Weekend Reader: ‘Killing The Messenger: The Right-Wing Plot To Derail Hillary And Hijack Your Government’
Ever since the New York Times published a front-page article about the personal email account used by Hillary Clinton when she served as Secretary of State last March, that supposed scandal has dominated coverage of the Democratic presidential front-runner in the U.S. news media. But from the first day that story broke wide, David Brock — bestselling author, former right-wing journalist, and founder of Media Matters for America — raised questions that Times reporter Michael Schmidt seemed to willfully ignore.
Brock’s new book, Killing The Messenger: The Right-Wing Plot to Derail Hillary and Hijack Your Government, is a personal and highly sophisticated investigation of the 2016 GOP propaganda machine and the Democratic response he has spearheaded. Probing behind the email story, he delves into the curious symbiosis between partisan Republicans and the “liberal” newspaper of record — and how that mutual dependency influences American journalism for the worse.
You may read an excerpt below. The book, Killing The Messenger is available for purchase here.
It was Monday evening, March 2, 2015, when my inbox exploded.
The New York Times had just published a story by Michael Schmidt, and, at first glance, it looked bad:
HILLARY CLINTON USED PERSONAL EMAIL ACCOUNT AT STATE DEPT., POSSIBLY BREAKING RULES
WASHINGTON— 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.
Mrs. Clinton did not have a government email address during her four-year tenure at the State Department. Her aides took no actions to have her personal emails preserved on department servers at the time, as required by the Federal Records Act.
It was only two months ago, in response to a new State Department effort to comply with federal record-keeping practices, that Mrs. Clinton’s advisers reviewed tens of thousands of pages of her personal emails and decided which ones to turn over to the State Department.
The article even included a juicy quote:
“It is very difficult to conceive of a scenario— short of nuclear winter— where an agency would be justified in allowing its cabinet-level head officer to solely use a private email communications channel for the conduct of government business,” said Jason R. Baron, a lawyer at Drinker Biddle & Reath who is a former director of litigation at the National Archives and Records Administration.
The fact that Hillary used a personal e‑mail account had been known for a couple of years, ever since Gawker published a story about it backin 2013. But on Twitter, even steadfast Democrats were freaking out. No government e‑mail address? Violating federal law?
Those two words in the headline— breaking rules— were ominous. And conservatives were already crowing, not just about the possibility that Hillary might actually be in trouble this time, but about the way the story fit into their caricature of her as calculating and secretive, someone who put her own political well-being above everything else— even, possibly, our national security; was she conducting diplomacy via Gmail?!?! Schmidt made sure to underscore that GOP talking point with an editorial comment of his own:
The revelation about the private email account echoes longstanding criticisms directed at both the former secretary and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, for a lack of transparency and inclination toward secrecy.
On top of that, Jeb Bush (whose new communications director was Tim Miller, formerly of the America Rising SuperPAC) had publicly and with great fanfare published his own e‑mail archives online— the contrast was unmistakable, and if you missed it, Schmidt helpfully reminded you of that, too.
Worst of all, while careful readers could tell that Schmidt’s story was sourced to the Republican committee investigating Benghazi, it hadn’t made its first appearance on Fox or in the Washington Free Beacon, but was more artfully planted in the paper of record. A story in the New York Times gets, essentially, an automatic pass into the next day’s news cycle— no outlet has the same power to command every reporter and pundit’s attention. Republicans could use the paper’s credibility for their own ends (“even the liberal New York Times”). And Democrats and liberals, for whom the Times is viewed as a reliable source of information, could be counted on to be especially shaken by the revelation.
In short, this was a big deal.
Reading the piece on my phone, I had no idea how much of it was true, nor how much of what was true was actually damaging. All I had to go on was a quote in the article from Nick Merrill, Hillary’s personal spokesman, asserting that she had complied with the “letter and spirit of the rules.”
In fact, I would have had a lot more to go on if the Times had published the meat of Merrill’s statement. And Times readers, as well, would have had a much better understanding of the issues at play.
