Which of Hillary Clinton's character flaws do you find most troubling? If you're a Republican, you may not have quite decided yet, since there are any number of things about her you can't stand. But if you're hoping to defeat her, you'd do well to home in on whatever journalists think might be her primary character flaw, because that's what will shape of much of their coverage between now and next November.
The determination of that central flaw for each of the presidential candidate will soon become one of reporters' key tasks as they construct the frames that are going to guide their coverage of the race. And the idea that Clinton can't be trusted is an early contender for her central defect, the one journalists will contemplate, discuss, explore, and most importantly, use to decide what is important and irrelevant when reporting on her.
Take a look at the lead of this article by Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post, titled "For Hillary Clinton, a trust deficit to dismount":
Is Hillary Clinton honest enough to be president?
That question — phrased in a thousand different ways but always with the same doubts in mind — sits at the heart of a campaign that will span the next 18 months and on which billions upon billions of dollars will be spent.
If Cillizza was trying to write a campaign-defining piece that will be cited in histories of 2016 as representative of the press' perspective on Clinton, he couldn't have done much better. This happens in every presidential race: each candidate is reduced to one or two flaws, the things about them that are supposed to "raise questions" and make us all wonder whether we'd be comfortable with them in the Oval Office. Republicans are surely hoping that reporters will lock in a frame in which Clinton is presumed to be dishonest, because once that happens, they will pay far more attention to the veracity of everything she says and highlight every point of divergence from the truth, no matter how trivial. This is how character frames operate, and the process works the same for Republicans and Democrats.
It's a double-edged sword for candidates, because it means that an absurd amount of attention will be given to some things they do and say, while others that might get a different candidate in trouble will be ignored or downplayed. Look back at almost any recent election and you can see it in action. For instance, in 2012, Mitt Romney was defined as an uncaring plutocrat (who was also stiff and awkward), so when he said something that seemed to highlight this flaw — like "Corporations are people, my friends" — it would be replayed and repeated over and over in news reports. But Romney was also a spectacularly dishonest candidate, and despite the efforts of some on the left, dishonesty never came to define him. He might have claimed he was being unfairly treated on the first count, but on the second he got something of a pass.
Let's take another example to show why this selection of frames matters. In no election in my lifetime was there more discussion about honesty than the one in 2000, which reporters essentially presented as a contest between a well-meaning and forthright simpleton on one side, and a stiff and dishonest self-aggrandizer on the other. Once those frames were settled (and it happened early on), reporters sifted everything Al Gore said about his record like like prospectors panning for gold, trying to find anything that would suggest an exaggeration. They even went so far as to make some up; Gore never said he "invented the internet," nor did he say many of the other things he was accused of having said.
Gore did mangle his words from time to time, but when he did, reporters didn't bother to write a story about it. Likewise, George W. Bush said many things that weren't true, but because he was supposed to be the dumb one, not the liar, reporters didn't give them much attention. Even when they did, it would be in the form of a simple correction: the candidate said this, while the actual truth is that. What they didn't do was say that a false statement from Bush or a bit of linguistic confusion from Gore "raised questions" about either's fitness for the presidency; those questions (almost always left unspecified, both in who's asking them and what they're asking) are only raised by the central character flaw that reporters have settled on.
Bush's lies during the 2000 campaign actually turned out to be quite revealing, which demonstrates that the problem isn't only the way the media focuses on one or two character flaws, but how shaky their judgment is of what matters. While Gore did occasionally exaggerate his importance in events of the past, Bush lied mostly about policy: what precisely he did as governor of Texas, what was in the plans he was presenting, and what he wanted to do. It turned out that as president, he deceived the public on policy as well, not only on the Iraq War, but also on a whole host of issues.
This demonstrates an important principle that seldom gets noticed. When a candidate gets caught in a lie, people often say, "If he'll lie about about this, what else will he lie about?" The most useful answer is that a candidate is likely to lie about things that resemble what you just caught him lying about. Bill Clinton, for instance, wasn't particularly forthcoming in 1992 about whose bed he had or hadn't shared, and when he was president, that's exactly what he lied to the country about. Bush, on the other hand, spun an absurd tale about how his tax-cut plan was centered on struggling workers, and when he got into office, sold his upper-income tax cuts with the same misleading rationale.
One of the reasons reporters gravitate to discussions of "character" is that it allows for all kinds of unsupported speculation and offering of opinions, offered with the thinnest veneer of objectivity. A supposedly objective reporter won't go on a Sunday show roundtable and say, "Clinton's tax plan is a bad idea," but he can say, "Clinton has a truth problem." Both are statements of opinion, but statements of opinion about a candidate's character are permissible for reporters while statements of opinion about policy aren't.
So is Hillary Clinton less trustworthy than Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, or any other politician? Maybe, but maybe not. The problem is that reporters often answer the question just by choosing to ask it for one candidate but not another.