Most politicians think they get unfair treatment from the media, in part because any coverage that does not communicate their full grandeur — their incisive mind, their sparkling personality, their unimpeachable integrity — must be unfair. No one believes this more strongly than Donald Trump, who devotes a substantial part of every rally he holds to railing against journalists and news organizations, often in unusually personal and vicious terms. And now he is combining his critique of the media with a broader argument that the entire system is "rigged" against him, so determined is the parasitic establishment to keep him from making America great again.
But is it possible he has a point?
Here's what we can say: Faced with this most unusual candidate, the media have struggled to figure out how they should talk about and report on Trump. And they haven't come up with a perfect answer yet, at least not one that everyone agrees on.
In ordinary circumstances, journalists have a well-established template for covering candidates: You go to their events and report what they say; explore their policy plans; examine their sources of support and describe what voters think about them; and of course discuss any campaign controversies or genuine scandals that should happen to come up. Even if you privately come to substantive judgments about them (this one's a jerk, that one's an idiot), you find other people who will speak those judgments on the record so that it's not you saying them. Then you wrap everything in lots of passive-voice constructions ("New questions are being raised…") to assure your audience that they're getting just the facts.
That's an oversimplified description of campaign coverage, and conservatives in particular would argue that it covers up for all kinds of "liberal bias" that infect the news as reporters jam their personal opinions down our collective throats. The truth, though, is that while there are many kinds of bias at work — like the bias for conflict, the bias for change over stasis, or the bias for the perspective of establishment sources — ideological bias is probably the least important.
So if you're looking for an explanation for why Trump might get treated differently than other candidates, you won't find it in the fact that he's a Republican, any more than Trump's explanation for why he gets audited by the IRS ("maybe because of the fact that I'm a strong Christian") makes any sense.
There's no question Trump is being treated differently, just not in the way he'd have you believe. For instance, let's take the question of how to handle his dishonesty. This is an area in which Trump differs from any prior candidate, Democrat or Republican. They all say things that aren't true from time to time, some more than others. But no candidate has ever lied as promiscuously or insistently as Trump, who is constantly making things up, then persisting in lying even when the lie has been pointed out again and again.
The enterprise of fact-checking relies on some measure of shame, the idea that a candidate won't want to be called out for lying, and so will at a minimum stop repeating a lie once he's been caught. Not so Donald Trump, who seems not to care a whit. So partly out of frustration but partly because so many of Trump's lies are repeated and obvious, some cable networks have taken to real-time fact-checking via chyrons. As Trump speaks, you might read "Trump says he watched (nonexistent) video of Iran receiving cash" or "Trump: I never said Japan should have nukes (he did)" on the screen.
If the people in the control booth are absolutely sure about that conclusion, there's no problem with that. It can and should be applied to every candidate, even if no others make it as easy as Trump does. We're also seeing some of that in print stories, as reporters are electing not to fall back on "Critics say this statement is incorrect" but just saying, "This statement is false" when he says something false, and explaining why.
The more difficult question is how to deal with the nastier impulses Trump is encouraging: his xenophobia, his sometimes naked bigotry, the encouragement of violence and hatred that has marked so much of his campaigning. Is it the daily reporter's job to say, "This is frightening and immoral," or is that best left to opinion writers? While few reporters have abandoned the stance of objectivity, many are asking themselves whether they should, in order to forcefully condemn the toxicity of the Trump campaign.
But the truth is that it's entirely unnecessary. There are plenty of voices from the opinion side (like yours truly) condemning Trump; what reporters ought to do is apply their skills to his campaign as best they can. If Trump is as awful as so many believe (spoiler alert: he is), truthful reporting will do much more to harm him than statements of opinion. We learned about the scam of Trump University because reporters investigated his background just as they do with any candidate. The enthusiasm for Trump among white supremacists is worth exploring in the same way you'd explore Hillary Clinton's support from women voters or labor unions. That information provides the raw materials from which people can make conclusions.
And Trump just creates more news than Clinton does. As one New York Times editor told media columnist Jim Rutenberg, "If you have a nominee who expresses warmth toward one of our most mischievous and menacing adversaries, a nominee who shatters all the norms about how our leaders treat families whose sons died for our country, a nominee proposing to rethink the alliances that have guided our foreign policy for 60 years, that demands coverage — copious coverage and aggressive coverage." Clinton's response to the self-immolating spectacle of the Trump campaign has in large part been to lay low, allowing him to suck up all the media's attention while she does comparatively boring campaign events designed primarily to get positive local coverage.
Even under the prevailing and much criticized he said/she said mode of describing events, reporting on Trump may wind up sounding more negative. When Clinton says that she looks forward to standing with our NATO allies, you won't find many people objecting. But when Trump proposes something stunning like not honoring the terms of the alliance for an ally who was attacked unless we get paid, any reporter who asked a foreign policy expert about it would be met with "He said what???" That response will then make it into the story, which will wind up describing a situation in which lots of people think Trump is a lunatic.
Trump, of course, will say it's all biased against him. But there's a big difference between coverage that's negative and coverage that's unfair. When the Watergate scandal was revealed, Richard Nixon received a lot of negative coverage, but that doesn't mean it was inappropriate. And when reporters accurately describe the atmosphere at Trump rallies, which often vibrate with racism and misogyny, they aren't out to get him, they're reporting the truth of his campaign.
So if what you're reading and watching about Trump feels different, that's much less a product of reporters treating him differently than prior candidates, and much more the simple fact that Trump is in fact such a different candidate. He can complain about media bias all he wants, but the most damaging stories are the ones that simply show him as he is.