If you’re a regular consumer of political news and you’ve ever gotten the feeling that some people are covered just a tad… differently than other people, you’re probably not alone. But is there really anything to this idea or is it just an example of confirmation bias? The country’s major newsrooms wouldn’t be intentionally straining their thesauruses to make one person or group sound worse than the other, would they?
For a look inside this phenomenon, let’s stop by the Free Beacon. They’ve got an interesting analysis of how Donald Trump’s various verbal adventures have been covered compared to his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton. (Emphasis added)
The New York Times, for example, took a markedly different tone in covering Hillary Clinton’s bogus 2008 claim about landing under sniper fire in Bosnia than it did with President Donald Trump’s dubious statement that the late ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi went down “whimpering” during a U.S. raid last month.
In 2008, after the Washington Post published a Four-Pinocchio “fact check” of Clinton’s oft-told Bosnia story from 1996, the Times reported Clinton’s “admission that she had misspoken.” A story the following day discussed her attempts to put “a softening spin on her misstatement.”
By contrast, the Times has devoted three news reports to fact-checking Trump’s statement that al-Baghdadi died “crying and whimpering and screaming,” including a front-page story on Saturday headlined, “The ‘Whimpering’ Terrorist Only Trump Seems to Have Heard.” Multiple defense officials said Trump’s story was likely a fabrication, and no evidence has emerged to confirm his account describing a humiliating end for the world’s most-wanted terrorist.
They go on from there to point to multiple fact-checking articles, each tearing away at the President’s description of al-Baghdadi’s death, insisting that it couldn’t be verified and probably didn’t happen.
But here’s the part that should be glaringly obvious. There is one key difference between Hillary Clinton’s Bosnia sniper-fire story and Trump’s Syrian tale. There are multiple witnesses to the event where Clinton landed on the tarmac in Bosnia. All agree there were no snipers and no gunfire. Clinton herself has backed off from it. It was a fabricated tale, but she… misspoke.
So what about Trump’s claim of al-Baghdadi crying and whimpering? There was no audio being fed into the situation room, so the Times said he couldn’t have known it unless he was told by one of the commandos or the information was passed up the chain of command. When they asked the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, all he was able to say was that he “couldn’t confirm” those details.
So Trump’s tale probably wasn’t true, but it can’t be definitely established. Clinton’s story was an established lie. And yet look at how the descriptions differ.
We shouldn’t pretend that the New York Times is alone in this. Remember back when Joe Biden was telling that moving, emotional war story over the summer? You know… the one that wound up involving details of at least four different events, most of which were wrong, including Biden’s own involvement? Yeah… that one. Here’s how the Washington Post described it.
Biden, 76, has struggled during his presidential campaign with gaffes and misstatements that hark back to his earlier political troubles and have put a spotlight on his age.
One paragraph later they said this about Donald Trump:
One big question facing candidates and voters more than 30 years later is whether President Trump’s routine falsehoods have changed the standards by which other presidential aspirants, including Biden, should be judged.
The WaPo wasn’t alone. Here’s how ABC News adopted the same tactic on this story.
Biden, 76, continues to face increased scrutiny about his recent misstatements and gaffes on the campaign trail.
Keep in mind that this sort of editorial language control is far more powerful than any allegations of fake news or flatly false reporting. The major newspapers and networks can only get away with so many of those types of debacles before their own colleagues start hammering them. (Despite likely having done the same thing themselves in the past month.)
But this linguistic spin control is far more pervasive and doesn’t lead to jarring corrections being printed. It’s a way of framing the debate so that the material coming out of the newsrooms (rather than the editorial boards) can still give the appearance of straight news coverage while pushing their agenda at the same time. It’s embedded in the actual style guides for most major news outlets. Nobody is ever “pro-life.” They are “opposed to abortion rights.” If a white person shoots some black or Latino people, that’s precisely how the story is reported. If the opposite is true, it was just “someone” committing a shooting. (Assuming you ever hear the story at all.)
That last point is also a factor. Bias doesn’t just show up in the words journalists use. It’s reflected in which stories receive the most attention and coverage, while others fall out of the news cycle before you realize they are gone. Examples are everywhere. So no… don’t worry. You’re not imagining things. That’s the nature of political news coverage in the 21st century.