Is The New York Times out to get Hillary Clinton?

When it comes to the nation's most important newspaper, Clinton is always going to be presumed guilty of something

Hillary Clinton has been hounded by the press since the very beginning.
(Image credit: Photo Illustration by Jackie Friedman | Images courtesy AFP/AFP/Getty Images, Mark Makela/Getty Images, Spencer Platt/Getty Images. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images. Ramin Talaie/Getty Images)

If anything stops Hillary Clinton from becoming the 45th president of the United States, it will be the widely accepted idea that she is dishonest and corrupt, a figure forever trailed by scandals of her own making (and her husband's), as twisted by her own ethical shortcomings as she is driven by her mad lust for power. And weirdly enough, no publication is more responsible for the spread of this idea and its continual renewal than that foremost bastion of the supposedly liberal media, The New York Times. While Clinton would never admit it publicly, she is surely certain that the Times is, and has always been, out to get her.

Does she have a case? It may not be as clear-cut as her defenders would have it, but there's no question that the Times has long had, and still has, a bee in its bonnet when it comes to Hillary Clinton.

We can see it in recent coverage, particularly of questions around Clinton's ethics. There's a repeated pattern to many of these stories: Some perfectly legitimate question emerges, like "Did Clinton Foundation donors get undeserved access to Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state?" or "Do a batch of newly released emails from Clinton's aides show her doing something wrong?" Then when the answer turns out to be, "Actually, no," the story is still presented in the Times as a revelation of possible malfeasance. If there's no credible evidence — for instance, an official at the foundation asked for special treatment and didn't get it — the paper will fall back on saying that even though we may not have found a smoking gun this time, the affair still "raises questions" of wrongdoing. It might be a story about a Clinton Foundation executive trying and failing to get a Hillary Clinton aide's help to obtain a diplomatic passport when he wasn't authorized to get it, or one about Clinton having a meeting with the crown prince of Bahrain, an important U.S. ally who also happens to have donated to the Clinton Foundation, but the theme is the same: There's probably something fishy going on here, even if the evidence doesn't seem to show that there is, and anyhow it just looks bad.

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To be clear, the Times is hardly the only offender in this area, and it hasn't shirked from going after Clinton's Republican rival Donald Trump. There are scores of terrific journalists at the paper, and these issues don't come up in much of their coverage of the campaign; it's only on certain topics that a particular set of assumptions about Clinton seems to be operating. Furthermore, "bias" isn't always the problem. Sometimes it's a question of sunk costs: When you invest time and money in a story, there's an incentive to present it as consequential and revealing; "Candidate did nothing wrong" is not exactly front-page material.

But the Times has not only been particularly aggressive in pursuing and highlighting these stories, it's also prone to presenting even exculpatory material as indicative of some deeper ethical problem. And its decisions are simply more important than those of other news outlets. The newspaper industry may be in poor health, but The New York Times is still the most important news outlet in America, and perhaps the world. No other outlet has the Times' power to set the news agenda, to pull the rest of the media along with it when it decides that some story is of pressing import.

The Times' pursuit of Hillary and Bill Clinton goes way back, back to the founding document of the problem the Clintons have with the press: this article from March 1992 which began the scandal, or non-scandal, known as Whitewater. Though many of the allegations in the article and in follow-ups the paper published later turned out to be inaccurate or misleading — and neither Clinton was found to have done anything wrong with regard to the land deal in which they lost money — the ball was set rolling. The media story led to congressional investigations, which led to the appointment of a special prosecutor, Ken Starr, whose dogged pursuit of the Clintons would make Inspector Javert look like The Dude, with the eventual result being Bill Clinton's impeachment in 1998.

If the Times is a liberal paper — which in many ways it is — what accounts for the obsession it seemed to have with taking Bill Clinton down, even at the price of hyping some shoddy reporting? First, it's important to understand that Clinton was elected only 18 years after Watergate, as recent then as his own impeachment is to us now. The Washington Post had achieved what not even the Times could claim: uncovering the scandal that brought down a corrupt president, revealing the cancer growing on the presidency and enabling the political system to excise it. There could be no greater journalistic achievement, and it was one that the Post, with a fraction of the Times' prestige, had accomplished. The possibility of a feat of equal magnitude was always waiting to be grasped like a golden chalice.

And the fact that Clinton was a Democrat only made the Times more eager: It would show once and for all that those overheated charges of "liberal bias" were so much baloney, that the paper's ironclad commitment to professionalism far outweighed whatever partisan sympathies its personnel might indulge on their off days.

But whatever the root cause, it wouldn't be surprising if Hillary Clinton were to blame the Times, at least in part, for enabling so much of the political trouble she and Bill endured. What is strange is that so much later, even though most of the reporters and editors from the 1990s are no longer at the paper, its eagerness to find Clinton scandals seems undimmed.

Times columnist Paul Krugman earlier this week wrote a column complaining about this kind of faux-scandal coverage that sounded a lot like a dig at his own newspaper, at least in part. "I would urge journalists to ask whether they are reporting facts or simply engaging in innuendo, and urge the public to read with a critical eye," he wrote. "If reports about a candidate talk about how something 'raises questions,' creates 'shadows,' or anything similar, be aware that these are all too often weasel words used to create the impression of wrongdoing out of thin air." Krugman's mention of "shadows" was almost certainly a reference to this piece by Annie Rees in Talking Points Memo, which documented all the many times that stories about Clinton in The New York Times asserted that with regard to some story or other, even though Clinton had nothing to do with it (like Anthony Weiner's sexting) or had done nothing wrong (like meetings she held with world leaders who had also donated to the Clinton Foundation), the tale nonetheless cast a "shadow" or a "cloud" over her campaign. "I was reluctant to write today's col because I knew journos would hate it," Krugman later tweeted. "But it felt like a moral duty."

An enormous institution like The New York Times doesn't have a singular will — it's made up of individuals, each of whom has their own perspective on what's newsworthy and what good coverage looks like. Much of the Times' coverage of this campaign, like its reporting more generally, has been exemplary. And of course, we'd rather have a news media that's too aggressive in seeking out official wrongdoing than one that's too passive. But it does appear that when it comes to the nation's most important newspaper, Hillary Clinton is always going to be presumed guilty of something, even if they haven't quite gotten the goods on her yet.

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