Media Collusion in This Year's Versions of the 'Deplorables' Distortion

by Neil H. Buchanan

Supposedly, the press corps has learned that bothsidesism is not a harmless exercise.  If anyone -- or at least any group with large numbers of white people -- should have newly learned what can happen when lies are not called lies and context is lost, it is American political reporters.

Even after their huge assist in painting Hillary Clinton as a serial liar and spending ungodly amounts of time hyping her email servers in 2016, all the while hesitating to call Donald Trump's lies "lies," journalists have been rewarded by being called "the true enemy of the American people."

But we know that old habits die hard.  One of the worst habits of the collective press's mind is the "To be fair, let's also look at what Democrats are doing wrong" approach to campaign coverage.  It would be bad enough if this were merely false equivalence (of which there is plenty), such as pretending that confronting a U.S. Senator in an elevator represents "incivility" in American politics that must be compared to Trump's spewing of hatred.

But it is much worse than that, because the media often simply gets the story wrong or short-hands it in a way that completely misleads the public and that cements in the collective mind a narrative that is both unfair and damaging to the way voters and potential voters perceive politicians.

The leading example of this phenomenon in 2016 was "the deplorables comment."  In 2018, there is nothing to that extreme degree thus far, but there are some cases in which the shorthand versions of stories completely reverse the reality.  This leaves voters confused and potential voters saying, "Why bother?  They're all bad."

One example of this type of distortion is an incident in a restaurant in Virginia this past June.  There, the employees of a restaurant told its owner that they did not want to serve White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and the owner then informed Sanders about those feelings and discreetly suggested that it would be best for her to leave.  By all accounts, the incident was handled quietly and politely, and it could have been something that none of the rest of the world would ever have known about.

But Sanders, who knows a good Trumpian moment when she sees it, decided not only to publicize the incident but to name the restaurant.  She had to know that making the incident into a national news story would result in the restaurant receiving a barrage of hatred and threats, and surely she knew that Trump would find it an irresistible moment to develop the claim -- still nascent prior to the recent Supreme Court fight -- that the left was losing control of its senses and had to be stopped.

In response to this escalation, the mainstream press decided to do their usual tut-tutting, with the usual results.  The Washington Post's reliable concern troll, Aaron Blake, decided to weigh in on the Sanders restaurant story by telling us all how worrisome it is that Democrats are abandoning Michelle Obama's "When they go low, we go high" exhortation, replacing it with (in Blake's words) "We fight fire with fire."  (Notably, Blake links those quoted words to a piece by a fellow Post columnist, but that column never uses those words.)

The message of the piece was that we should all be worried about what happened to poor Sarah, which raised "very important societal questions."  Blake then described what happened as "the Sanders ejection" (seriously? ejection?) and said that such an event "lead[s] to reactions like" a comment by Rep. Maxine Waters:
"For these members of his Cabinet who remain and try to defend [Trump], they’re not going to be able to go to a restaurant, they’re not going to be able to stop at a gas station, they’re not going to be able to shop [at] a department store. The people are going to turn on them, they’re going to protest, they’re going to absolutely harass them."
Whether one calls what Waters said a prediction or a rallying cry, she did describe a future that most people do not want to see.  But she did not call for violence, and even the words "absolutely harass" describe a situation in which a person is being confronted with words and shouts.  Unpleasant, yes.  Indeed, that is the world that staff and patients at abortion clinics have been navigating for decades,  but with the very real knowledge of deadly violence that has accompanied hateful words and aggressive body positioning in the past.

But again, that is not a good way to behave.  Therefore, if Waters was saying, "Hey everybody, let's do that," then my response is to say no, we should not.  But to get back to the larger point of this column, what is interesting is that Post columnist Jennifer Rubin later linked to Blake's piece to support her description of Waters's comments as "essentially [a] call for mobs to descend upon Trump aides."  Even though Rubin's columns on the Sanders controversy (including the one citing Blake) were generally quite insightful, she nonetheless used the "call for mobs" as her shorthand.  (Again, this was months before Trump and Lindsey Graham responded to the Kavanaugh fight by describing Democrats as angry mobs -- descriptions that Rubin has rightly derided.)

