Skip to content

The Media of Deplorables


The way US media are approaching this Presidential election is an absolute disgrace.

On Friday, Hillary Clinton spoke at a fundraiser and referred to some Donald Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” The full quote, in context:

I know there are only 60 days left to make our case -- and don't get complacent, don't see the latest outrageous, offensive, inappropriate comment and think, well, he's done this time. We are living in a volatile political environment. **You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic -- you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people -- now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks -- they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.** But the other basket -- and I know this because I see friends from all over America here -- I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas -- as well as, you know, New York and California -- but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they're just desperate for change. It doesn't really even matter where it comes from. They don't buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won't wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they're in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

You can read the entire transcript at the LA Times.

Within hours, Clinton was called upon to apologize, to retract her supposedly offensive comments. Evidently, she’s not allowed to call racists and bigots out for what they are. Her statement was derided as bad strategy, as insulting to Americans who’ve done nothing wrong, as inappropriate and unbecoming of a Presidential candidate.

This raises an obvious question: if it’s not the job of the President (or someone running for that office) to make value judgments, well, whose job _is _it, then? Is it really out of line for a politician to disavow racists? Should she actually be out there courting the KKK demographic? No one has seriously suggested this, and yet it’s implicit in much of the media response.

It’s interesting to me also because it’s an occasion on which Clinton clearly defied one of the common critiques pundits associate with her–that she’s a mealy-mouthed equivocator who never takes a definitive stand on anything. Here, she most certainly did. She spelled out a group of people supporting her opponent, and didn’t waffle on it. These are people for whom she has an obvious distaste. While she didn’t explicitly say, “I don’t want their votes,” there’s no mistaking her intentions.

But it seems she went too far, given the criticism that emerged shortly after her comments went viral. Frankly, it’s surreal. We have a media culture where Trump’s constant gaffes, his amping up of hateful rhetoric, his refusal to submit to customary campaign vetting practices (like releasing his tax returns), all get reported on without any real heat applied to the man himself. When it comes to Trump, journalists act as if it’s not their job to cast judgment, to analyze, to stack him up against the opposition and delineate all the ways in which he is blatantly, woefully lacking. Sure, there are plenty of pundits who are negative on Trump all the time, but the overall tone is suspect. Vague reporting on non-existing Clinton scandals is held up as equivalent to Trump’s well-documented racist practices, his lies, his endless frauds. This is “both sides” journalism at its absolute worst. Decades of witch hunts have produced virtually nothing to pin on Hillary Clinton, and so she must have something to hide. Decades of hilariously blatant wrongdoing on the part of Donald Trump gets recounted with a disinterested shrug. Sure, he sucks, but what about her emails?

As usual, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers great insights, nothing that our news media have, by and large, adopted the Breitbart strategy of covering the controversy, rather than investigating the facts:

Indeed, what Breitbart understood, what his spiritual heir Donald Trump has banked on, what Hillary Clinton’s recent pillorying has clarified, is that white grievance, no matter how ill-founded, can never be humiliating nor disqualifying. On the contrary, it is a right to be respected at every level of American society from the beer-hall to the penthouse to the newsroom. The comment was “a self-inflicted wound” claimed the Washington Post reporter Dan Balz. “It was very close to the dictionary definition of bigoted,” asserted John Heilemann. My colleague Ron Fournier and the Post’s Aaron Blake were both taken aback by the implicit math of Clinton’s statement. “Clinton appeared to be slapping the ‘racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic’ label on about 20 percent of the country,” wrote Blake in a post whose headline echoed that of the Trump campaign manager’s website. “That's no small thing.” Whether or not it was a false thing remained uninvestigated. The media’s criticism of Clinton’s claim has been matched in vehemence only by their allergy to exploring it. “Candidates should not be sociologists,” glibly asserted David Brooks on Meet The Press. I’m not sure why not, but certainly journalists who broadcast their opinions to the nation should have to evince something more than a superficial curiosity. It is easy enough to look into Clinton’s claim and verify it or falsify it. The numbers are all around us. And the story need not end there. A curious journalist might ask what those numbers mean, or even push further, and ask what it means that the ranks of the Democratic Party are not totally free of their own deplorables. Instead what followed was not journalism but, as Jamelle Bouie accurately dubbed it, “theater criticism.” Fournier and Blake’s revulsion at the thought that some 20 percent of the country, in some fashion, fit into that basket is illustrative. Neither made any apparent attempt to investigate the claim. No polling data appears in either piece and no reasons are given for why the estimate is untrue. It simply can’t be true—even if the data says that it actually is.

What are the facts, then? How big is the basket of deplorables, really? Did Clinton overstate the matter? Isn’t it curious how the overall media reaction had nothing to do with whether she was right, only monocle-popping over the very fact that she said it?

A recent 538 podcast offers this:

Just to jump in here with some of the actual polling around this issue that shows the level of racism in Trump supporters, The Economist and YouGov did a poll of primary voters on racial resentment, measuring things like support for the idea that blacks are undeserving or want special assistance from government, and they found that 59 percent of Trump supporters in the Republican primary scored in the top quartile of racial resentment. A lot of people are sharing this Reuters poll to back up Clinton’s statements — Reuters asked voters to rate blacks and whites on character traits, and about 40 percent of Trump supporters placed whites higher on the “hardworking” scale than blacks.

It’s pointed out immediately after that about a quarter of Clinton supporters scored high in racial resentment, too, so it’s certainly not limited to Trump supporters. But then, Hillary Clinton hasn’t worked to attract the votes of racists and xenophobes. She wouldn’t hesitate to disavow David Duke. She would never retweet memes from white supremacists. She would never call Mexicans “rapists and drug dealers.” Trump makes an effort to attract such people, and Clinton doesn’t. That journalists would act as if they are somehow equivalent in this way is absurd.

Nate Silver, at least, knows what’s up:

First of all, let me just say, I kind of resent the whole, “Well, we’re savvy journalists and we know maybe technically the statement is right, but how will it play with the public?” To me, that’s quite disdainful to the audience, and I’ll tell you my personal experience this year covering the campaign. I was one of those people who said, “Oh, sure, racism exists in America, but people are too quick to chalk up problems to racism,” right, and I think that’s one of the things that contributed to me being slow to recognize the Trump phenomenon and the breadth that it had within the Republican party. And of course, a lot of people are a little racist, some people are a lot racist — it’s a slippery kind of distinction at some point. I don’t know why it’s so un-PC to point out that, hey, you saw when Trump had the biggest rises in the Republican party primaries in the polls. It was when he was baiting people about Mexicans and Muslims and after terrorist incidents and whatever else. Is it smart politically? I guess I’d say the Clinton people seem to think it’s at least OK. You can’t call this a gaffe. They’ve been using this line before, and instead of totally backing down from it, they sort of doubled down and said, well, maybe I shouldn’t have said half, but the basic sentiment is right.

American journalists are currently doing their audiences a huge disservice by treating the Presidential election in this way, jumping from controversy to controversy rather than reporting what’s actually happening, sizing up the candidates on their merits, discussing their policy proposals (to the extent Trump has them), their fitness for the office, and so on. Instead, we’re getting sensational nonsense virtually free of content, as if we’re merely watching a reality show of no true consequence.

I might as well be pissing into the wind, though. People who agree with me already know all this, and the folks responsible for the problem don’t have a reason to care.