This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.
Page 16 and 649 words. That’s how The New York Times treated the recent news that a years-long State Department investigation concluded there was no systemic or deliberate mishandling of classified information via emails sent to and from Hillary Clinton’s private server while she was secretary of state. The Times covered that story regarding a seminal event from the 2016 campaign by publishing a single, brief article buried deep inside its A-section last Saturday. It was almost like the Times newsroom was telling readers, “Nothing to see here, folks.”
The Times was hardly alone in aggressively downplaying the State Department’s conclusion. Most of the press treated the latest Clinton absolution as nothing more than a passing footnote, giving the news little or no coverage (the word “emails,” for instance, was never mentioned on Sunday’s Meet the Press, or ABC’s This Week. Recall however, that during the final stretch before the 2016 campaign, the Times famously crammed three separate Clinton email stories onto its front page on the same day, signaling to readers that the story had reached epic, blockbuster proportions.
Today the topic, and the clearing of Clinton, is of little concern to the New York daily that likely churned out hundreds of thousands of words on the email topic in 2015 and 2016. Indeed, when the email story first broke in March 2015, the Beltway media’s response resembled barely controlled hysteria. For example, Times columnist Frank Bruni wondered if the revelation meant Clinton had a secret political “death wish.”
Just as important today is how the press is washing its hands of the media malpractice from 2016 and pretending news outlets played no role in helping the GOP market its email smear campaign for 18 months. That campaign consisted of phony Republican allegations that have now been relegated to the trashcan of history.
But before the trash gets taken out, it’s worth reflecting on what happened, especially as the 2020 campaign season ramps up and the GOP readies its next round of smear campaigns. The sustained attacks that will only work if the Beltway press signs on as a co-sponsor, the way it did with the bogus email charade in 2016.
The Times on Saturday noted that Clinton had been “dogged” during the 2016 campaign by the email story. The Washington Post was equally passive, referring to “a controversy that overshadowed the 2016 presidential campaign and exposed Clinton to fierce criticism that she later cited as a major factor in her loss to President Trump.”
But who “dogged” Clinton relentlessly for more than a year regarding a story that Trump’s State Department has now confirmed was a nothing burger? And who were those leveling “fierce criticism” about her email protocol? According to the Times‘ telling, it was “Republicans” who pursued Clinton on the email story. And the Post claims it is Trump who attacked Clinton about her emails.
Left unsaid, of course, was the fact that the Beltway press positively owned the email story for more than a year and treated it as one of the most pressing news stories of this decade. In September 2015, the Post, for instance, averaged more than two Clinton email dispatches every day of the month. In doing so, the press dishonestly portrayed Clinton as untrustworthy and secretive, which is precisely how the GOP wanted her to be depicted. In eight of the 10 weeks between July 11 and Sept. 18, 2016, “email” was the word most Americans associated with the Clinton campaign coverage, according to Gallup.
Why? Because during the political convention weeks in summer 2016, the press spent twice as much time covering Clinton emails as it did covering all of Clinton’s policy positions. CNN’s The Situation Room seemed especially obsessed: emails represented 17 percent of the program’s Clinton coverage during the four-week summertime span. Meanwhile, network evening newscasts in 2016 aired just 32 minutes of in-depth campaign policy reporting. By comparison, ABC World News, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News devoted nearly three times as much coverage—100 minutes—just to the Clinton email story.
The first woman to be nominated by a major party for president was defined, almost completely, by the electronic communication platform she used several years earlier while serving as secretary of state. Funny how Colin Powell wasn’t defined by the private emails he used as secretary of state. (And then deleted.) Jeb Bush wasn’t defined by the private email he used as governor of Florida. President George W. Bush’s administration wasn’t defined by the fact that nearly two dozen White House aides used private email accounts controlled by the Republican National Committee. And Mitt Romney wasn’t defined by the fact that his staff wiped away all the emails from the Republican’s years as Massachusetts governor.
For the press, the only private email story that mattered was Clinton’s, because it offered us a window into her allegedly crooked soul.
Basically, the Clinton emails became the new Whitewater—a “scandal” in search of a crime. Here’s the dirty secret about what fuels Clinton scandal coverage, and what has always fueled the wayward pursuit: journalists were invested. And when it comes to the email story, they’ve been deeply invested since March 2015. For the press, the hollow “scandal” allowed them to harp on Clinton’s supposed untrustworthiness. It also allowed them to show Republicans that they were putting the Democratic nominee under a microscope and prove they don’t have a “liberal media bias.”
For the record, the fact that the entire email “scandal” was bogus was fairly evident in real time. (See this Newsweek piece, from March 2015.) It’s just that most of the press opted to play dumb on an epic scale regarding the story because the press liked the email story. The press liked that it was hurting Clinton, whom everyone assumed would defeat Trump. Harassing her with endless email coverage was a way to make sure her historic victory didn’t taste very sweet, and that she limped across the finish line. Part of that sprang from a never-ending attempt to criminalize the Clintons. In the end, the relentlessly incendiary email coverage helped get Trump elected.
Yet rather than addressing that gaping, stunning failure in its 2016 coverage, the news media have opted to quietly move on.
Nothing to see here, folks.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.