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During last night’s debate, Donald Trump said, as he has said many times in past weeks, that “the media is so dishonest and corrupt, they poison the minds of the voters.”
I’ve met quite a few journalists over the years and most, culturally and politically, are like me: They’re educated and from middle- to upper-middle-class backgrounds, not particularly religious and socially pretty liberal. And also like me, they are not the kind who would ever vote for Donald Trump. Of those journalists whom I have not met, but whose work I read or watch often, I can’t imagine any of them voting for Trump, either.
Which is certainly why, while I wouldn’t completely go along with Trump’s media corruption charge, I have definitely perceived some element of distaste seeping through the collective reporting about the Republican presidential candidate. And, as the stories about Trump’s past and present actions have become more offensive, attempts by the Fourth Estate to render equal treatment to, and objectivity in its coverage of, the respective candidates have clearly been left behind. This is problematic because not only is impartial reporting what separates information from propaganda but also, and more importantly, this lack of impartiality could be having an unintended positive effect on the Trump campaign by providing a tailwind of validation to his false narrative.
I consume a lot of news from various sources (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vox, Vice) but CNN is where I go for immediate information about the election because I want to avoid the skew of Fox News and MSNBC and also because I am a huge fan of its on-air talent, especially Don Lemon, Anderson Cooper and Brian Stelter. In fact, I would say that when it comes to this campaign, CNN is the most important network, given that the other two major news channels are obviously biased and more likely to draw members of a choir who are looking for a preacher with a similar perspective.
CNN, on the other hand, has the patina of objectivity and is more likely to draw those without a clear agenda and who are undecided on which candidate to support. The network can have a greater effect on the election outcome than the others. As such, I am more disturbed by the glaring shift away from neutrality at CNN than similar one-sidedness evident at other news organizations.
The bias I am talking about at CNN is often subtle, residing in how its anchors are nicer and more comfortable with the Clinton surrogates and interviewees than those allied with Trump, who tend to receive a lot of curtness and sarcasm. But other situations are more pronounced.
For instance, on Oct. 11, Lemon, on CNN Tonight, held a forum to discuss the press conference Trump held with three women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual abuse. In that discussion, after Trump surrogate Kayleigh McEnany asserted that Hillary Clinton was involved with the harassment of her husband’s accusers, Don Lemon says, “Even Kenneth Starr would not bring in Juanita Broaddrick, because she changed her story so many times.”
This discrediting of Broaddrick, who accused Bill Clinton of rape, misrepresents what happened: Broaddrick had tried to keep this personal tragedy out of public view, so she told the Starr Commission she didn’t have anything pertinent to say about Bill Clinton. Hiding the shame of what happened is common among sexual assault victims. Once her story got out, she owned it. And there are several friends who corroborate seeing Broaddrick’s injuries and her telling them what happened on the day in question. (The exchange is at 4:10 in this video.)
Compare this to the next night on CNN Tonight when Trump surrogate Corey Lewandowski begins to pick apart the story of Trump accuser Jessica Leeds. In that conversation, Lemon justly asserts that Lewandowski is guilty of “victim shaming.” Then, when a different Trump surrogate, Katrina Pierson, suggests the timing of Leeds’ story, 26 days before the election, seems like a “hit piece,” Don, again correctly, says,” as sexual assault victims will tell you all the time, they don’t want to do it [come forward], they don’t want to go through it [public exposure]. And then they make up their minds in a moment to do it.” Lemon is absolutely correct and his points speak to why I believe those accusing Trump and also why I also believe those who accuse Bill Clinton. But, at the same time, Lemon’s reaction to the shaming of Trump’s accuser, Leeds, is exactly opposite of his attitude toward Bill Clinton’s accuser, Broaddrick. (See: 7:54 in this video.)
And then, a few seconds later, in response to Pierson, Clinton surrogate Hilary Rosen refers back to Trump’s press conference with the Bill Clinton accusers as being the reason why women were coming out to now accuse Trump. In that run, she says (go to about 8:40 in the video), “[Trump] trotted out some women, you know, that he, um, claims Bill Clinton had a relationships with.”
This is particularly hideous, as none of these women had relationships with Bill Clinton. The circumstances in question are not akin to those of Gennifer Flowers or Monica Lewinsky. The Clinton accusers, like those that are accusing Trump, said that they had been sexually assaulted. Likening their experiences to “relationships” is wrong, misogynistic and adhering to a rape culture dynamic. Don Lemon certainly knows this but declined to admonish this clear assertion of victim shaming.