What really happened?  Some citizens who were unhappy about Trump's policies handled a potentially volatile situation well, at which point Sanders and Trump went into full attack mode, and one Democrat said that people will or should confront Trump's enablers in public.  Finally, even a decidedly anti-Trump writer accused Democrats of calling out the mobs.

Is that the only example?  Of course not.  A recent New York Times news analysis article described how Trump's "pugilistic" style was infecting other Republicans' language choices.  So far, so good.  In describing one such example, however, the writers referred to an attack by the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Arizona, who is claiming that her opponent "says it’s O.K. for an American to join the Taliban."

The flimsy basis for that claim was a 2003 interview in which the future Democratic candidate, Kyrsten Sinema, was being interviewed by a hard-line libertarian radio host about the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  According to a very good FactCheck piece, the host was going on about how the government should not spend his money on the war, and he added provocatively that he ought to be able to make a "personal decision" to "go fight in the Taliban army."  Frustrated, Sinema responded: "Fine. I don’t care if you want to do that, go ahead."

The Republican's attack on Sinema are standard-issue McCarthyism, but that is hardly surprising.  For present purposes, the important point is that the writers in The Times provided none of those background facts and short-handed the incident by saying that the Republican "was referring to a hypothetical question in a radio interview in 2003, when Ms. Sinema expressed indifference to the prospect of an American joining the Taliban."

An American?  What Sinema had actually done was to say that she did not care if one particular American, a loud-mouthed radio host who obviously was blowing smoke, went ahead and fought with the Taliban, because she wanted to get back to the actual subject of the interview.  Yet The Times -- not the Republican candidate -- sees fit to describe what happened as "expressing indifference" about an American fighting with the Taliban.  Again, this is happening even though the story has already having been fully fact-checked and debunked.

Perhaps the most pernicious example of this problem, however, is the hype over former Attorney General Eric Holder's rejection of Michelle Obama's "When they go low, we go high" exhortation.  Here is what Holder said: "When they go low, we kick ’em.  When I say we, you know, ‘We kick ‘em,’ I don’t mean we do anything inappropriate. We don’t do anything illegal."  He thus immediately and specifically rejects not just doing anything strictly illegal but even doing anything inappropriate.  What more could the pearl-clutchers want?

As always, only the provocative part of Holder's statement was widely reported.  It did not matter that Republicans were tacitly admitting that they have every intention of continuing to go low -- after all, if they were not planning to stay in the gutter, they would have no reason to worry about being kicked.  Predictably, not only did Fox News run with only the first seven words, but mainstream reporters quickly followed suit.

The article in The Times that described Kyrsten Sinema as "expressing indifference" about an idiot spouting off about the Taliban also included, in its penultimate paragraph, the claim that Democrats have "responded in kind" to Republicans' escalating rhetoric.  Their examples?  Maxine Waters, of course.  A completely out of context statement from earlier this year by Joe Biden, who said that he would have "beat the hell" out of Trump when they were in high school, because of Trump's attitudes about sexually assaulting women.  And Holder's "kick 'em" comment, with no context or hint that Holder had explicitly disclaimed inappropriate behavior.

Hillary Clinton's "deplorables"comment was, as I and many others have explained endlessly, an accurate claim that roughly half of the people who were supporting Trump in 2016 were beyond reach because of their bigotry and hatred -- today, that guesstimate seems more than a trifle low -- but even more importantly, she was talking about NOT giving up on the rest of the people who were considering a vote for Trump.  It was, in other words, a comment that was both accurate and hopeful, exactly the kind of optimistic reaching out that we would want to hear from our leaders.

But almost everyone, very much including mainstream reporters, editors, and pundits, now uses "deplorables" as a shorthand for the demonstrably false claim that Clinton had nothing but disdain for all of Trump's supporters.  Now, that same lazy attitude finds its way into nearly every public discussion, with false equivalence giving way to simply false claims about what Democrats have said.  All of us may soon pay the price.