The beating heart of this election turned tachycardic today, simply because a federal law enforcement official fulfilled a basic obligation of his office.
Every communication medium is subject to our cognitive biases and self-imposed bubbles. But the collective media freak-out over FBI Director James Comey's notification to Congress that his agency has come across new emails "pertinent" to its investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server is an object lesson in how we, as consumers and producers of media, can screw with our own heads at the expense of common sense.
Comey took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. He did not take an oath to follow best practices for preventing mass media freak-outs, or to consult the political calendar before deciding when to amend his testimony, or to prevent the stock market from gyrating. Likewise, he did not promise to subject himself to praise from the news media for his stellar grasp of optics.
Indeed, if he made any mistake, it was that his statement was too vague. "Irresponsible," said The Huffington Post's Sam Stein.
Why? It allowed Republicans to play semantic games about investigations being "reopened." Democrats lost their nerve, as they tend to do. Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta called it "extraordinary that we would see something like this 11 days before an election."
Extraordinary, yes. Potentially damaging to Clinton? Of course. The email scandal, as small potatoes as it has turned out to be, is one reason Americans say they don't trust her. When the public's attention is drawn to Clinton because of the email issue, it does not redound to her benefit. I get why the Clinton team feels burned, here. The email issue is still hot.
"The director owes it to the American people to provide full details of what he is now examining," Podesta's statement read.
Does he? In point of fact, no. Not really. He does not owe Clinton the courtesy of putting her political interests before his legal obligations.
As for the public: yes. What the FBI director says about a presidential candidate in the days before an election automatically becomes the only thing that people will talk about. It should be axiomatic that if he must say something, then, he should say it carefully, and with due regard for the political realities. His investigations ought to be above politics; his words are political, regardless of whether he wants them to be.
Comey had a duty to inform Congress if the FBI developed information about the case that was at odds with his testimony on September 28. So he did.
Why was his statement so vague? He has no duty to be specific in a way that compromises an active investigation. That's a first principle.
So perhaps he chose vagueness instead of specificity because specificity might have created even more of a mess.
Reporting is an active endeavor. Passively conveying Comey's statement without (a) the context of his legal obligation to notify Congress and (b) an effort to determine what the substance of the new information is … well, whatever it is, it wasn't reporting.
Here we have to speculate. In the course of determining whether Anthony Weiner exchanged sexually explicit texts with a 15-year-old girl, agents obtained devices used by Weiner. Weiner is separated from his wife Huma Abedin, Clinton's longtime personal aide and close friend. Because devices belonging solely to Abedin would not ordinarily be subject to a subpoena unless there was probable cause to believe that they had been used to commit a crime — the crime being Weiner's in the case — we don't know whose devices the FBI found new emails on.
But they did find something. Perhaps they were emails about the Clinton private email server. Perhaps they were forwarded email chains from the State Department that contained new messages the investigators hadn't seen before. Perhaps they were something else.
The media collectively decided it knew exactly what Comey's motives were; he had been stung by internal criticism of his decision not to recommend charges against Clinton, and so he was somehow trying to give his bureau adversaries a life-line; or he was trying to make amends with a Republican majority in Congress that would still control his funding after Nov. 8, or that he was interjecting himself into the election because he must have found something big and wanted to make sure his butt was covered.
I don't know what his motives are; I know what his legal obligations are. He seems to be following them. As a voter, that's all I need to know.