Was Democratic presidential candidate Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump gives Lester Holt a C grade for debate Congress departs for recess until after Election Day House approves stopgap funding, averting costly shutdown MORE "defensive" on the Iowa campaign trail last month? Or was she "loosening up" and "turning on the charm"?
It depends on where you get your news.
The thrust of a Guardian story about a "town hall" meeting of the candidates in Des Moines, Iowa last Monday was that Clinton was "struggling to inspire young voters" and was "put on the defensive" by one young voter in particular. The "awkward encounter" contrasted "with a more-than-usually charming [Vermont Sen. Bernie] Sanders, who appeared comfortable among the young audience."
The Times, meanwhile, reporting from the Starlite Ballroom in Davenport, Iowa, two days earlier, found Clinton "drawing on new energy" and displaying "a breezy, agreeable manner."
Cynical readers — that is to say, most readers these days — consider these kinds of disparities to be old news. There never was any such thing as unbiased journalism and — note the non sequitur — there's even less now.
But mainstream news outlets continue to be held to that standard and, I would argue, their news coverage meets that standard more often than the cynics think.
One obvious mistake the cynics make is assuming that the political orientation of a paper's editorial board — or its board of directors — drives the paper's news coverage. At most reputable news outlets, it doesn't.
Then there's the role of confirmation bias. Once you, a supporter of Candidate A, become convinced that a news source favors Candidate B, you latch onto stories that favor Candidate B — Hah! See? — overlook coverage that is evenhanded, and regard coverage that favors Candidate A as objective journalism, for a change.
(And here I must disclose my own partiality toward Sanders, though for the life of me I can't see how he will be able to bring about the political revolution he is calling for.)
It is precisely because news organizations like The New York Times are mostly reliable news sources that their lapses into unreliable coverage are so jarring. Late last month, Times columnist Frank Bruni included his own paper among those that over-rely on unreliable polls and traffic in "horse race" journalism. And Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has concluded that the paper has "played down" Sanders's candidacy and found coverage of his campaign to be "dismissive, even mocking." Astonishingly, she reported that the Times, which put reporter Amy Chozick on the Clinton beat back in the summer of 2013, only recently assigned a full-time reporter to Sanders.
Indeed, Chozick's friendly front-page story about Clinton's visit to Davenport is part of a larger pattern. Consider the headlines on the paper's stories about the four Democratic candidates debates to date:
- Oct. 13: Hillary Clinton Turns Up Heat on Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Finance: Congress poised to avoid shutdown | Yellen defends Fed from Trump | Why Obama needs PhRMA on trade Trump mocks Clinton for stumbling while sick with pneumonia Brent Budowsky: Sanders and Warren shine MORE in a Sharp Debate
- Nov. 14: Rivals at Democratic Debate Attack Hillary Clinton
- Dec. 19: In Democratic Debate, Hillary Clinton's Focus Is on G.O.P.
- Jan. 17: In Democratic Debate, Hillary Clinton Challenges Bernie Sanders on Policy Shifts
In addition to dominating the headlines, Clinton's name led off all four stories. Three of the four gave her the last word, as well. (The first one ended with a quote from former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb — remember him?)
The Times would probably argue that it has focused more attention on Clinton because she has been the front-runner. The objection is the self-fulfilling dimension of that focus: Devote disproportionate attention to the front-runner and you risk enhancing her status as the front-runner.
As it has played out, to the surprise of nearly everyone, the Times' anointing has flopped spectacularly. The paper has been an ineffectual shill for Clinton while damaging its own credibility along the way. I critiqued the Times' coverage of the first debate in an earlier column. The lead story about the second debate was probably the most evenhanded; the lead story about the third debate was the least.
On Nov. 14, the Times reported that Clinton was "pummeled by rivals ... over her ties to Wall Street and her foreign policy record." On Dec. 19, though, the Times was ready to declare the race all but over. In this debate, Clinton "looked past her Democratic rivals," displayed her confidence that she would get the party's nomination, "defended herself forcefully" when attacked by Sanders and O'Malley, and thus emerged "unscathed."
The Times can be forgiven for not rehashing Sanders's viral diatribes against the "millionaires and billionaires" who run the country, but those who thought he at least held his own looked in vain for any mention of his call for reform of "a very broken criminal justice system."
Finally, on Jan. 17, the Times was forced to acknowledge Sanders's "electoral appeal," but focused on Clinton's efforts to expose his "policy shifts," which, one might assume, would restore the independent Vermont senator to his rightful position as a charming and temporary impediment in the way of the Clinton juggernaut.
If The Times has decided to forego impartial coverage of political campaigns in favor of more of an advocacy approach, it should make an announcement to that effect. If it hasn't, it needs to take the critiques of its own public editor and others seriously and take its thumb off the scale.
Frank teaches journalism at Penn State University.