Opinion

Clinton is a cynical machine politician. Trump is a grave threat to America. Got it?

Why does so much of the media seem incapable of grasping this?

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump finally sat down Wednesday night for a traditional interview. Because these sort of gigs go to famous teleprompter jockeys rather than practicing journalists, Matt Lauer was tapped to ask the questions, and he generally made a mess of things.

It was not as bad as panicked Clinton partisans made it seem, but Lauer did exhibit the classic signs of a cloistered elite figure attempting to demonstrate his own seriousness despite knowing little. Thus he frittered away half his time with Clinton asking about her litigated-to-death email story and allowed Trump to lie about being against the Iraq invasion without challenge. And when Trump criticized Clinton's support of the Libya intervention, Lauer did not press him on the fact that Trump supported the intervention too.

Clinton has done many things worthy of close investigation and criticism. But by any metric you care to choose, Trump is worse by far, something the traditional political press is utterly failing to demonstrate.

Now, as Glenn Greenwald notes, it is false to say that Trump has gotten deferential treatment from the press as a whole. Investigative reporters have delivered many absolutely brutal articles on his failed business ventures, his pathological lying, his abuse of Miss Universe contestants, what looks very much like a bribe to halt an investigation into Trump University, and on and on. Turn over any rock related to Trump, and chances are good you'll find something horrible.

But the political press — the people in prominent outlets doing daily reporting on politics — is just completely incapable of grokking the whole of the Trump phenomenon. All the mores of Serious Political Journalism — the performative insider savviness, the self-seriousness, the belief that each party deserve approximately equal criticism, the reluctance to make controversial claims for fear of bias accusations, and so on — lend Trump a dignity he does not possess.

The only time the real Trump shines through is when some basic question makes it clear he's just catastrophically ignorant and reckless, and is obviously BSing his way through every question. Even Lauer's fairly mild questioning brought out that Trump expects male soldiers to rape their female colleagues, his belief that he can just purge the top military brass, and that he thinks it is somehow possible to just steal trillions of gallons of fluid buried deep underground. Most alarming was his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who he said "has strong control over his country." (For once a true statement at least, as Putin's trail of assassinated political enemies can attest.)

But The New York Times' initial writeup of the Lauer event did not even mention the Putin part of the interview. After enduring a firestorm of criticism on social media, they added some in, without noting the change — but even then, the article did not remotely convey the reality of how bizarre Trump actually sounded.

Again, this is not an exoneration of Hillary Clinton. She is a cynical, machine-style politician, deeply embedded in a broken and unjust status quo. But she's not a jabbering racist dolt who is brazenly unconcerned with nearly every political norm.

Trump is a maniac who could not be trusted to govern a town of 50, let alone the most powerful nation on Earth. The sheer number of his lunatic statements — any one of which would shatter a normal political campaign — has beaten everyone into a kind of stunned quiescence. When Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson admits he doesn't know what Aleppo is, the political press pounces, and Johnson is duly chastened. But Trump says something equally bad or worse every day of the week, and it's old hat.

You simply can't capture the reality of the Trump phenomenon with the stuffy, timid affect that is the sine qua non of respectable political journalism. But it's a virtual certainty that's what we're going to get.

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