Opinion

How Hillary Clinton's pneumonia flap shows everything wrong with the press in 2016

A tale of two scandals

If you dropped into our presidential campaign last weekend knowing nothing about it, you probably would have been puzzled at why everyone was making such a big deal out of the fact that one of our major party nominees got light-headed one day — the result, we later learned, of pneumonia and probably dehydration, conditions that are easy to treat. What exactly was so momentous about this event, that it should have the news media so worked up? The answer is just about everything that's wrong with the way the 2016 campaign has been covered.

Let's not mince words here: Donald Trump — a bigot and a con man who appeals to the worst instincts of the worst people, who neither knows nor cares how government works, who encourages violence and promises to commit war crimes, who lies so often and so blatantly that it's positively pathological, who has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he's the most loathsome human being to have been nominated by a major party in living memory — Donald freaking Trump stands a reasonably good chance of being elected president of the United States and thus becoming the most powerful human being on Earth, and news outlets are running pieces on "Hydrated Hillary: 9 times Clinton quenched her thirst."

Let's stipulate that Hillary Clinton should before now have given us more information on her medical history (though she had already given more than Trump). But consider that at around the same time, some people were trying to call more attention to the topic of the Trump Foundation, an extraordinary story of deception, possible illegal contributions, and tax evasion, and morally despicable double-dealing. And yet The Washington Post's David Fahrenthold is almost the only reporter assigned to that story on an ongoing basis. But when Clinton gets faint at a memorial service, news organizations mobilize like it's D-Day, assigning multiple reporters to investigate every aspect of the story. Tuesday's New York Times, for instance, included four separate stories in the news section about this momentous event, two of which were on the front page. The liberal group Media Matters for America reported that on that day, the three cable networks spent a combined 51 minutes and 51 seconds talking about the Trump Foundation, but over 13.5 hours talking about Clinton's fainting and pneumonia.

What was the cause of this journalistic feeding frenzy? The facts seem rather mundane. Clinton had pneumonia, a temporary condition which doesn't bear on her fitness to be president, and hoped it would pass. If it had been a year from now when we found out that she got treated for it during the campaign but it didn't affect her ability to continue, no one would think she had somehow betrayed everyone's trust by not rushing to tell reporters about it. And when she got light-headed, her campaign explained what the likely cause was. All in all, it hardly seems like an Earth-shattering turn of events.

Ah, but commentators explained, the story "plays into a narrative," one in which Clinton is secretive, deceptive, skulking around with some hidden agenda.

Here's a tip: When you hear a journalist or commentator say that some story "plays into a narrative," what they're saying is that the facts in the case either don't support the narrative or even suggest exactly the opposite of the narrative, but they'd like to keep that narrative going nonetheless.

In this case, had Clinton decided to take a few days off when she got the pneumonia diagnosis, then the press should have been informed why. But when she made the decision to just keep working, it became much less important to do so, because (she thought) the pneumonia wasn't going to stop her from her normal activities. Once it did affect her, she had to say what it was, and she did (even if reporters griped that her campaign waited a few hours). She wasn't being unusually secretive or misleading; she's not obligated to tell reporters about every last thing that goes on with her body if it doesn't affect her work. If Donald Trump suffers from a bout of constipation next week, it doesn't really matter and we don't have to be told about it.

In contrast, when a candidate does something that genuinely reinforces a narrative that has been established over months or years, nobody has to say that it "plays into the narrative." When Trump said that the judge in his Trump University fraud case can't be objective because "He's a Mexican" (reminder: The judge is actually an American), nobody had to say, "This matters because it plays into a narrative of Trump being a bigot" to provide an excuse for why it was being covered. That's because it was much more straightforward to just say, "That was an incredibly bigoted thing to say."

That isn't to say that there's a "pro-Trump" bias in the news media, because it isn't so simple as the press favoring one candidate over the other. Trump gets plenty of criticism in the media, but much of it is transient. His latest appalling statement or absurd lie gets covered, and then most of the press moves on, because within a day or two he will have found a new way to shock.

When it comes to Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, the narratives media have constructed about her are far more persistent and are used against her even when they're utterly irrelevant. She can say something false, or even something that's literally true but misleading, and years later reporters will still drop it into their stories as a way of reminding their audience not to forget that she's dishonest. For instance, you probably remember how a couple of years ago Clinton said that when she and Bill left the White House they were "dead broke," right? Her point was that they had limited assets that added up to less than their large legal debts.

Maybe it wasn't the most politically deft way of explaining why they set about to earn as much as they could from books and speeches, but it was literally true at the time regardless of their huge potential for future earnings. But either way, it was an offhand comment, not some kind of historic lie. Yet you remember it because reporters continue to remind you of it. In an average day, Donald Trump tells half a dozen lies far more unambiguous and serious than that one, lies that either zoom by with no comment at all or are corrected in passing and then never mentioned again.

You can argue that during the campaign we spend far too much time talking about the candidates as individuals than we do about their plans and policies. That's not the real problem, though, because individuals do matter when it comes to the presidency. The problem is that so often we're talking about the wrong thing. If Hillary Clinton becomes president, two years from now are we going to look back and say, "Boy, it was a good thing we spent all that time talking about that time she got pneumonia"? I doubt it.

But a story like this one in Newsweek, which reveals the intricate web of ongoing business dealings Donald Trump has around the world, has profound and disturbing implications for American foreign policy should Trump become president. He won't talk about them at all, nor will he release his tax returns like every other party nominee since the 1970s, so we don't even know their full extent.

Now that's the kind of secretiveness that every news outlet ought to be freaking out about.

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