Because the Truth is Less Striking

When I asked if the U.S. media had a political bias, a friend of mine suggested that the media’s bias for narrative is bigger than anything to do with politics. Nearly a decade later, I find this observation holds true and is particularly noticeable during this year’s election between the former Senator and Secretary of State, and the ruthless business man.

Take the last decade as an example. After the largest terrorist attack committed on US soil, the former spent her time in the senate largely working to help those devastated, then as Secretary of State, she helped oversee the assassination of its mastermind while maintaining a delicate relationship with the strategic ally he was found in. Meanwhile the latter became a reality TV personality and likely committed fraud.

By any measure of ethics or qualification, the former blows the latter away, and yet the US media has largely underplayed this clear contrast to instead emphasize and exaggerate whatever similarity they can find. They elevate a crook to a contender and consternate over whether or not the only one actually qualified is a crook.

Take this excellent piece by Matthew Yglesias, criticizing an AP exposé that suggests the qualified candidate used her position and influence as US Secretary to fund her family’s charity. Matt doesn’t challenge that there was a conflict of interest, rather the AP’s suggestion that it resulted in unethical behavior.

For example, the AP story leads with:

More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money — either personally or through companies or groups — to the Clinton Foundation. It’s an extraordinary proportion indicating her possible ethics challenges if elected president.

To which Matt points out:

To generate the 154 figure, the AP excluded from the denominator all employees of any government, whether US or foreign. Then when designing social media collateral, it just left out that part, because the truth is less striking and shareable.

Matt goes further, deconstructing the AP’s specific examples as banal coincidences, ultimately adding:

The AP put a lot of work into this project. And it couldn’t come up with anything that looks worse than helping a Nobel Prize winner, raising money to finance AIDS education, and doing an introduction for the chair of the Kennedy Center. It’s kind of surprising.

So why did the highly regarded AP go to such length to muddy this election’s most qualified candidate as unethical even after their exhaustive investigation found nothing to back that claim? Matt suggests it’s publication bias – that the exciting hypothesis of an unethical frontrunner got attention while the boring lack of evidence didn’t. While there might be an element of that, I think the AP and other news organizations are more deliberately promoting an ongoing narrative they can continue to derive headlines from throughout the election.

“Well regarded and highly qualified candidate still beating the snot out of crooked TV personality” does not make for interesting ongoing coverage, so instead we’re getting “qualified candidate struggles with allegations while known crook tells it like it is.”