Hillary Clinton found herself in a familiar place on Tuesday: amid a gaggle of excited reporters eagerly shouting questions at her about a matter they thought was of the highest importance and she thought was absurdly trivial. If this is the first Clinton controversy of the 2016 campaign, it has a meta quality about it: since no one knows if there's anything problematic (let alone incriminating) of substance in her emails themselves, we're left talking about how we talk about it.
At this early stage, that can be an important conversation to have. I've written some very critical things about Clinton, both in the past and with regard to this issue; most particularly, on Monday I wrote this piece arguing that she owes her liberal supporters a campaign worthy of all she and her husband asked of them over the years. And since the presidential race is just beginning, this is a good opportunity for the reporters who will be covering her to do some reflection as well, about where they and their colleagues went wrong in the past and how they can serve their audiences better in the next year and a half.
You can't understand Hillary Clinton's perspective without understanding what happened in the 1990s, and the media transformation that was going on while Bill Clinton was president. From the first moments of that presidency, Clinton's opponents were convinced he was corrupt to the core. They assumed that if they mounted enough investigations and tossed around enough charges, something would stick and Clinton would be brought down. If you think the endless Benghazi investigations are ridiculous, you should have been around then; if Bill Clinton wore the same tie two days in a row, Republicans would hold a week's worth of hearings to investigate what he was covering up.
The media atmosphere in which this all occurred was profoundly different than it had been just a few years before. Conservative talk radio came into its own in the 1990s, providing Republicans both an outlet for their most outrageous charges and a goad to produce more of them. (When they won control of Congress in 1994, Republicans literally made Rush Limbaugh an honorary member of their freshman class). Fox News debuted in 1996, in time for the impeachment crisis of 1998. The previously leisurely news cycle accelerated rapidly, and nothing fed it like scandal.
While the Clintons bear responsibility for getting many of those scandals going with questionable decision-making or behavior, it's also true that the mainstream media made huge mistakes during that period by treating every Republican charge, no matter how ludicrous, as though it was worthy of a full-scale investigation splashed across the front page. Again and again, they reacted to the most thinly justified accusations as though the next Watergate or Iran-Contra was at hand, and when it turned out that there was no corruption or illegality to be found, they simply moved on to the next faux-scandal, presented no less breathlessly.
That past — and journalists' failures to reckon with it — are still affecting coverage today. When this email story broke, how many journalists said it was important because it "plays into a narrative" of Hillary Clinton as scandal-tainted? I must have heard it a dozen times just in the past week.
Here's a tip for my fellow scribes and opinionators: If you find yourself justifying blanket coverage of an issue because it "plays into a narrative," stop right there. That's a way of saying that you can't come up with an actual, substantive reason this is important or newsworthy, just that it bears some superficial but probably meaningless similarity to something that happened at some point in the past. It's the updated version of "out there" — during the Clinton years, reporters would say they had no choice but to devote attention to some scurrilous charge, whether there was evidence for it or not, because someone had made the charge and therefore it was "out there."
"Narratives," furthermore, aren't delivered from Mt. Sinai on stone tablets. They're created and maintained by journalists making decisions about what's important and how different issues should be understood. If you're going to tell us that a new issue "plays into a narrative," you ought to be able to say why there's something essentially true or significant about that narrative.
To be clear, I'm not saying reporters shouldn't aggressively investigate Hillary Clinton, when it comes to her tenure at the State Department, her time in the Senate, her activities as a private citizen, or anything else. They absolutely should, just as they should look into all candidates — that's their job. She wants to be president, and the public needs to know as much as possible about who she is and what she would do if she gets to sit in the Oval Office.
But as they do that, they should exercise their considered news judgment, just as they do every day on every other topic. They should apply similar standards to all the candidates; if it's important that Clinton used a private email account while at State, then it must be equally important that other candidates have used private emails for work, and they should be subject to as much scrutiny as she is. When a new revelation or accusation emerges, the questions reporters should ask themselves include: Is there evidence for this? What's the context in which it took place? How does it bear on the presidency? How can I present it to my audience in a way that makes them smarter and better informed?
Any reporter could come up with a dozen others. But "Does this play into a narrative?" ought to be the last question they ask. As I wrote about Hillary Clinton, there are ways in which she owes her supporters better than what they've gotten from her in the past. But that's only half the story. The news media owes their readers, listeners, and viewers better than what they got, too.