Last week, Hillary Clinton got in one of her periodic fights with the press, extending a long-running battle that has been raging for decades now. In the media corner was The New York Times, which beclowned itself with a false report alleging that Clinton was about to be the subject of a criminal inquiry over emails she sent while at the State Department.
The episode is the latest evidence that the Times needs to take a hard look at its Clinton coverage. But there's also a lesson here for the broader mainstream media, which needs to get over its blind hatred of the Clintons. It not only leads to gross failures in journalism, but ends up being a massive distraction from the actual scrutiny Hillary Clinton deserves.
It's worth noticing what a stupendous journalistic faceplant this was. As Kevin Drum points out, pretty much every single word in the original headline was wrong:
Clinton was not a target. The referral was not criminal. The emails in question had not been classified at the time Clinton saw them. When the dust settled, it appeared that the whole thing was little more than a squabble between State and CIA over whether certain emails that State is releasing to the public should or shouldn't be classified. In other words, just your garden-variety bureaucratic dispute. [Mother Jones]
This isn't the first time the Times has printed a gravely mistaken story suggesting ethical lapses on the part of a Clinton running for president. Back in 1992, Times reporter Jeff Gerth wrote a story about how the Clintons were involved in a seemingly shady real estate deal called Whitewater. It suggested that the Clintons had gotten a big share of potential profits without putting up much cash, and that Bill Clinton had used his power as Arkansas governor to protect a savings and loan owned by a Whitewater associate from being closed down by the feds.
Just as with the most recent story, about every part of Gerth's account was wrong or misleading, as Joe Conason and Gene Lyons wrote in their book on the Clinton impeachment, The Hunting of the President. The Clintons actually lost a ton of money on the deal, and the Arkansas government had recommended to the feds that the S&L be liquidated.
But that was only the start of hundreds of Whitewater articles and reports. The political press ditched any notion of objectivity and pursued the Clintons with a deranged, prudish zealotry. These journalists never actually revealed any concrete wrongdoing, but the incessant repetition convinced many that the Clintons must have done something wrong — which eventually led to the appointment of a special prosecutor. The rest is history.
Not much has changed. Much of the centrist press still quite obviously loathes the Clintons. Ron Fournier, the id of centrism, knocks her PR strategy (that is, writing a devastating, accurate takedown of the Times report), insists where there's smoke there's fire, and generally makes dim excuses to keep hounding her.
On the other hand, the Times' atrocious report was caught out almost immediately. Unlike the 90s, there is a reasonably powerful left-leaning press today, and fact-checking can spread rapidly through social media. It is much harder to get away with that kind of lazy hack job on a prominent candidate.
It's hard to figure out how the Times could have been so incredibly sloppy. But I suspect the traditional media suspicion of the Clintons played a big role. The Clintons' reputation is so bad that reporters tend to discard their vaunted skepticism the moment a bad piece of news about them comes over the transom.
And that, as we see, leads to disastrous mistakes. A story that confirms a strong prior belief is exactly the point at which journalists ought to be at their most skeptical.
And perhaps more importantly, this annoying, narcissistic media spectacle is proving to be an enormous distraction from the important task of actually reporting on Hillary Clinton. There are all manner of things to cover, from her poor choice in advisers, to her foreign policy views, and yes, even the deleted emails from her years at the State Department. Just make sure to actually, you know, check the facts before hitting publish.