

    On Twitter, Houck also attempted to defend the Tulsa officer’s decision to shoot Crutcher, writing:

    If there was a gun in the car, and he was reaching for it, and the officers waited until they saw it, then an officer might be dead right now. This is why you must comply with officer’s commands.

    Houck also appeared on Newsmax TV, where he defended the shooting of Crutcher as well as the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, a black man who was killed by police in Charlotte, N.C. “This is a disgusting display of alleged leadership,” Houck said of Clinton’s comments, adding, “This is all part of the war on police that I always talk about”:

    Houck has been a constant source of race baiting and police apologism on CNN, repeatedly suggesting that black people are prone to criminality and blaming victims of police brutality for their own mistreatment.

    In July 2015, the group ColorOfChange launched a petition asking CNN to “Drop Harry Houck.”

  • VIDEO: Inside The “Alt-Right’s” White Nationalist, Pro-Trump Press Conference

    “We Have Not Been Made By Trump, But We Want To Make Trump”


    On September 9, three of the country’s most notorious white nationalists held a press conference in Washington, D.C., titled “What Is The Alt-Right?” The event, organized by the white nationalist “think tank” the National Policy Institute (NPI), came in response to growing media interest in the “alt-right” movement. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has helped mainstream the racist movement, including by hiring Breitbart News executive chairman Stephen Bannon as his campaign CEO. As the Southern Poverty Law Center has noted, under Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart has “has been openly promoting the core issues of the Alt-Right, introducing these racist ideas to its readership.”

    The press conference, which mixed plainly racist propaganda with praise for Trump’s campaign, highlights the “alt-right’s” desire to become a mainstream, professional, and legitimate part of American politics. Trump’s extreme position on immigration and other issues has propelled members of the “alt-right” into the spotlight, giving them unprecedented access to news networks and national audiences.

    But while the speakers at the conference acknowledged that the movement had been “riding [Trump’s] coattails,” they also made clear that they weren’t interested in being a “Trump cheerleading squad.” For them, this election is an opportunity to make the case for a pro-white political agenda that goes far beyond 2016. “The ideas of the alt-right are gaining ground rapidly, Trump or no Trump,” said one speaker. “We are gaining ground because we are right.”

  • The New York Times Proves "False Balance" Is Ruining Good Campaign Coverage

    Why Treating Every Campaign Controversy Equally Is A Recipe For Bad Reporting

    Blog ››› ››› CARLOS MAZA

    The New York Times’ public editor defended the paper’s coverage of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton from criticism by arguing journalists should try to treat controversies involving Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump equally. It’s a defense that highlights the real danger posed by “false balance” in campaign journalism during the 2016 election.

    In a September 10 piece titled “The Truth About ‘False Balance,’” New York Times public editor Liz Spayd defended her paper’s extensive reporting on the controversies surrounding the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Critics say the Times’ coverage has hyped minor scandals and contributed to a perception that Clinton and Trump are equally flawed candidates. That coverage, critics argue, perpetuates a “false balance” that fails to reflect the uniquely dangerous and divisive nature of Trump's campaign.

    In her response, Spayd accused critics of trying to force newspapers to insert “moral and ideological judgments” into their campaign coverage, warning of a “slippery slope” if journalists are asked to decide which campaign controversies are worth prioritizing:

    The problem with false balance doctrine is that it masquerades as rational thinking. What the critics really want is for journalists to apply their own moral and ideological judgments to the candidates. Take one example. Suppose journalists deem Clinton’s use of private email servers a minor offense compared with Trump inciting Russia to influence an American election by hacking into computers — remember that? Is the next step for a paternalistic media to barely cover Clinton’s email so that the public isn’t confused about what’s more important? Should her email saga be covered at all? It’s a slippery slope. [emphasis added]

    The problem with Spayd’s argument is that one of the basic functions of a newsroom is to make judgment calls about which stories deserve attention and which don’t.

    When a local TV station interrupts a weather report to cover a deadly terrorist attack, it’s making a judgment about which story should be more important to the public. When a newspaper puts a major oil spill on the front page rather than a story about a low-level crime, it’s making a similar judgment.

