In this second installment of a four-part series deconstructing how the United States political press hastened the movement towards a post-truth America by disregarding the importance of accuracy and elevating the focus on false equivalence, I examine the unfortunate and absurd focus by much of the media on one particular subject — emails.
Policy is “Boring”
In Part 1 (The Death of Accuracy), I outlined how the public’s view of Hillary Clinton was completely distorted by deceptive media coverage — to the point where, on many fronts, she was wrongly portrayed as worse than Donald Trump. All of that was symptomatic of a media culture that largely preferred deceptive scandal-mongering and he-said, she-said controversies over discussions on the kitchen table issues more directly pertinent to voters’ daily lives.
For instance, when Americans were asked — in 2015 and 2016 — what they had heard in the media about Clinton and Trump, the dominant thing they reported hearing about Clinton was the word EMAIL. Not policy, not issues, but email.
9B) Take another look at the Gallup charts – good luck finding anything (much) on Trade or Wall Street among what voters heard from media pic.twitter.com/5eDHE3V0Dw
— T. R. Ramachandran (@yottapoint) November 15, 2016
Most of the media coverage during the election had little focus on policy issues impacting everyday Americans. That’s what Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy found:
Policy issues—what the nominees would do if elected—rarely attract a high level of press coverage, and the 2016 election was no exception. Although candidates in their stump speeches focus on the policies they would pursue as president, their stands do not receive close attention from journalists. In the 2016 general election, policy issues accounted for 10 percent of the news coverage—less than a fourth the space given to the horserace. Policies lack the novelty that journalists seek in their stories.
Many media insiders seem to believe that voters do not care much about policy. As I noted in Part 1, Politico’s Susan Glasser seems to agree, based on her observation in the article “Covering Politics in a Post-Truth America:”
Let Congressional Quarterly send legions of scribes to write down what was said at dull committee hearings, he decreed; Roll Call would skip the boring analyses of policy to cover what really mattered to DC—the process and the people.
It is interesting that policy is considered “boring” but after an election is over explanations abound about how one candidate or the other lost because he or she did not have the right policies or the right messaging about their policies. Nevertheless, what is true is that the media chose to devote an astounding amount of time to Clinton’s emails.
"I looked at two years of front pages. Trump's Muslim ban got far less attention than Clinton’s emails." https://t.co/7d59kAxmGy
— Vox (@voxdotcom) November 15, 2016
According to an analysis by Shareblue, Clinton’s emails were covered almost every single day: ~600 days since March 2015.
— Peter Daou (@peterdaou) October 31, 2016
Since the media spent such an inordinate, massive amount of time on this story, it is not at all unreasonable for us to expect that they would get the details of the story right — namely, that their reporting on the various aspects of the story would largely be accurate. Alas, that was not the case.
One way to tell is from polls that asked Americans whether they thought Clinton had done something illegal. According to one poll, 51 percent of Americans wrongly believed that she had — when in fact, she had done nothing illegal. In contrast, there was clear evidence of multiple illegal acts by Trump, none of which got even a meaningful fraction of media coverage compared to Clinton’s emails. Yet, only 26 percent of the public believed Trump had done anything illegal.
— T. R. Ramachandran (@yottapoint) November 5, 2016
How was the public so badly misled by the press on the Clinton email story?
Drowning in a Toxic Email Stew
Thanks to the media’s non-stop, scandal-mongering coverage on Clinton’s private email server, chances are that you heard from the media, and possibly believed, one or more elements of the following narrative about Clinton and her emails:
As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton installed a secret private email server to hide her work emails and prevent them from becoming public via FOIA laws. In doing so, she violated State Department laws that barred anyone from using a private email server. Clinton then refused to release her work emails and deleted tens of thousands of them even after being served with a Congressional subpoena. Clinton also broke the law by negligently handling classified information. Her negligence also caused her email server to be hacked. When Clinton’s secret arrangement and law-breaking was discovered, she lied about it. Even though the Obama administration has routinely charged and prosecuted “leakers”, Clinton was not indicted by the government because the system was rigged in her favor. In other words, even though Clinton should have been charged under the “gross negligence” statute of the Espionage Law, the FBI re-wrote Federal Law to let “Hillary off the hook”. Average people, including those who had no “intent to leak but merely to, say, work from home”, have been charged with a crime and faced career destruction. Clinton, on the other hand, got away scot-free despite violating “secrecy rules”.
