Is the media fair to Donald Trump?

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump appears on a video screen as he holds a rally with supporters in Bangor, Maine, U.S. October 15, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RTX2OZPZ

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Claims of news media bias in politics are certainly nothing new. But what of Donald Trump’s accusation that the press is actually responsible for rigging the presidential election against him?

To explore that notion, we are joined by Jim Rutenberg, media columnist for The New York Times, and Robert Lichter. He’s director of the center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University.

And we welcome both of you to the program.

I’m going to start with you, Robert Lichter.

Donald Trump is saying that the media — and I’m quoting — is being — that the election is being rigged by what he calls the dishonest, distorted media pushing Hillary Clinton.

You have studied the American media for, what, decades? Is there a grain of truth to what he says?

ROBERT LICHTER, George Mason University: Well, when people say the media are biased, they usually mean somebody is getting too much attention, more than he deserves, and his coverage is more favorable than he should get.

Donald Trump is a news magnet. He gets more attention than anybody else, but a lot of that attention compares him either with Hitler or Mussolini. So studies show what our eyes see, that Trump gets a lot of coverage, that his coverage is very negative.

He has managed the considerable feat of getting more negative coverage than Hillary Clinton, who has issues in her own right. I think that — so you could make a case that there is bias. I think the question is whether the traditional definitions of bias apply to such a nontraditional candidate as Donald Trump.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim Rutenberg, how do you see this? You write about this stuff frequently for The Times.

JIM RUTENBERG, The New York Times: I think I would agree with that assessment to a degree.

One thing is, though, that Donald Trump’s candidacy has been so amazing and has been such — it has had such a can’t-look-away quality, because he says things that we’re not used to hearing from the standard-bearer oft Republican Party.

So, to the extent that some of the things are about the appearances of women, what have you, what we just heard on the “Access Hollywood” leaked tape of him discussing his behavior with women, was at best descriptions of groping, there’s going to be a reaction to it. The press is going to cover that, and it’s going to, yes, be negative, but it is also what it is. It’s a pretty accurate description of what he said in that tape, for instance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s take this a little bit further. What Donald Trump — Bob Lichter, what Donald Trump is saying is that the media is in collusion with the Clinton campaign. What evidence is there that that could possibly be true?

ROBERT LICHTER: Well, they have been so nice to her about her e-mails, I think, is a piece of evidence.

It’s perfectly obvious, and, again, studies show that her coverage is more negative than positive. There’s been…

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wait a minute. There was one story about a member of the Clinton organization passing along information ahead of a debate. Is that right?

ROBERT LICHTER: Right. Yes. There was that one story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes.

ROBERT LICHTER: And then there is the issue of her not turning these over, which has been raised many, many times by Donald Trump and by journalists.

So I think they’re just — there isn’t a case that can be made that the media has gone soft of Hillary Clinton. She’s not getting great coverage either.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in fact — and Bob Lichter just referred to this, Jim Rutenberg — the media, especially television media, can be credited for giving Donald Trump a lot of airtime, a lot of print space during the primary period.

JIM RUTENBERG: I mean, this drove his Republican competitors for the nomination crazy. And there was one analysis that my newspaper wrote about where the figure that was used in terms of — quote, unquote — “free media” — this was the value of the extra airtime he got from the news networks — was some $2 billion.

No candidate came close. So he draws the cameras. It can be a good thing for him. Sometimes, it’s a bad thing for him. Right now, it’s not going so well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you put this in historical perspective, Bob Lichter? We know the role of the press has changed in this country. I mean, you have talked about how, 17th, 18th centuries, we had a partisan press in the United States.

ROBERT LICHTER: Yes, Donald Trump should go back a couple of hundred years and see the nasty things that were said about Adams and Jefferson.

It’s only the 20th century that the press has taken on the role of being an objective arbiter, trying to be fair and balanced and objective. And in a way, it releases journalists from the responsibility of saying I’m presenting this from my point of view, sort of nobody’s point of view. I’m being fair all around.

Donald Trump makes that really hard to do. This is man who insults members of his own party. He bullies his opponents. He says things that are demonstrably untrue. What do you do with that as a journalist to be objective without becoming negative in a way that opens you to charges of media bias?

I think Trump has done a good job of kind of defanging the media, to some degree.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Jim Rutenberg, you have also written about how Donald Trump has singled out the press at his campaign rallies, to the point where members of the press have felt uncomfortable and worse.

JIM RUTENBERG: Well, two major networks are now using security at his rallies. And it’s kind of, he will direct the crowd at the assembled press.

And I have covered many rallies in my career where that hasn’t happened, with the exception of maybe Sarah Palin kind of toward the end of ’08 and when she was kind of flirting with her own presidential run.

And other colleagues I have talked to who are much older than I am refer me back the George Wallace and some of his rallies were tense. But the National Guard was there protecting the press. But this is the insane territory to be in, as a country right now, where this is a conversation we’re having.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim Rutenberg, staying with you, I want to come back to something you quoted this week in one of your columns, a senior editor at the Web site American Conservative, and he — it’s Rod Dreher, I think is how you say his name.

He said: “Mainstream journalists are interested in every kind of diversity, except the kind that would challenge their own prejudices. Those include bigotry against conservative religion, bigotry against rural folks and bigotry against working-class and poor white people.”

That’s pretty sweeping, isn’t it?

JIM RUTENBERG: It’s a sweeping generalization, but, that said, I think, look, we’re not perfect.

And for what most of our conversations so far have been a defense of the press, but the press — let’s face it. A big part of the country is primed to believe what Donald Trump is telling them about the press. And the press needs to definitely take a look at itself.

And look, there is something to it. There is a cultural mind-set that I think even goes across the kind of ideological divide of the mainstream news media. The Wall Street Journal editorial page and The New York Times editorial page agree on certain things like free trade that this crowd feels is, you know, threatening their livelihoods and their country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the same time, we know that — you have talked, Robert Lichter, about the need for American — frankly, for journalists to rethink the way we write about, not just Donald Trump, but the people who have been supporting Donald Trump.

ROBERT LICHTER: Yes, I think Jim Rutenberg was quite right that journalists, national media journalists are kind of part of an elite.

And they know government elites, they know business elites. And it’s these elites that Donald Trump is running against. And, as a result, he stirs the populism of his supporters, who also feel that the elites are running away with the country, although I think it’s overstated to say that these are kind of peasants with pitchforks.

I think there is a kind of bias in that portrayal of his supporters. There are some of those people, but he obviously wouldn’t be running in the 40-odd percent of the public with nobody like — with everybody like that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: No question about that.

Robert Lichter, we thank you.

Jim Rutenberg with The New York Times, thank you both.

JIM RUTENBERG: Thanks so much.

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