Twelve years ago, Howard Dean let out a voice-cracking yelp at the conclusion of a presidential campaign speech. The incident became known as the “Dean Scream,” and the news media used it to portray Dean as “unpresidential.” News executives have since admitted they overplayed the story and misrepresented Dean.Yet fast forward to the current election, and the news media’s propensity for misrepresenting candidates continues.Donald Trump undeniably deserves the news media’s scrutiny. His speeches contain an unprecedented number of false claims, and the only consistent feature of his campaign is fear-mongering.However, in the news media’s haste to exploit the next outrageous Trump claim, they have at times misrepresented him. Most notable was the widely repeated accusation that Trump insinuated an assassination attempt on Hillary Clinton.During a speech Trump gave in Wilmington, he warned, “If [Clinton] gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people maybe there is, I don’t know.”Out of context, the ambiguity of the line warrants severe criticism. However, in context, Trump’s comment conforms to a longstanding pattern of NRA rhetoric that champions armed resistance in defense of the Second Amendment. Trump began the speech lauding the NRA, and a moment after his controversial comment, he repeated his praise of the organization. He went on to say, “If you don’t do what’s the right thing, you’re not going to have a Second Amendment or you’re not going to have much of it left.”Situated as part of his appeal to NRA supporters, Trump’s comment clearly reflects the sentiment most famously expressed by the late NRA leader Charlton Heston in 2000 at a national NRA convention in Charlotte. Enshrined on NRA bumper stickers across the country, I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands! is a declaration of its members’ defiant willingness to fight in defense of their right to own guns. Trump’s comment about “Second Amendment people” was thus an attempt to pander to his NRA supporters by reasserting their call to engage in armed resistance if necessary. He was not suggesting assassinating Clinton.More recently, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson became the subject of the news media’s ridicule after he blanked on a question about Aleppo, a Syrian city besieged by the civil war there. During an MSNBC panel interview, commentator Mike Barnicle asked Johnson, “What would you do, if you were elected, about Aleppo?” A puzzled Johnson replied, “And what is Aleppo?”Johnson’s gaffe was reported across the news media, and the commentary was especially smug. Yet nearly every report quoted only the gaffe, excluding the exchange before it. Johnson and the panel had been discussing his criticism of the two-party system, and he was barely finished addressing that issue when Barnicle fired the Aleppo question. Without time to shift gears, Johnson blanked. However, as soon as Barnicle mentioned Syria, Johnson regained his bearing and responded.The public loses when the news media mischaracterizes presidential candidates. After Trump’s Wilmington speech, we should have been challenging his and the NRA’s heedless allusions to armed resistance. Instead, we were worrying about a manufactured assassination threat. After Johnson’s MSNBC appearance, we should have been discussing his legitimate criticism of the two-party system. Instead, we were making fun of him for blanking on the name of a city most Americans couldn’t identify.As long as the news media continues to prefer making presidential candidates look bad over offering nuanced examinations of their ideas, voters will remain insufficiently informed to make the best decisions in the voting booth. This election, we need the news media to do better.Bradley Bethel is a a documentary filmmaker and former teacher who lives in Carrboro.
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