I would be surprised if you did not encounter at least some of those allegations about Clinton in the past year. Yet, as I will explain shortly, the vast majority of those allegations were false. Unsurprisingly, all those (largely false) claims and the attendant, unimaginable level of error-ridden negative media coverage had a disproportionate effect in creating a grossly false perception about Clinton in the minds of voters:
- Clinton’s net favorability ratings shifted from positive to negative in 2015 and made most voters wrongly think she was as dishonest as Trump, when in fact she was as honest as Sanders
- It allowed the media to seed a false perception among many voters that Clinton was somehow more secretive and less transparent than Trump
- The public came to wrongly believe that Clinton did something illegal
- When FBI Director James Comey announced that Clinton would not be indicted, the associated negative coverage also amplified numerous lies against Clinton that the primary & the “system” was somehow “rigged” in her favor
- Clinton’s standing was impacted not just among partisan Republicans (who were prone to dislike/distrust her anyway) but also among many left-leaning independents and Democrats (Sanders supporters) who were completely deceived by the media coverage on this topic
So, what was the reality? What would accurate media coverage of the email story have looked like?
Well, if you were one of those rare people lucky enough to find a fact-based, objective reporter that had actually researched State Department policies and rules, Federal Records Act (FRA) and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws, classified information laws, as well as the actual histories of prior cases and associated legal precedents, here are the 9 key facts you would have been told about the Clinton email story.
1. Clinton used a private email server largely for convenience and efficiency
Clinton used an existing secure private email server, one that was already in use by her husband, the former president, for her unclassified work emails. It was a mistake, an unwise decision, given that it complicated the government’s ability to maintain and manage her work emails. However, it was in part driven by what she had heard from former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had warned her about the antiquated and inefficient nature of the State Department’s unclassified email system.
Moreover, Clinton wanted to avoid carrying separate phones for work and personal emails but justifiably did not want her personal emails stored in the State Department’s email system. Multiple other pieces of evidence indicate that her choice was primarily driven by a desire for convenience.
2. Clinton’s private email server arrangement was legally allowed
Powell had used personal email (AOL) for work without using a private server, but Clinton used her own server. However, federal laws have no specific distinction between these cases. Clinton’s email system might have been discouraged, but it was never at any time legally prohibited per State Department regulations or Federal Laws. What she did was not illegal.
3. There is no evidence that Clinton’s email server was ever hacked
The servers of the State Department, Pentagon, and IRS as well as personal email accounts of people like Colin Powell and Sidney Blumenthal were all hacked — but the FBI was not able to find any evidence that Clinton’s work email server was hacked. Guccifer, the hacker who claimed he hacked Clinton’s private email server, later told the FBI that he had lied — he had never been able to hack Clinton’s email server.
[NOTE: In 2016, WikiLeaks released illegally hacked emails of DNC employees and Clinton campaign aides — this was NOT a hack of Clinton’s State Department emails from her server.]
4. Unlike Colin Powell, who likely violated FOIA/Federal Records laws, Clinton made sure she did not
In contrast to Powell, who had suggested that Clinton might want to consider keeping her arrangement more or less secret in order to prevent her emails being subject to FRA/FOIA, Clinton took the position that her work emails should be preserved to comply with federal laws. When asked, she handed over tens of thousands of her work-related emails to the State Department. This was in direct contrast to Powell, who had deleted all of his emails and was then treated as an upstanding government servant by the media. Indeed, Powell’s example was a perfect illustration of why Clinton never needed a private email server if her goal was to prevent her work emails from becoming public — which it never was.
5. Clinton deleted her personal emails and handled over her work emails in compliance with federal records laws and State Department rules
State Department and federal regulations explicitly allowed all employees to determine which emails were work-related and which of those work emails ought to be preserved. Clinton simply followed those regulations, as even confirmed by the Justice Department in Federal Court. Clinton only deleted her personal emails, not her work-related emails. And she certainly did not order anyone to delete her work emails after a Congressional subpoena.
The FBI found additional emails during their investigation, but the vast majority were Clinton’s personal emails and duplicates of work emails she had already handed over. A few others were found in older devices that Clinton herself had freely handed over to the government. In other words, there was absolutely no evidence that Clinton sought to deliberately hide her work-emails from the public.
