Con­jur­ing the ghost of Spiro Agnew

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - EJ Dionne Colum­nist E.J. Dionne’s email ad­dress is ej­dionne@wash­ Twit­ter: @EJ­Dionne.

Spiro Agnew is re­mem­bered for plead­ing no con­test to tax eva­sion charges re­lated to bribery and re­sign­ing as Richard Nixon’s vice pres­i­dent. But his sig­nal po­lit­i­cal achieve­ment was ig­nit­ing a cam­paign that en­dured for more than four decades paint­ing the main­stream me­dia as bi­ased, lib­eral and elit­ist.

Anti-me­dia sen­ti­ment had long been bub­bling on the right when Agnew tar­geted what were then the Big Three tele­vi­sion net­works for rep­re­sent­ing “a con­cen­tra­tion of power over Amer­i­can pub­lic opin­ion un­known in his­tory.”

Agnew was un­re­lent­ing. With help from Wil­liam Safire and Pat Buchanan, gifted Nixon speech­writ­ers (and, later, colum­nists), he coined many mem­o­rable phrases, in­clud­ing the al­lit­er­a­tive “nat­ter­ing nabobs of neg­a­tivism.”

Rarely has a con­certed po­lit­i­cal ef­fort been more suc­cess­ful. Ever since, re­porters, edi­tors and pro­duc­ers have in­ces­santly looked over their right shoul­ders, fear­ing they’d be as­sailed as se­cret car­ri­ers of the lib­eral virus.

But the 2016 cam­paign has brought an in­tense pro­gres­sive coun­ter­at­tack on me­dia timid­ity to­ward the right. Cov­er­age of Don­ald Trump has be­come the oc­ca­sion for a new cri­sis of cred­i­bil­ity.

There is the mat­ter of Trump’s out­sized ac­cess to tele­vi­sion time dur­ing the pri­maries that dwarfed the at­ten­tion given to his com­peti­tors. Lib­er­als in­sist fur­ther that Trump is be­ing held to a much lower stan­dard than is Hil­lary Clin­ton, which, in turn, means that while rel­a­tively short shrift is given to each new Trump scan­dal, the same old Clin­ton scan­dals get cov­ered again and again.

Al­low­ing Trump to dom­i­nate tele­vi­sion time dur­ing the pri­mary cam­paign has noth­ing di­rectly to do with the lib­er­al­con­ser­va­tive ar­gu­ment, but it’s some­thing the me­dia will have to an­swer for. This dis­ad­van­taged other Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates and re­flected a hunger for rat­ings that over­came any con­cern for bal­ance.

The is­sue is not ask­ing the me­dia to shy away from hold­ing Clin­ton ac­count­able. But jour­nal­ists need to ask whether they have cre­ated a nar­ra­tive about Clin­ton that paints her as less trust­wor­thy than Trump even though the fac­tual ev­i­dence is over­whelm­ing that he lies far more than she does.

New York Times colum­nist Ni­cholas Kristof pointed to Poli­tiFact’s find­ing that while 53 per­cent of the Trump state­ments it checked were “False” or “Pants on Fire” howlers, only 13 per­cent of Clin­ton’s were. “There’s no com­par­i­son with Trump,” Kristof wrote.

Ide­o­log­i­cal con­cerns aside, Mar­shall ar­gued that “Trump’s re­peated false state­ments were so brazen and repet­i­tive” as to put all of the me­dia’s tra­di­tional rules and prac­tices “un­der strain.” Trump keeps say­ing that he op­posed the Iraq War when the ev­i­dence from 2002 and 2003 shows he sup­ported it. And the birther in chief who made his name on the right by in­sin­u­at­ing for years that Barack Obama was in­el­i­gi­ble to be pres­i­dent had the ef­fron­tery to say, falsely, that Clin­ton had started the whole thing.

Yet jour­nal­ists are of­ten re­luc­tant to call Trump a liar, even when he lies, lest their ob­jec­tiv­ity be ques­tioned.

Lib­er­als’ com­plaints about the me­dia are them­selves typ­i­cally dis­missed as par­ti­san, and sure, the lib­er­als are fu­ri­ous. They’re fu­ri­ous that the right’s own par­ti­san me­dia cam­paign has in­tim­i­dated jour­nal­is­tic in­sti­tu­tions. They’re fu­ri­ous that Clin­ton’s short­com­ings are mag­ni­fied and harped on while neg­a­tive sto­ries about Trump of­ten get re­port-on­ce­and-move-on treat­ment. And they’re fu­ri­ous when Trump’s lies aren’t called lies.

But crit­ics’ mo­tives shouldn’t mat­ter. What counts is whether their com­plaints are jus­ti­fied. For the first time since Agnew kicked off the great con­ser­va­tive cam­paign against the me­dia, those who run our jour­nal­is­tic in­sti­tu­tions are be­ing sys­tem­at­i­cally chal­lenged as to whether they are so wor­ried about con­dem­na­tion from the right that they’re now demon­stra­bly bi­ased against the Demo­cratic can­di­date for pres­i­dent.

Thus has me­dia crit­i­cism — fi­nally — be­come fair and bal­anced.

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