Once they take hold, media narratives are virtually impossible to dislodge, often persisting in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. We’ve debunked the zombie myth of Hillary’s “enthusiasm gap” and here we deconstruct the flawed notion that she has a “trust deficit.”
Conventional wisdom is a refuge for journalists who are afraid of going against the grain. It took the near-drowning of a major American city to finally demolish the mindless narrative that George W. Bush was a firm, resolute, straight-talker. The emperor’s clothes came off and the world saw a bumbling, ill-informed, uncaring man.
Similarly, the deceptive meme that John Kerry was a “flip-flopper” took hold in 2004 and cost him the White House.
In 2016, there has been a deafening drumbeat from the media and commentariat that Hillary has a “trust deficit.” Never mind that the questions about her honesty and trustworthiness are being foisted on the public by the very people who are reporting on it, creating a dizzying loop.
Here’s the pattern — you might recognize it:
MEDIA: Is Hillary a liar? Is Hillary a liar? Is Hillary a liar?
PUBLIC: Hmm, is Hillary a liar?
MEDIA: People are asking if Hillary is a liar.
PUBLIC: Seems people are asking if Hillary is a liar. Is she a liar?
MEDIA: Polls say Hillary is a liar. Polls say Hillary is a liar.
PUBLIC: The polls mean something. Hillary must be a liar.
MEDIA: See, we told you, Hillary is a liar. Hillary is a liar. Hillary is a liar.
Thus, independent of any substantiating evidence, a bit of discrediting innuendo gets turned into “conventional wisdom”—something that is taken to be a truism.
The media and pundits then set forth to cherry-pick figures that will uphold their narrative. In February, Philip Bump wrote a piece for the Washington Post addressing the selective reporting around Hillary’s honesty, bluntly headlined: “If Hillary Clinton has an honesty problem, someone forgot to tell South Carolina.”
Preliminary exit poll data reported by CNN suggests that half of voters in that state identified both Clinton and Sanders as honest and trustworthy. This was a state that went heavily for Clinton, of course, which is important to consider. Perhaps that’s weighting the responses? Well, yeah. Precisely. In a state with more people who back Clinton, fewer think she’s not trustworthy. It makes sense.
There are a couple of important points here. The first is that it simply isn’t accurate to say that Hillary has “an honesty problem,” full-stop. In places where she wins, voters find her to be honest. The second is that even a number of people who don’t find her “honest and trustworthy” according to polls vote for her anyway.
The latter is certainly a curious finding. After all, what is a vote cast for a presidential candidate if not an indication of one’s trust in that candidate’s ability to effectively steward the nation?
That tension is attributable to a few possibilities. One is that people vote for incredibly complex reasons, and a straightforward question about honesty, with zero nuance, isn’t necessarily capable of teasing out the complicated feelings that any given voter may have about how much they trust a candidate, or why.
The CNN exit poll question that gets cited over and over, regarding Hillary’s honesty, is: “Is Clinton honest and trustworthy?” The construction of the very question itself is interesting: Are honesty and trustworthiness two different things? Embedded right in the wording is the implication that not everyone defines honesty and trustworthiness as the same thing, and each person may have a different metric for how they assess trustworthiness, based on their own definition, which could be “honest” or could be “reliable” or could be something else altogether.
But that is not the only question that CNN asks. And it is in the subsequent questions that the lack of nuance becomes telling.
In South Carolina, for example, 75% of respondents answered yes to the question: “Is Clinton honest and trustworthy?” But honesty and trustworthiness are not an on-off switch. Secondary questions exploring specific issues yield different results.
“Do you trust Clinton in an international crisis?” 88% of respondents said yes. That is a higher number than “trust” her overall.
“Do you trust Clinton to handle race relations?” 85% of respondents said yes. That is also a higher number than “trust” her overall.
On more detailed questions, in which specific scenarios are proposed, Hillary’s level of trust among voters goes up.
This holds true even in states where she lost. In New Hampshire, 45% of respondents found Hillary to be honest and trustworthy. But when asked if they would “trust Clinton to handle healthcare,” 65% of respondents answered yes.
This suggests that when voters are asked to consider Hillary’s trustworthiness within a defined hypothetical crisis or issue, which naturally invites assessment of her competency and reliability in conjunction with her trustworthiness, they are more likely to find her trustworthy than when asked to rate it in the abstract.
And it is in the abstract where pervasive narratives about her untrustworthiness are most likely to influence assessments.
When asked to rate her character, perceptions of which are strongly shaped by the media and political attacks, voters find her less trustworthy than when asked to rate her ability.
Which underlines why vague insinuations about her character are such an effective discrediting strategy. Hillary is so demonstrably trustworthy as a potential leader that the only way to derail her is to undercut her trustworthiness as a person.
Only by concealing that Hillary engenders strong feelings of trustworthiness in places where she wins, as well as the increased trustworthiness voters have on specific issues, does the narrative that Hillary has an “honesty problem” work.
Which rather suggests that it isn’t actually Hillary who has the honesty problem.
If opinion polls are a one-dimensional slice of a particular impression of a particular candidate in a particular moment that miss the requisite nuance, then perhaps the question about which candidate is most trusted or honest can be resolved by other means.
For example, according to the Washington Post’s fact checker, Bernie has received seven Pinocchios in April. The last time Hillary received any Pinocchios (2) was on March 5. Since that date, Bernie has received 11. There’s one measure of honesty.
Or how about PolitiFact, where Hillary’s ratio of purely true to purely false statements is higher than any candidate in the race?
Perhaps the best indication of all is the actions of voters, who have picked Hillary over all other candidates by millions of votes.
There’s your trust and honesty made manifest.
[Melissa McEwan contributed to this article.]