6. Clinton never sent or received emails marked classified and even emails with Confidential “portion markings” were sent to her, not by her
Clinton never sent or received any emails that were marked classified at the time. Even emails that had a “C” notation buried in the body of the email were not ones that Clinton emailed to anyone — they were sent to her by someone else. FBI Director Comey acknowledged in his testimony to Congress that those markings could easily have been missed. Indeed, 2 out of the 3 emails with the “C” marks were also marked in error.
43) Only 3 emails had letter C in the body: would have been easy to miss & a recipient might have reasonably inferred email was unclassified pic.twitter.com/3Ipyz0xg0v
— T. R. Ramachandran (@yottapoint) October 21, 2016
7. Clinton did not violate any “secrecy” or classification laws, including the “Gross Negligence” statute
Clinton at no time violated any classified information laws. Most of the past cases that her case was wrongly compared to were nothing whatsoever like her case. For instance, most past cases involved willful disclosure of classified information to people not authorized to receive it. Clinton never did that, since all her emails were exchanged with people who were authorized to see the contents of those emails.
Here is a national security attorney explaining this simple fact to the media — one that was massively ignored and produced countless false articles (example) comparing her case to those of David Petraeus, Thomas Drake, Chelsea Manning, and many more.
— Puesto Loco™ (@PuestoLoco) July 7, 2016
Additionally, other cases to which Clinton’s case was linked were also false comparisons because those cases involved intentional acts of law-breaking or lying to investigators — neither of which Clinton did. Finally, legal and Supreme Court precedent showed that Clinton also did not violate the “Gross Negligence” statute.
29) Comey had to explain some of these basic legal precedents on “gross negligence” to the GOP in his testimony https://t.co/xGhytmcxfq
— T. R. Ramachandran (@yottapoint) October 21, 2016
8. There was no “rigging” because Clinton never committed a crime — and many independent legal experts agreed
Many independent legal experts in classification laws had been pointing out from Fall 2015 that it was very unlikely that Clinton would face any kind of criminal charges — because there was no evidence she committed any crimes. The question of the government “rigging” the outcome in her favor never arose because she did nothing illegal to begin with.
25) Even Libertarian Party VP nominee Gov. Weld bluntly said he expected NO indictment due to lack of a crime https://t.co/7r44O3OBaP
— T. R. Ramachandran (@yottapoint) October 25, 2016
9. Clinton never prevented the State Department from releasing her work emails to the public
Even though Clinton could have come up with any number of excuses to delay her State Department emails from being released to the public before November 2016, she never did so. Compare that to the case of Trump who successfully fabricated excuses to prevent his tax returns (and just about everything else) from ever seeing light of day and was allowed to go scot-free by the media despite that.
You can find a thorough summary of all these facts and more here and here. The number of stories in which the media either (a) flagrantly distorted the facts, (b) failed to disclose important and pertinent information that would have made Clinton’s actions seem far less controversial, or worse, (c) intentionally misled or lied to the public about Clinton’s email story, are far too many to count.
This type of gross media malpractice continued even after Comey’s clarifying Congressional testimony in July 2016, by which time the vast majority of the facts I laid about above were well known. As a result, Tommy Christopher had to write this article: Hillary Clinton Isn’t Lying, The Fact-Checkers Are.
Actual facts on the email story did not seem to particularly matter to most reporters and pundits in the media, who had settled on a narrative that Clinton somehow did something terribly wrong — thereby evidently deserving an incessant amount of coverage implying she was corrupt or a criminal. No wonder many prominent supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) reacted like this before the start of the general election:
— T. R. Ramachandran (@yottapoint) November 28, 2016
The fact that some Democrats and left-leaning Independents wrongly believed the numerous false and misleading media narratives about Clinton was a key reason why they were turned off from supporting her candidacy. After all, if people I trusted (mainstream media or pro-Sanders alternative media) led me to wrongly conclude that Clinton was as bad as Trump, or that she was a criminal who escaped jail time because of “rigging” in her favor, why would I consider her much better than Trump as a person?
In fact, I still vividly remember the first and only time I attended a local Democratic Party meeting in Silicon Valley where this issue flared up. This was before the California primary and one of the main attacks on Clinton by some of the angry Sanders supporters during the meeting was that she was likely to be indicted for her email issue. I do not blame them, given that they were religiously fed this garbage by the mainstream press and by some pro-Sanders media outlets.