Merrill had told the Times that previous secretaries of state had used personal e-mail accounts when conducting official business. He told the Times that when sending work e-mails from her personal account, Hillary e-mailed other officials on their work accounts, so that those e-mails would be retained by the government. And most important, he told the Times that use of personal e-mail accounts was permissible under federal rules, so long as work-related e-mails were retained, which Hillary did. In other words, if Merrill was right on his last point, the Times’ central allegation was based on a wrong interpretation of the relevant statues.
Why did the Times edit out such critical information, cutting Merrill’s statement down so drastically?
As Schmidt’s story was being put to bed, with its false hint of criminality trumpeted in an accusatory headline, Times editor Ryan held forth to colleagues that the response from the Clinton spokesman had been edited down to just a few stray phrases because she—Carolyn Ryan—believed it was a lie—and that the Clintons just lie.
Over the course of the evening, though, as other outlets tried to chase the New York Times report and I huddled with my staff on conference calls, it became clear that the Times had a more glaring problem than Hillary probably did. The Times, it turned out, not the Clinton spokesman, was the one lying.
First, and most important, the claim that Hillary had violated the law was wholly unsupported by anything Schmidt had reported.
The article referred to “federal requirements that officials’ correspondence be retained as part of the agency’s record,” part of the Federal Records Act. But some quick research showed that the rules the Times suggested were broken were not in place when Hillary was secretary of state. The Presidential and Federal Records Act Amendments of 2014, which declared that official messages sent on personal accounts must be copied or forwarded to official accounts for record keeping, did not become law until more than eighteen months after she had left the State Department. The rules that were in effect during Hillary’s tenure at State did not require real-time archiving into State’s system, only that relevant records be retained and preserved, which Hillary clearly did.
In other words: The rule Schmidt was accusing Hillary of breaking wasn’t a rule at all when he suggested she broke it.
Knowing these facts, the story was starting to make a little more sense. That “new State Department effort to comply with federal record-keeping practices” two months earlier had been a response to the new law. The State Department had, as part of an update to its record preservation policies, asked every former secretary of state dating back to Madeleine Albright to provide records (including e‑mails) from their time in office. In response, Hillary had sent more than 55,000 pages of e‑mails to be archived.
Within hours of the story’s publication, it was obvious that its central claim— that Hillary had possibly broken the law— was false. This alone should have been grounds for a retraction, or at least a prominent correction. By Tuesday morning, when the story appeared above the fold on the front page of the Times print edition with the subhead lack of archiving may break federal rules, we discovered more problems with it:
- The initial version that went online reported that Hillary had provided the e‑mails to one of the congressional committees engaged in the Benghazi witch hunt. But the story was later updated to make it clear that she voluntarily submitted e‑mails sent from her account after the State Department first sought them as part of updating its records to comply with the new regulations. The Times never explained how Schmidt got that wrong.
- Far down in the story, Schmidt noted that Hillary’s successor, John Kerry, used a government e‑mail account. But while Schmidt relayed this fact in an MSNBC interview the next morning, his original story didn’t tell readers that Kerry was, in fact, the first secretary of state ever to rely primarily on official State Department e‑mail.
- Schmidt wrote, “Before the current regulations went into effect, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell . . . used personal email to communicate with American officials and ambassadors and foreign leaders.” This let Powell off the hook— but if that was right Hillary should have been in the clear, too: Her use of personal e‑mail also came “before the current regulations went into effect.”
- And that quote from Hillary’s spokesman? The full quote was missing from the lengthy article. Schmidt was unable to find room for what Hillary’s spokesman actually said. Or did he just not want to undermine his jurcy premise? (Only later did I learn the quote was purposely truncated.)
- Finally, the primary source cited to indict Hillary’s use of a personal e‑mail account, Jason “Nuclear Winter” Baron, flatly told CNN that he did not believe Hillary had violated the law. Did Schmidt not ask him that question? Or did Schmidt just not find the answer useful?
