When we think of the media, we tend to think of ever-churning cycles of news and don’t usually think of how long the media stick with a narrative. Nor do we think about how the polarization of the media, particularly on the Internet, has abetted those candidates at the poles on the far left and right, while candidates of the center-right, like John Kasich, and the center-left, like Hillary Clinton, basically are left stranded without aggressive media boosters.
Clinton’s campaign is an object lesson in both these media tendencies. The MSM made up their mind on her decades ago and won’t budge. And the Internet isn’t about to come to her defense.
As the media have fired their blunderbusses at Donald Trump, trying to take down his candidacy — even as they benefit from the attention he brings them — you may have missed the whacks they’ve been taking at Clinton. She has been the media’s national piñata for so long, and the criticisms of her are so familiar by now, they are embedded in our consciousness as presumptions of guilt.
Of course, the basic narrative is that she did this to herself because she is a bundle of character flaws. She is duplicitous and untrustworthy. She lies. She is a pawn of the rich and powerful. She feels entitled to do anything she damn pleases. That pretty much sums up the media take on Hillary, and that take is virtually unanimous, so much a given that practically no one in the media has bothered to give it a second thought. This isn’t the “sorta know” journalism I referenced last week. This is “we-all-know” journalism.
Except we don’t all know it, and neither does the press. I hold no brief for Hillary Clinton or anyone else in the race. In the electoral hurly-burly, it is the job of every candidate to hold brief for himself or herself, and the media’s job to examine that brief. Indeed, preordained, unexamined ideas are just another way the media continue to fail the public, and when it comes to Hillary Clinton, the failure is spectacular. The media needle has been stuck in the same groove for two decades. And she is not getting a reboot. David Graham at The Atlantic could have been speaking for his media confreres when he recently wrote, “Keeping track of each controversy, where it came from and how serious it is, is no small task” — before proceeding to try to do exactly that.
Whatever her faults, what really hurts Clinton may lie not so much in herself as in a post-modernist fault of the media. First, they set up a narrative — typically the sort of novelistic narrative that will give reporters traction with their readers. Then they keep pounding on it, over years, so that, in this particular case, they aren’t really reporting on Hillary Clinton anymore, they are reporting on their version of Hillary Clinton. The more they report, they more invested they become in their version.
The media never much liked the Clintons to begin with. In this election season of anti-elitism, one reason why is instructive for its condescension. As Sally Quinn, Washington Post writer and society doyenne (she was executive editor Ben Bradlee’s wife), put it in a famous, huffy 1998 article, the Clintons had sullied the White House and Washington had “been brought into disrepute by the actions of the president.” What she was really saying was that they were country bumpkins, not part of the ritzy DC establishment that she inhabited, and they needed to be punished for it. The irony is that rather than scorn the establishment that scorned them, the Clintons got into some trouble trying desperately to enter it.
But punished they have been. The New York Times’ Jeff Gerth was the first to pounce on Whitewater, the non-scandal that triggered the Clintons-are-duplicitous meme, and though, according to Joe Conason and longtime political reporter and erstwhile Clinton defender Gene Lyons, Gerth had exculpating evidence, he apparently chose not to include it. He was, one imagines, doing his best Woodward/Bernstein impression, with the Clintons standing in for Nixon.
This is how Lyons put it in a 1994 Harper’s magazine article:
Absent the near-talismanic role of The New York Times in American journalism, the whole complex of allegations and suspicions subsumed under the word ‘Whitewater’ might never have made it to the front page, much less come to dominate the national political dialogue for months at a time. It is all the more disturbing, then, that most of the insinuations in Gerth’s reporting are either highly implausible or demonstrably false.
Still, false or not, once the virus was loose, every reporter caught it, fancying himself a would-be Woodstein. Remember Travelgate? Of course you don’t. Or the scandal over the Rose legal files? I rather doubt it. Or the Vince Foster suicide? Maybe you still think Bill Clinton pulled the trigger, which is an oldie-but-goodie being shilled to this day on right-wing sites.
All, in the final analysis, were non-stories, some of them cooked up by partisans and spread by the press to accomplish exactly what the Republicans wanted to accomplish: to create a vague nimbus of guilt around the Clintons.
The operative word is “vague.” The press should have been a firewall against these allegations. Instead, they were an accelerant, not only because they didn’t like the cornpone Clintons, but because they knew the truth was likely to be far less interesting than the suspicions of wrongdoing. The media, after all, are in the reader business, not the truth business.
The bigger point is this: whatever you may think of the Clintons, the scandals didn’t create the meme of untrustworthiness about them. The meme of untrustworthiness created the scandals. The media just kept hunting for those scandals as confirmation of what they had already determined. That is how so many in the MSM work — backwards from presumption to incident. It also happens to be the surest path to career advancement for journalistic opportunists.
So we still get stories harping on Benghazi, even though investigation after investigation, including one by the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee, exculpated Clinton. But why bury a story when you just know that the Clintons are always up to something?
Or we get TV teasers just last week about Hillary Clinton “losing it” when asked by a Greenpeace activist why she takes coal and oil money, and Clinton bristled that she is tired of those “lies.” Oh, how the media loved that.
Well, guess what? The charges turned out to be vastly inflated, though, in typical media fashion, that was never the lead of the story, only the afterthought. It turns out that Clinton takes very little money from the coal and oil industry — and only from its employees. The Washington Post fact-checker even gave the Greenpeace charge three “Pinocchios” out of four. But, again, where the Clintons are concerned, the media not only assume the worst, they invariably print the worst.
And, finally, there are those emails. This is no place to rehash the controversy. It is a place, however, to report how The Washington Post published a long story by Robert O’Harrow, Jr., that got several significant facts about the emails wrong, always to Clinton’s detriment.
The error that has gotten the most attention from press critics is the number of FBI agents supposedly assigned to the case: 147! And from where did that number come? An unnamed “lawmaker” who said he had been briefed by FBI Director James Comey. Do you suppose that lawmaker was a Republican out to get Clinton, and do you suppose that a journalist looking for the truth ought to have been highly skeptical of such a source? The actual number was said to be under 50, and even that, FBI experts told NBC, was probably substantially overstated.
This is no small mistake. Nor is it necessarily an honest one. The entire article could only have been intended to hurt Clinton politically. At a time when rightwing websites are rubbing their hands in glee over the prospect of Clinton being indicted (fat chance), this is big, and it deserved both a giant retraction and self-flagellating penance from the paper. It got neither. As for the scandal itself, see Kurt Eichenwald’s take in Newsweek because you certainly won’t see this kind of analysis anywhere else in the MSM for the simple but unethical reason that the media don’t want to kill the story any more than the Republicans do. It’s just too delicious.
No, Hillary Clinton isn’t without sin. No candidate is. But she has been deliberately and unfairly abused by the press for years, her motives always impugned, her gaffes blown out of proportion, her missteps always attributed not to miscalculations or ordinary human foible but to deep character flaws. (Just Google “Hillary Clinton” and “character.”)
To be fair, the press are usually cynical about everyone — their brief Marco Rubio obsession notwithstanding. That is the new cool. And they would be cynical about Bernie Sanders, too, if they thought he mattered, which they clearly don’t. But the Clintons, who they do think matter, got on the wrong side of the press long ago — not haute enough for the Sally Quinns of this world — and they can never get on the right side. And besides, the idea of their nefarious misdeeds makes such good copy that any reporter would really hate to give them the benefit of the doubt.