Earlier in that same show, Lemon had a discussion about the audio tape made many years ago of an interview where Hillary Clinton discusses her representing the man who raped then-12-year-old Kathy Shelton, the fourth woman present at Trump’s predebate press conference. This segment included Lewandowski and Clinton supporter Maria Cardona. Lewandowski starts to point out the inappropriateness of two places on the tape where Clinton was laughing, but he is interrupted by Lemon, who cites Politifact and says, “It is a false accusation,” and then says, “It’s not even clear that it is her on the tape,” and then that “She’s not laughing.”
I’ve read the Politifact article and listened to the tape. Lemon misinterpreted the issue. Politifact was judging a comment by Trump, where he said that Hillary was laughing at the victim. She did not laugh at the victim. She does laugh, ironically, at her client passing a lie detector test and then again at the police’s mishandling of evidence. So, it is clear that Clinton laughed twice on the tape, as Lewandowski was saying. It is also clear, and not in dispute, that it is Clinton’s voice on the tape. But Lewandowski was never given a chance to contradict Lemon: Lemon did most of the talking and then abruptly went to commercial. None of this reveals anything awful about Hillary Clinton, but it does show how biased Don Lemon was in his treatment of the subject matter and Lewandowski.
I don’t want to single out Don Lemon. There isn’t a smarter or more charismatic news anchor on any network. I’ve been on his show and I watch him most nights. I will continue to. But he has biases and now, more than in the past, he’s letting them fly free. And so are other CNN anchors. Last Sunday, Fareed Zakaria had Bill Maher on his show. Maher said many aggressive things, like how Trump’s supporters are “deplorable” and “racist” and “knuckle draggers.” Zakaria plays along and laughs. Maher then says the media needs to call out Trump on his lies. Zakaria agrees. After that, Maher refers to the WikiLeaks emails as a “big nothing burger” and what was revealed about the Clinton Foundation in those emails as “nothing there.”
Through all of this, Zakaria offers either laughter or silence. No “Hey, that seems like a harsh generalization about Americans” or “What about Hillary saying she has a public and a private position on things?” or “Aren’t you troubled that the Clinton Foundation seemed to accept money from foreign actors who wanted favors from the State Department? And what about the contractors who seemed to get government contracts in Haiti because they donated to the Clinton Foundation?” Nope. Nothing.
And then yesterday, Wolf Blitzer, whom I also admire, interviewed Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, whose email account had been hacked, allegedly by the Russians, yielding all of these revealing emails about Hillary. Blitzer asked Podesta questions on a couple of Hillary’s emails and Podesta evaded answering by getting back to how it was the Russians who did something wrong. Blitzer didn’t press him hard. He then asked Podesta if the emails released by WikiLeaks are in fact his. This is important because the Clinton camp, including Tim Kaine, the vice presidential candidate, specifically has been suggesting that many of these emails may have been fabricated to make Hillary look bad.
Again, Podesta would not answer. At this point, I hoped that Wolf would say, “John, these emails allegedly came from your email account, so you must know if they’re real or not, and if you won’t answer, we can only assume that they are in fact real and your associates are lying to the American people?” That didn’t happen. The interview ended with Blitzer and Podesta chuckling like old chums, and Podesta affectionately and reassuringly putting his hand on Blitzer’s arm.
The above examples are not anomalous. I’ve been watching CNN’s reporting move in a more biased direction for some time. Probably in proportion to the exposing of more and more negative things about Trump. Journalists are human, and they sometimes act on their human feelings. It’s understandable. But it isn’t good journalism and it doesn’t serve their desire to damage the Trump candidacy.
Actually, it helps Trump. Because when he speaks at rallies or in a debate about how the media is biased against his campaign, people agree with him. They’ve seen it for themselves. Even if viewers don’t know all the facts in any one segment on a CNN show, they can just watch how the anchors treat the Trump supporters versus how they treat the Clinton supporters and perceive the favoritism.
And then when Trump rants about a long list of things that aren’t true, like his accusers being liars, the election being rigged, Hillary being on drugs, his proposed tax cuts not expanding the deficit and on and on, voters naturally connect the thing they know is true with the other stuff Trump is saying, giving those falsehoods credibility. That’s how voters start to believe that the system of electing a president is “rigged.” And that is a very dangerous thing.
Gavin Polone is a frequent contributor to The Hollywood Reporter.
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