The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at The Wall Street Journal written by the editor, James Taranto.
Hey, Kids! What Time Is It?
“It’s Time to Play the ‘Debate Expectations’ Game!”—headline, Huffington Post, Sept. 23
He’ll Just Have to Walk
“Trump Has Path to 270, But No Vehicle to Get There”—headline, Real Clear Politics, Sept. 26
Question and Answer
‘Donald Trump’s Special’
The prevailing view ahead of [last night’s] presidential debate, with which this column agrees up to a point, is that Hillary Clinton faces a much more difficult task than Donald Trump. He has to convince viewers that he is sane, while she has to persuade them to trust her.
It is possible he will fail, but it is difficult to see how she can succeed. “The concept pre-loaded with associations most damaging to immediate assessments and future dealings is untrustworthiness, along with its concomitants, such as lying and cheating,” observes social psychologist Robert Cialdini in his new book, “Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade.” What could Mrs. Clinton possibly say that would reverse decades of distrust?
Her surrogates are playing the expectations game, as surrogates do, but in a very strange way. They are “pressuring Monday night’s moderator to take a more active role in the presidential debate,” the Washington Times reports:
“It’s unfair to ask for Hillary both to play traffic cop with Trump, make sure that his lies are corrected, and also to present her vision for what she wants to do for the American people,” Robby Mook said on ABC’s “This Week.”
When pressed by host George Stephanopoulos that that’s “what a debater is supposed to do,” Mr. Mook said this case is “special.”
“Well, I think Donald Trump’s special,” Mr. Mook said. “We haven’t seen anything like this. We normally go into a debate with two candidates who have a depth of experience, who have rolled out clear, concrete plans, and who don’t lie, frankly, as frequently as Donald Trump does.”
“So we’re saying this is a special circumstance, a special debate, and Hillary should be given some time to actually talk about what she wants to do to make a difference in people’s lives,” he continued. “She shouldn’t have to spend the whole debate correcting the record.”
It’s normal to play down one’s own candidate’s strengths and play up the opponent’s, but this is ridiculous. Mook is saying Mrs. Clinton—who we’ve been told endlessly is the most qualified man, woman or child ever to seek office anywhere in the universe—can’t handle a debate unless the moderator takes her side. What’s going on here?
For a possible answer, let’s turn again to Cialdini, who advised President Obama’s 2012 campaign and is rumored to be advising Mrs. Clinton’s campaign this year. In his new book, he observes:
In contests of persuasion, counterarguments are typically more powerful than arguments. This superiority emerges especially when a counterclaim does more than refute a rival’s claim by showing it to be mistaken or misdirected in the particular instance, but does so instead by showing the rival communicator to be an untrustworthy source of information, generally. Issuing a counterargument demonstrating that an opponent’s argument is not to be believed because its maker is misinformed on the topic will usually succeed on that singular issue. But a counterargument that undermines an opponent’s argument by showing him or her to be dishonest in the matter will normally win that battle plus future battles with the opponent.
That’s what the Clinton campaign hopes to do to Trump. But she can’t do it on her own, because her dishonesty is already established in most voters’ minds. Thus she needs the help of an outside authority, the moderator.
And not just the moderator. Jason Easly of PoliticusUSA (slogan: “real liberal politics”) reported Friday: “The Hillary Clinton campaign held a special press call to call on the debate moderator, media, and voters to fact check Donald Trump. In order to help the press, debate moderators, and voters fact check Trump, the Clinton campaign has released 19 pages of Trump lies.”
As if on cue, HotAir’s Larry O’Connor notes, at least four major outlets published “news” articles characterizing Trump as a liar: the New York Times (“A Week of Whoppers From Donald Trump”), Los Angeles Times (“Scope of Trump’s Falsehoods Unprecedented for a Modern Presidential Candidate”), Washington Post (“Trump’s Week Reveals Bleak View, Dubious Statements in ‘Alternative Universe’ ”) and Politico (“Donald Trump’s Week of Misrepresentations, Exaggerations and Half-Truths”).
