When a candidate starts in the cellar in terms of behavior and temperament, there’s nowhere to go but up.
I was struck over the past 10 days or so by the way the media covered two episodes. The first was Donald Trump’s retweeting of that now-infamous white supremacist meme showing Hillary Clinton against the backdrop of hundred-dollar bills with a red six-pointed star slapped beside her, suggesting that she was the puppet of Jewish money. The second was Trump’s press release on the killings of two black men by police and the murders of five police officers in Dallas.
The media response to the first was remarkably tepid, considering that a major-party candidate was spreading a scurrilous anti-Semitic libel, and considering that Trump, far from recanting, actually said he regretted that his staff had taken it down. The media response to the second was shock followed by congratulations. They had obviously expected Trump to blame the Black Lives Matter movement for the Dallas killings, as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani did.
When Trump instead issued a restrained message, expressing a need for moderation, you would have thought he had assumed the mantle of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., although under the circumstances, this is precisely the kind of statement any normal politician would make.
These media responses are important because I believe they are harbingers of the coverage we are likely to get in the upcoming presidential campaign. The basic rule of media coverage of any personality, political or not, is that coverage always adapts to expectations — even though the expectations are themselves, to some degree, media creations. That rule already benefits Trump since expectations for him are so low that he is more likely to exceed them, as he did after Dallas, or continue to play within them, in which case his egregious behavior and pronouncements cease to be news. Anti-Semitism? Well, to the media that’s just another day in the Trump campaign, certainly not anything about which to hyperventilate.
Since most of us don’t know public figures personally, just about everything we feel about them is based on their portrayals by the media. This is how personae are formed, through broad brushstrokes — a few decisive characteristics, adjectives, behaviors, comments. It’s what we mean when we say that Tom Hanks is a good guy, that George Clooney is civically engaged, that Caitlyn Jenner is brave, that Jennifer Garner is a loving mother — or whatever image has hardened around the celebrity. This is big stuff; PR firms are paid millions to purvey positive images of this sort.
But those images also create expectations, and celebrities inevitably are measured against them. Lance Armstrong was a hero until he turned out to be a cheater, and was reviled as a result — not just because he cheated, I think, but also because he betrayed our idealistic vision of him. Ditto O.J. Simpson: He couldn’t have committed murder, said many in the jury pool, because he seemed so nice.
Sometimes these expectations die hard, or die not at all. A few months back, quarterback Peyton Manning was accused by a former female trainer at his alma mater, the University of Tennessee, of having exposed himself to her and then ruining her career when she complained about it. But his image and the expectations around it are so impregnable the story quickly died. By the same token, sometimes less shiny expectations can damage a career. Charlie Sheen’s erratic behavior certainly cost him popularity.
And sometimes the expectations for one individual are perfectly consonant with his or her behavior, while the same behavior would be scandalous for another individual because the expectations of the two are so very different. When Madonna published a book of nude photographs of herself, it was exactly what you would expect Madonna to do. Had Julia Roberts done a similar book, I suspect the reaction would have been puzzlement: as in, what was she thinking?!
In celebrity, the implications of expectation often don’t matter too much, except, perhaps to the trajectory of one’s career. In politics, however, they can mean a great deal because expectations form the baseline from which the media issue their judgments. And those judgments, by osmosis, more often than not become our judgments, too.
Witness the coverage of Donald Trump. Whatever else one might have thought of him before he entered politics — and the adjectives then were likely to be “rich,” “powerful,” “bold,” “independent” — as soon as he declared his presidential candidacy, he established an identity that added the adjectives “heedless,” “unscripted,” “insulting,” “bullying,” and in some precincts, “nativist,” “racist” and “sexist.”
Those seeming negatives have shaped our expectations of him. Like him or hate him — and some people like him precisely because of these things — we believe Trump replaces discipline with bravado and braggadocio. But something is happening in the way the media are handling Trump, albeit subtly, and you can see it in that coverage I mentioned earlier. The media have set the bar so low that we fully expect Trump to be a bigot, as he demonstrated in the anti-Semitic tweet, so criticism of his bigotry is largely relegated to left-wing journalists. It isn’t news. It doesn’t change the narrative.
As for the mainstream media, it is a very short distance from “That’s Trump going ballistic again” to “That’s just Trump being Trump.” But when it comes to drawing political conclusions, it’s all the distance in the world. Similarly, that low bar will inevitably lead to high praise whenever Trump jumps it. A Trump debate in which he is even intelligible or slightly muted would undoubtedly unleash a media torrent of approval: Aha! He is more presidential than we thought. We already are getting a preview of this on the Republican Party side, where any hint of sanity by Trump is embraced in a bear hug. It is part of the process of normalizing him.
But just imagine if Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders had retweeted an anti-Semitic or racist post from a white supremacist website. The media’s expectations of them when it comes to civility are so much higher than their expectations of Trump that I’m not sure Clinton’s or Sanders’ campaigns could have survived. It would have been the political equivalent of Julia Roberts versus Madonna — so out of character that it might have been game-changing.
Of course, the media have created expectations of Clinton too; namely that she is duplicitous and untrustworthy and that everything she says and does is dishonest. That is her media persona. It’s unclear whether the media will finally settle into a “That’s just Hillary being Hillary” mode, which could deactivate criticism, or whether they will filter everything she does through their expectations of her untrustworthiness and continue bashing, as they did to Al Gore with his alleged inauthenticity in 2000.
But whatever the media choose to do to her, it is worth noting how different the media expectations of Trump and Clinton are, and how different those expectations may play out. This works to Clinton’s detriment. It is much harder to prove you are honest than to demonstrate you are not racist by throwing a few verbal sops to the Hispanic or black community.
You could call this a double standard. In fact, though, the media have multiple standards — one for each candidate — and candidates face them at their peril. The MSM had very high expectations for Marco Rubio, and then he defeated them by turning into a robot. They had high expectations for Jeb Bush, and he defeated them, too. The media had very low expectations for Sanders, and then he exceeded them. Clinton had high expectations of electability and low expectations of personal rectitude, and the media are whipsawing her between the two.
But this much is clear: Low expectations help more than high expectations do. By stringing two sentences together in a debate when there was some doubt as to whether he had mastered the English language, the media anointed George W. Bush the second coming of William Jennings Bryan. Just remember that when Trump’s preposterous pronouncements and behavior are reported as just “Trump being Trump,” or as the media begin to adore him for not seeming to be as racist as he had purported to be. That is what we may be encountering in Election 2016: a media gift of low expectations to The Donald.
This article originally appeared on Moyers and Company.
Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two LA Times Book Prizes, Time magazine’s non-fiction book of the year, USA Today’s biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.