    Conversely, if CNN spent the same amount of time covering a celebrity’s stint in rehab as it did on a terrorist attack, it would be rightly mocked. Not because the celebrity rehab story isn’t true, but because one story obviously deserves more attention than the other.

    Those types of editorial decisions don’t create a “slippery slope” -- they define the actions of respectable news sources. Even the Times’ masthead -- “All The News That’s Fit To Print” -- asks the reader to trust the paper’s editorial judgment when deciding what news qualifies as “fit to print.”

    Every journalist in every newsroom in America already makes those decisions. They’re not machines, and they’re not blank slates. Part of their job is exercising their judgment to figure out which stories are worth telling, and how to tell them.

    But Spayd’s argument suggests that journalists should withhold judgment and pretend voters should fixate just as much on emails as they do on mass deportations, or a Muslim ban, or any of the dozens of other unprecedented controversies that would have ended a normal candidate’s campaign but haven’t derailed Trump.

    Spayd suggests that critics of “false balance” are likely liberals hoping to pass off “partisan” judgments as objective facts:

    I can’t help wondering about the ideological motives of those crying false balance, given that they are using the argument mostly in support of liberal causes and candidates. CNN’s Brian Stelter focused his show, “Reliable Sources,” on this subject last weekend. He asked a guest, Jacob Weisberg of Slate magazine, to frame the idea of false balance. Weisberg used an analogy, saying journalists are accustomed to covering candidates who may be apples and oranges, but at least are still both fruits. In Trump, he said, we have not fruit but rancid meat. That sounds like a partisan’s explanation passed off as a factual judgment.

    That Spayd can’t bring herself to admit that Trump and Clinton are categorically different, that Trump is a uniquely dangerous and unqualified candidate, should make any reader wary of the Times’ coverage.

    Listing all of the reasons that Trump deserves to be treated differently -- his ties to white nationalists, his ties to Russia, his calls for an unconstitutional Muslim ban, his racist attacks on Mexican immigrants -- feels silly at this point. The differences between the two candidates are not merely “partisan,” which is why so many high-profile Republicans have come out against their party’s candidate.

    Spayd acknowledges that Trump’s behavior has led many Republicans to reject Trump, but she claims that “If Trump is unequivocally more flawed than his opponent, that should be plenty evident to the voting public come November. But it should be evident from the kinds of facts that bold and dogged reporting unearths, not from journalists being encouraged to impose their own values to tip the scale.”

    This argument ignores how the editorial judgments that journalists make help shape how the voting public weighs those facts and reports. If the Times publishes 16 front page articles on the Clinton Foundation before it gets around to reporting on the Trump Foundation, readers will be left with the impression that the former is more important, no matter how damning the latter story may be.

    Spayd points to the fact that neither candidate is well-liked or trusted, arguing that “if ever there was a time to shine light in all directions, this is it.” It’s a bizarrely self-fulfilling argument. Breathless media coverage about Clinton’s email server and ties to the Clinton Foundation have undoubtedly contributed to voters’ perceptions that Clinton isn’t trustworthy. But Spayd cites that perception to justify yet more breathless media coverage of those controversies, even as she acknowledges it was “not good journalism” when some of the paper’s reports have “revealed relatively little bad behavior, yet were written as if they did.”

    But the more important point is that voters’ biases or perceptions of the candidates shouldn’t dictate what stories news organizations prioritize. If voters are equally suspicious of both candidates, but one is dramatically more dangerous or untrustworthy than the other, good editorial judgment should challenge that suspicion, not merely echo it.

    The truth is no candidate, Clinton or otherwise, can run a campaign without controversies. Journalists will always be able to find a gaffe on which to fixate. But not all campaign controversies are created equally. Part of a journalist’s job is to help readers cut through the noise of a presidential campaign and focus on what really matters.

    And that’s the real problem with Spayd’s argument: Refusing to treat campaign stories differently is a judgment call. It communicates to readers that Clinton’s email server is as shocking and newsworthy as, for example, Trump’s pledge to ban Muslims from entering the country.

    It’s not.

    And any newspaper that’s afraid to make that judgment call -- that’s afraid of telling readers what’s really at stake in November -- is shirking one of the most basic and important functions of a free press during election season.