Here’s an example of one of Politico’s “fact checks”:
52. “We’re presiding over something that the world has not seen. The level of evil is unbelievable.” (Sept. 19, Fort Myers, Florida, rally)
Judging one “level of evil” against another is subjective, but other groups in recent history have without any question engaged in as widespread killing of civilians as ISIS.
Whom does that discredit, Trump or Politico?
We stumbled across another hilarious example last night on Twitter. On CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” host Brian Stelter had this exchange with Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates:
Stelter: What about the issue of fact checking that has been talked about so much in the past few weeks? Does the commission want Lester Holt to fact check?
Brown: The commission asks independent, smart journalists to be the moderators and we let them decide how they’re going to do this. But I have to say, in our history, the moderators have found it appropriate to allow the candidates to be the ones that talk about the accuracy or the fairness of what the other candidate or candidates might have said.
I think, personally, if you are starting to get into the fact-check, I’m not sure what is the big fact, and what is a little fact? And if you and I information [sic in transcript], does your source about the unemployment rate agree with my source?
I don’t think it’s a good idea to get the moderator into essentially serving as the Encyclopedia Britannica. And I think it’s better for that person to facilitate and to depend on the candidates to basically correct each other as they see fit.
Jon Ralston, a respected Nevada political journalist, tweeted: “This, from the executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates to @brianstelter, is insane.” Paul Krugman, the academic economist and New York Times columnist, was incredulous: “The unemployment rate? The UNEMPLOYMENT RATE?”
Because, you see, the unemployment rate is a simple matter of fact, about which there can be no dispute. Or is it?
In 2013, the New York Times published a blog post titled “There Is No ‘True’ Unemployment Rate.” It got a little technical in discussing the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ different ways of gauging unemployment:
The usual measure, U3, measures your desire to work by asking whether you have been actively searching in the recent past; it measures your ability to find work by your taking a job, any job. Obviously this can deviate from the Platonic ideal in both directions: there could be people who could find work if they were willing to take the jobs on offer, and there could be people who want to work but aren’t actively searching because they know that at the moment there’s no point—or who are working, but only part-time because that’s all they can find.
U6 casts a wider net; it includes people who are working part-time but say they want full-time work, it includes people who aren’t actively searching but either were working recently or say that they aren’t looking for lack of opportunities. Again, this could clearly deviate from the Platonic ideal, but it’s a reasonable stab at the problem. . . .
That’s all there is to it. No deep issues, just practical choices in a world where measurement is never perfect.
The author of that post: Paul Krugman.
The problem for Mrs. Clinton in relying on the authority of journalists is that their authority rests on the assumption that they are honest brokers of information who at least aspire to an ideal of objectivity. (That is also true of scholars, so that it would apply to Krugman in this example, even though he has no obligation of objectivity in his role as an opinion columnist.)
Journalists undermine their own authority when they use it to further a political agenda. The widespread and open anti-Trump bias will further erode journalistic authority and public trust in the news media. It may hurt Trump, although we tend to doubt it will hurt him much. Reporters are not trained in propaganda, so that they are not especially good at it.
Lester Holt and the other debate moderators find themselves in an especially difficult position. They are under pressure to side with Mrs. Clinton, not just from her campaign but from their peers. If they resist the pressure and conduct the debates in an ordinary manner, they’ll get the Matt Lauer treatment.
What if they don’t? There’s no guarantee they would succeed in discrediting Trump, who is no doubt prepared to respond by arguing that the debate is rigged (unlike Mitt Romney, who was taken by surprise when Candy Crowley made a brief and probably naive foray into “fact checking” in 2012).
If Trump is seen as winning the debate, the moderator will get no credit for trying to make him lose. The least bad approach, then, is probably to stick with old-fashioned professionalism.
For more “Best of the Web” from The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto click here.