Giving Equal Coverage to Trump's and Biden's Failings Isn't Balanced, It's Dishonest

The Tokyo 2020 games were scheduled to end this week, but I'll have to wait at least a year (or four, if the games are cancelled) to watch my fill of synchronized diving, badminton and decathlon. It's nice having baseball and basketball back, for now, but I'm skeptical that MLB and the NBA will make it through their abbreviated seasons.I won't be bored, though, because the 2020 False Equivalence Games have kicked off, and this year's edition is a strong favorite to set new records.

Consider the past few weeks alone. In that time, President Trump ordered that peaceful protestors near the White House be gassed and beaten so that he could conduct a photo-op using a church and bible as his props. He re-tweeted video of his supporters shouting "white power" at similarly peaceful protestors in Florida. He denounced his own infectious disease advisors and other medical experts for contradicting his false claims that the COVID-19 pandemic, which has already killed over 160,000 Americans, is "under control." He dismissed as a "hoax" confirmed reports that a Russian intelligence agency offered—and paid—cash bounties to the Taliban for killing U.S. soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan, even though his own National Security Advisor now admits that the president was briefed on this report months ago. And he commuted the sentence of his friend and campaign adviser, Roger Stone, despite Stone's conviction on seven felony counts for lying to the FBI in order to impede the Mueller investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election. That Trump can rack up so many examples of historic intolerance, incompetence, and disloyalty in such a short time should make one thing indisputable: No one, anywhere, should be able to describe any action by Joe Biden, Trump's presumptive opponent in November, as anything approaching equivalent.

But many in the media will try. In the next few weeks, expect to see equal time devoted to purportedly "negative" stories about both candidates—a practice that, this year, will mean trying to rake up enough muck and innuendo about Biden to counterbalance whatever the latest, truly despicable yet factually accurate, conduct by Trump may be. Indeed, the False Equivalence Games may have already begun.

On July 1, The Washington Post ran a story headlined "Hunt for Biden tapes in Ukraine by Trump allies revives prospect of foreign interference," breathlessly reporting that material about Biden "is surfacing in Ukraine and being touted by some of the president's backers in the United States, including his eldest son in May." Putting aside the ridiculous assertion that something touted by Donald Trump Jr. in May qualified as "news" in July, the article and its headline are even more disingenuous. Nearly buried in the fifth paragraph of the story is the real news: "The recordings show that Biden, as he has previously said publicly, linked loan guarantees for Ukraine to the ouster of the country's prosecutor general. The tapes do not provide evidence to backRudolph Giuliani's long-standing accusation that Biden sought to have him fired to block an investigation of a gas company that had hired his son Hunter."

Why would the Post or any news organization so misleadingly headline and orient a story to present Biden in a negative light? The answer seems clear. As media coverage of previous elections has shown, the temptation to bend the narrative in the direction of "equal coverage" is irresistible—even when doing so requires a decidedly unequal approach to what actually qualifies as newsworthy when covering Trump, on the one hand, and his opponent, on the other.

But there is likely another consideration in play. In this age of hyper-partisanship, polarization, and mistrust of the media, news outlets have come to worry less about getting the story right and more about not getting the story wrong.

Watch closely, for example, at how news organizations characterize the polls over the next few weeks. All public polling involves statistical sampling variations, so some national and battleground state polls are bound to show a relatively closer spread between the candidates than the current "Biden leads big" storyline. When one of those polls emerges, reporters—not wanting to appear to be favoring Biden—won't report them as the statistical aberrations they are but instead as signs of a "Trump comeback," with accompanying accounts of "concern" in the Biden camp. None of it will be true, but (sadly) it could well serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy, with subsequent actual polling reflecting prospective voters' awareness of how the media is describing the election as a close one. Consider the July 9 Washington Times story headlined "Biden lead over Trump now just at 4 percentage points: Hill-HarrisX Poll," after a single survey showed Biden with a four-point advantage nationally. The subhead cites one Democratic pollster calling the findings 'very concerning' though nowhere in the piece does it deign to mention that many other polls show a very different picture—Biden with a much larger margin over Trump.

Another recent evidence of the false equivalence games having begun comes courtesy of The New York Times, which on July 11 published a lengthy feature titled "Fact-Checking Biden on the Coronavirus and His Own Record." The piece strains mightily to depict Biden as somehow, in some way, deserving of the same sort of criticism that has been leveled at Trump for his universally-panned handling of the pandemic, claiming to have "rounded up some inaccurate claims in [Biden's] recent remarks."

But this promise falls far short, with the Times relying on laughably narrow distinctions between its characterization of the facts and Biden's public comments. For instance, while the article acknowledges that Biden wrote an op-ed in late January that coronavirus cases were likely to grow, criticizing Trump for cutting funding to health agencies, urging cooperation with international bodies, and emphasizing reliance on science and experts, it finds fault with his failure to specifically call for lock downs (many weeks before the first action by any U.S. jurisdiction to close businesses or limit social gatherings).

Is there a solution to the false equivalence phenomenon? Probably not. But the large percentage of Americans desperately looking for a change from the chaos and corruption of the current administration are unlikely to be deterred from guaranteeing that change through their ballots.

Brett Williamson is an attorney admitted and practicing in California, New York and Washington, D.C.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​