That Tuesday, March 3, it was the pundits’ turn to weigh in on the previous evening’s story, and the hot takes were flying. “This will feed the idea she’s hiding something,” said Dana Bash on CNN, comparing the story to Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” tape. Her colleague, Brianna Keilar, speculated that the controversy might spark challenges from other Democrats. In the Washington Post, Ruth Marcus wrote, “The Clintons’ unfortunate tendency to be their own worst enemy is on display again.”
Democrats, meanwhile, awoke in full meltdown. Cable news was looking for guests to defend Hillary’s use of personal e‑mail; at this early stage of the story, with so many questions unanswered and facts unknown, few volunteered.
But I did. Even though I didn’t yet have an answer to every question raised in the article, I did have plenty of evidence to show that the Times had misfired badly. The central allegation— that Hillary had broken federal rules— was unsupported by the story; no one, including the lead expert quoted in the story, was backing it up. That was ground we could fight on. I also focused on the fact that the story advanced the agenda of partisan sources in the GOP desperately searching for a way to keep the failed Benghazi investigation active.
Adding to my confidence level was my firsthand experience with many other stories just like this one.
I had seen it all before: the weakly supported accusations of wrongdoing, the feeding frenzy from a press corps hoping to write the Clintons’ political obituary, the braying on the right and the panic on the left. My instincts told me that if we just gave the story another poke or two, the whole house of cards would collapse.
So, that Tuesday morning, I assembled all the flaws we’d found in Michael Schmidt’s story and sent an open letter to the public editor of the New York Times asking for a prominent correction. And when those media bookers started calling around, looking for talkers, I told them to sign me up, doing four shows in one day.
Wednesday morning, I appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. Hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski were convinced that Hillary was done for, and somewhat incredulous that I was defending her so strongly: “The story,” I said, “was wrong. It’s based on a false premise.” (“I’m not sure what planet I’m on right now,” Mika marveled when I refused to admit that some law must have been broken.)
Bob Woodward, also on the panel, tried to get me to hedge: “Clearly, it was a good story. You may have some technical disagreements, but we get into this issue— were the walls green, is that really illegal and so forth, it’s an important story, won’t you concede that?”
But it wasn’t a good story. The central premise had fallen apart. So I held my ground. No hedging.
Instead, I reminded the audience of what was really going on: “Let’s not have a situation where the normal journalistic rules apply to everybody but Hillary Clinton. And let’s not forget that the real story here is, you’ve got a dying Benghazi investigation on Capitol Hill . . . they want a fishing expedition into these e‑mails.”
I better understood the reluctance of my fellow Democrats to defend Hillary in that moment when the press notices on my appearances came in. Peggy Noonan called me a “weirdo.” The National Review Online would cite my “unique melange of clownishness, self-interest, and hyper-competence,” suggesting that I was “taking the heat” for the Clintons like a “good and faithful servant.” And Fox News, commenting on my wavy gray locks, called me “Captain Crazy Hair.”
To Maureen Dowd, I was officially a Hillary “hatchet.” And according to the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Media Matters was now to be regarded as a “propaganda operation,” while American Bridge was Hillary’s “attack machine.”
The strangest comment, apparently meant to be an anti-gay slur, came from the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, who fantasized about my taking orders from Hillary after “slinking” out of a “leather onesie.”
All of it was an unpleasant reminder that marginalizing Democrats who forcefully defend their own side— rather than seeking a “reasonable” middle ground and hedging the defense— was all part of the game. And so was the political media’s continuing overreaction, as the Sunday shows and op‑ed columnists got their chance to weigh in on What It All Meant.
“This isn’t about the e‑mails,” said Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter on Meet the Press, explaining that “it feeds into this narrative that she isn’t a change agent.”
Excerpted from Killing The Messenger: The Right-Wing Plot to Derail Hillary and Hijack Your Government. Copyright (c) 2015 by David Brock. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase the full book here.
Photo: Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton speaks on “Face the Nation” with John Dickerson, in Washington, D.C., in this picture provided by CBS News, September 20, 2015. REUTERS/CBS News/Chris Usher/Handout via Reuters