Responding to critics of the New York Times’ halting, timid coverage of the unfolding story of how Trump smuggled top secret documents out of the White House and stashed them at Mar-a-Lago for a year, the Times’ top Trump chronicler, Maggie Haberman, claimed it wasn’t for the newspaper to suggest whether Trump broke any laws. “Many are awaiting [Attorney General] Merrick Garland’s view on what’s against the law, which law enforcement and not reporters dictate,” she tweeted.
Haberman’s rationale was stunning — journalists are clearly in a position to determine whether public figures like Trump have broken laws by absconding with 15 boxes of documents when the Presidential Records Act requires that all records created by presidents be turned over at the end of their administrations. The idea that the Times newsroom has to wait for law enforcement to officially make determinations of lawbreaking is a new approach.
That’s certainly not how the Times covered the manufactured Hillary Clinton email scandal for two years, commonly referred to as the media’s But Her Emails fiasco. In the first Times article about the Clinton email story in March 2015, and in the first paragraph of that story, the daily openly suggested the presumptive Democratic nominee had broken the law [emphasis added]:
Hillary Rodham Clinton exclusively used a personal email account to conduct government business as secretary of state, State Department officials said, and may have violated federal requirements that officials’ correspondence be retained as part of the agency’s record.
It wasn’t until August 2015 that the FBI began investigating the Clinton server and whether it involved transmission of classified material. By then, the press had spent five months leaning into the idea that possible criminality was fueling the endless coverage .
The media’s chronic and dishonest But Her Emails coverage, framed as nonstop horse race updates, changed the course of American history by denying Clinton the chance to become the first woman president. By helping elect Trump, it also hastened a political unraveling at home, as he unleashed a new brand of criminal and authoritarian rule. To date, the D.C. press has never acknowledged its sins of 2016; and has made no serious attempt to grapple with what went so wrong.
Reprinted with permission from Press Run