Media False Equivalence Is Trump’s Best Friend in the Debate Over Racism

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She said, he said. It's all the same to "even-handed" media.Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images; Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton offered a reasonably detailed indictment of Donald Trump’s racially offensive utterances and associations. You don’t have to agree with every characterization she made, or with the underlying innuendo that Trump is himself a racist, to acknowledge she made a decent prosecutor’s prima facie case.

In response, Trump repeated his latest claim, offered with zero supporting evidence (unless you call assertions that she knows her policies will hurt African-Americans “evidence”), that Clinton is herself “a bigot.”

Here’s how the two candidates’ comments were covered at the Washington Post by John Wagner and Jenna Johnson:

“Clinton, Trump exchange racially charged accusations”

Was the treatment of Clinton’s and Trump’s comments as an “exchange” just a headline convenience? No. Here’s the lede:

A series of racially charged accusations dominated the presidential campaign Thursday, with Democrat Hillary Clinton accusing Donald Trump of “taking hate groups mainstream,” while the Republican nominee repeatedly claimed that Clinton is a “bigot” toward African Americans.

And on and on it went, with she said, he said, she said, he said. The only breaks from the scrupulously even-handed treatment were (1) an aside suggesting that Clinton’s talk about racism was an effort to distract attention from her email and Clinton Foundation problems, and (2) an account of Anderson Cooper’s efforts to get Trump to explain exactly how and why Clinton is a bigot. But if you were assessing the day on the campaign trail based strictly on the Post account, you’d judge it as a draw.

But the Post wasn’t alone. Here’s the headline for Politico’s “racism” story:

“Trump and Clinton throw more blows in bigotry fight”

In my own piece about Clinton’s Reno speech yesterday, I suggested one of the risks she ran was the perception that she was getting down in the gutter with Trump in a negative slug fest, a meme that could overwhelm the actual substance of what she is saying. But if major media organizations treat everything Trump says as equivalent in gravity and proximity to the truth as everything Clinton says, it could get even worse. After all, Trump throws out insults all the time, at nearly everybody. If insults equal fact-based attacks, the sheer volume of insults could win in the end.