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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters

If you listen closely you might be able to still hear distant rumblings of the media’s four-alarm fire drill that first rang out last Friday afternoon after FBI Director James Comey announced the bureau had found new emails that “appear” related to its Clinton email investigation, and that the FBI needed to take a closer look in coming weeks to determine if the emails were significant.

The press’ initial reaction was instantly GOP-friendly, and often way off base. (The story’s focus has shifted slightly in recent days to Comey’s questionable behavior.) Most memorably, though, it has bordered on the hysterical, with the clear implication being that the projection of the entire election has possibly been altered; that a “potential turnabout rarely if ever seen at this late stage of a presidential race” was unfolding, as The New York Times announced on page one.

The Times also stressed, “The presidential campaign was rocked on Friday,” and that the development had“set off a frantic and alarmed scramble inside Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.” (The Times flooded its front page with emails stories Saturday, Sunday and Monday.)

The Associated Press declared “a new shock hit Hillary Clinton’s campaign Friday,” and marveled at “the drama of the stunning revelation.” Bloomberg touted the story as “a politically explosive development,” while an avalanche of inaccurate tweets from news organizations soon flooded the Internet. (No, the FBI did not “reopen” the Clinton email investigation.)

On Friday, CNN reporter Jim Sciutto tweeted that Clinton had not offered a “new apology” for the FBI email story during a Friday public appearance. But apologizing for what? (Shouldn’t Comey be the one apologizing?)

And around the same time, CNN.com reported Obama had “doubled down” on his support of Clinton “despite [the] FBI review.” Despite? CNN thought maybe after the FBI chief released a nebulous letter about possibly innocuous emails now under review that Obama would suddenly withdraw his support of the Democratic nominee?

“There is an appalling disconnect on cable news between what has actually been said and what is being implied or perceived, and it is doubling back on itself and expanding,” wrote Variety television critic Sonia Saraiya, lamenting the recent FBI email coverage.

On Saturday, newspapers across the country ran with banner headlines, many of them inaccurate. On Sunday, Face the Nation host John Dickerson insisted the email news had “sent shockwaves across the country.”

The breathless press corps has embraced a cauldron of speculation and doomsday scenarios for an oddly vague FBI announcement. This, for an on-going email story that, as The Washington Post editorial board noted in September, “has vastly exceeded the boundaries of the facts.”

The completely frenzied coverage might have been appropriate if the FBI had announced something truly jaw-dropping, like a criminal indictment. But good grief, why the hysterical DEFCON 1 “rocked” “frantic,” “shocked” coverage based on a vague announcement by the FBI that it was going to look at some emails, and they might all end up being nothing?

Overall, think about how irresponsibly the press has handled the truly never-ending Clinton email saga, and then ask yourself this: If the Democratic nominee already had lingering doubts about the press’ fairness, would the media’s performance in recent days have done anything to allay those fears?

The press for years has fixated on Hillary Clinton’s relationship with the press, and specifically the idea that Hillary Clinton doesn’t like the press or trust the press, and that’s what accounts for the “famous Clinton secrecy.” As I’ve noted in the past, reporters can rarely point to any concrete evidence that Clinton disdains journalists. And with the arrival of Donald Trump’s campaign, in which the Republican regularly smears, taunts, and attacks journalists, the anti-press claim about Clinton came to be viewed as rather quaint in comparison.

But it’s possible that over her 20-plus years on the national stage and having seen out-of-control “scandal” coverage up close, she maintains a certain level of well-earned distrust.

The media’s ongoing email coverage since 2015 has likely done little to alter that, and especially the off-kilter and overblown Comey coverage in recent days.

Having invested thousands of hours covering the email story over the last year-and-a-half, a story that has produced no criminal charges (but has produced hollow congressional hearings), the press still remains fully committed to pretending it’s a Very Big Scandal, which explained the unfettered caterwauling following the FBI news.

So yes, maybe that’s one reason Clinton might distrust the press.

The FBI story seemed to be a perfect example of reporters automatically, and at times ferociously, insisting that new Clinton revelations instantly meant bad news for Clinton, even when the facts don’t necessarily support it.

So maybe Clinton mistrusts the press because it has shown a pattern of not being able to accurately report on new information about her, especially when her foes are insisting the new information equals Very Bad News her.

Note that during much of 2016, the press hectored Clinton about releasing transcripts to the paid speeches she had given over the years. At the time, I argued it wasn’t fair that Clinton be held to a separate, higher standard regarding speech transcript disclosures; that if lots and lots of Republicans had made lots and lots of money giving paid speeches prior to their campaigns (and some even during their campaigns), and yet they were never told to release transcripts, why should she have to?

But another argument I often heard at the time was maybe Clinton didn’t want to release the transcripts because she feared that the press, working alongside her opponents, would glom onto innocuous passages of her speeches, rip them out of context, and turn them into Very Bad News for her. In other words, the fear was that the press would weaponize non-controversial speech transcripts against her, the way some in the press have tried to weaponize voluntary disclosures from Clinton in the past.

Any general fear Clinton might have that reporters tend to gorge on GOP talking points while presenting a slanted view of breaking news about her was certainly confirmed by the initial wave of wild and irresponsible Comey email coverage last week.

IMAGE: via Getty Images