There is something strange about the reproachful media response to What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s new book on the 2016 campaign.
Now everyone knows that the Washington press corps dislikes and distrusts the former Democratic nominee. After all, several of its most eminent members have admitted their herd’s prejudice against her. But the nearly unanimous demand for her to be silent — often presented in the form of blind quotes from her alleged “friends”– cuts against normal journalistic curiosity, let alone the usual lust for fresh gossip.
And it doesn’t matter how many times she accepts responsibility for her unexpected defeat by Donald Trump in the Electoral College. Pundits and reporters insist she hasn’t acknowledged her guilt sufficiently, with the requisite sincerity. So the best choice, according to the press, would have been for her to say and write nothing.
Nobody in the media is eager to hear Clinton’s perspective on that catastrophic election cycle — especially not the part about them and their performance. They would rather not reflect on why her “damned emails” were so ridiculously overemphasized. Or why Trump enjoyed constant and groveling promotion as a television spectacle. Or why journalists produced so many misleading “investigations” of the Clinton Foundation, yet so very few examinations of Trump’s longstanding connections to organized crime. Or why vital policy differences between the two candidates received a tiny fraction of media attention.
The press may not top the list of those who earned blame for the election’s outcome, notably including former FBI director James Comey, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook, various unnamed Russian malefactors, and Clinton herself. But she has legitimate grievances over how she and her opponent were treated by the American media, particularly several of its most illustrious outlets.
The statistical and analytical brief for her case is already publicly available, in a path-breaking report released last month by a team of scholars from Harvard and MIT.
Titled “Partisanship, Propaganda, and Disinformation: Online Media and the 2016 US Presidential Campaign,” their study used an enormous collection of data from online sources to map the impact of a wide variety of news sources. What they found was a sharp asymmetry between left and right outlets that benefited Trump and damaged Clinton. And while most mainstream coverage treated both candidates negatively, it “largely followed Trump’s agenda.” That meant reporting about Clinton focused on “scandals” involving the Clinton Foundation and emails, while reporting about Trump focused on his issues, such as immigration.
The report delivers a fascinating, highly detailed and fairly discouraging portrait of the media constellation and its role in our democracy. But its election findings went deeper, revealing how the extremely partisan and inaccurate right-wing outlets, led by Steve Bannon’s Breitbart News, set the agenda for the more “objective” mainstream media.
Featuring a “case study” of the Clinton Foundation, the report shows how a slanted front-page article in the New York Times influenced widespread coverage that continued to unfairly damage Clinton up until Election Day 2016. In late April 2015, the Times published an extensive piece based on Clinton Cash, a book financed by Bannon’s dark money donors, headlined “Cash Flowed to Clinton Foundation Amid Russian Uranium Deal.”
As the report’s authors note acidly, “Buried in the tenth paragraph of the story was this admission: ‘Whether the donations played any role in the approval of the uranium deal is unknown. But the episode underscores the special ethical challenges presented by the Clinton Foundation, headed by a former president who relied heavily on foreign cash to accumulate $250 million in assets even as his wife helped steer American foreign policy as secretary of state, presiding over decisions with the potential to benefit the foundation’s donors.’ Needless to say, it was the clear insinuation of corruption in the headline, not the buried admission that no evidence of corruption was in fact uncovered, that made the April 2015 story one of the Times’ most tweeted stories during the summer [of 2016].”
The report goes on to dismantle equally spurious exposes in leading outlets such as the Associated Press and the Washington Post, which insinuated corruption when the actual evidence proved there was none. And there are plenty of other examples. The effect was to disinform readers and voters, precisely the opposite of what journalists supposedly aspire to do.
Naturally, mainstream media outlets have ignored the prestigious, heavily documented Harvard study. They can suppress this kind of criticism far more easily than Donald Trump can silence any negative voices.
But if Hillary Clinton starts talking about this disgrace, then audiences and readers might start listening. And that’s why the media has gently suggested that she should just shut up and go away. Nevertheless, she persists.