It is with a dreadful sense of inevitability that I’m watching what is happening in the US general election between Clinton and Trump. Just as the media in the UK normalised the flat out lies of the Brexit campaign, so the media in the US is normalising Donald Trump.
In both cases this stems from an obsession with balance. With the Brexit campaign the media balanced the lie about £350 million a week to the NHS with Remain’s claims (based on analysis using consensus economics) about the economic damage that leaving the single market would do. With the US general election, Trump's stream of well documented lies are balanced against seemingly baseless insinuations about Clinton.
This is not about what you read in the New York Times or the Washington Post. Their audience is generally not the electorate that could vote either way. The Financial Times provided exemplary coverage of Brexit issues, and the non-tabloid press as a whole was not too bad. With Brexit the critical electorate were those that read the tabloid press, just as in the US it is those that watch cable news. Those sources deliberately and relentlessly distort news to favour one side.
Without major changes to how the media is regulated in the US and how the press is regulated in the UK, there is little that can done about this particular media bias against truth. So the best we can hope for in the meantime is that the big ticket events like debates, or widely watched programmes on the non-partisan media like the evening TV news in the UK, offer some redress to the partisan nature of much of the media. Which is why the failure of Matt Lauer in questioning the two candidates is so important.
The concept of balance needs to be rethought by media organisations. Facts, and lies about them, should be above balance. The consensus views of experts like academics should be above balance. Standing up for both is not a journalist expressing an opinion, but a journalist doing their job.
The media likes to think of itself as the protector of free speech, and of holding authority to account. But that matters little if at crucial points in the democratic process the media either distorts reality or hides the truth. If you think that is an exaggeration, how else could you possibly get a result like this:
“Trump has his largest edge of the campaign as the more honest and trustworthy of the two major candidates (50% say he is more honest and trustworthy vs. just 35% choosing Clinton)”
If you are reading this in the UK and thinking this could only happen in the US, who do you think was trusted during the Brexit campaign?