As for the Republican side of the world, most Republicans hated Comey’s decision to not charge Clinton. It did not matter that Comey was a longtime Republican and his actions on this case – starting with his press conference in July - were strongly criticized as highly inappropriate and biased against Clinton. No wonder the “lock her up” chants became popular in Republican rallies, actively encouraged by Trump and his surrogates. The irony of course was that Trump had committed many overtly illegal acts, something the media showed far less interest in covering.
This media malpractice — of regularly giving Trump a pass — continues even today. The latest episode? Instead of grilling Trump on his canceled press conference that was supposed to explain how he planned to separate his businesses from his job as President, or on his controversial pro-Russia Secretary of State nominee, reporters chose to focus on Kanye West instead.
— Kay Steiger (@kaysteiger) December 13, 2016
— Duane Dudek (@TheDudekAbides) December 14, 2016
in an email to his supporters, Mike Huckabee says Donald Trump used Kanye meeting to distract from Rex Tillerson pick: pic.twitter.com/Fqk0GGup8L
— Colin Campbell (@colincampbell) December 14, 2016
Journalism In Name Only
Matthew Yglesias at Vox published an overview of the email issue shortly before Election Day, saying:
Shortly after the election, he added this story:
Analyzing the results of the Harvard University Shorenstein Center study on media coverage that was released after the election, Prof. Thomas Patterson made the following observations:
What appeared to be missing from this negative coverage, however, was context. For example, although Clinton’s email issue was clearly deemed important by the media, relatively few stories provided background to help news consumers make sense of the issue—what harm was caused by her actions, or how common these actions are among elected officials. And in keeping with patterns noted earlier in the election cycle, coverage of policy and issues, although they were in the forefront at the conventions, continued to take a back seat to polls, projections, and scandal.
Patterson provided an example of a CBS article that was published shortly after Comey’s decision not to press any charges against Clinton. I picked this article because, in a recent poll, 79 percent of Democrats said they thought CBS was “very credible” or “somewhat credible.” The article in question excellently illustrated everything that was wrong with the media’s notion of “journalism.” It had the three key characteristics of the kind of “reporting” that routinely deceives the public.
a) Stenographic repetition of claims like “the public thinks Clinton is dishonest” or “the public thinks Clinton broke the law:”
Hillary Clinton enters the summer damaged by perceptions that she violated the law by using a private email system while serving as secretary of state, a new Associated Press-GfK poll finds. More than half of Americans think the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee broke the law by using a private email account and server at the State Department and nearly 4 in 10 think she did so intentionally, according to the poll. Clinton has battled the notion during her campaign that she is dishonest and purposely set up the private email server because she wanted to hide her public and private exchanges from public scrutiny and skirt disclosure laws. Her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, calls her ‘crooked’ at virtually every campaign appearance.
b) Exclusion of important and highly pertinent facts from independent, non-partisan analyses and expert sources that would have informed the public that those perceptions on dishonesty and violating the law were wrong
c) Gratuitous stenographic inclusion of random comments from partisan Republicans claiming she broke the law and belonged in jail:
'She's innocent until proven guilty, but to me the FBI director called her guilty and then gave her a pass card,' said James Thompson, a 57-year-old Republican from Colchester, Connecticut. 'If that was anyone else in this world, they would have been gone. They would have been down the river. They would have been in jail.'
Shortly before the Democratic National Convention, WikiLeaks, a foreign organization determined to defeat Clinton and help Trump win — and acting in collusion with Russian hackers — started to release large batches of illegally hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee as well as personal emails of staffers who worked for the Clinton campaign (private citizens, not government employees). In other words, these emails had nothing to do with Clinton’s State Department work emails.
The media coverage on the WikiLeaks releases was also quite poor. The media acted as a willing pawn in a planned op to smear Clinton. As the New York Times finally admitted yesterday, the media acted as “a de-facto instrument of Russian intelligence.” One of the consequences was that many people were completely confused by the merger of WikiLeaks email stories and Clinton private server email stories — which were two entirely different sets of stories.
If you want further evidence for how utterly messed up the media coverage was, consider the example of an MIT Professor who created an email visualization tool for emails released by WikiLeaks but mistakenly believed these were Clinton’s own work emails that had already been released by the State Department. The professor’s entire justification for creating the tool was based on wrong arguments about Clinton’s State Department emails!
One can't overstate how much voters conflated the Wikileaks emails w/ the private email server. It's why those leaks were so costly to HRC.
— Alec MacGillis (@AlecMacGillis) December 12, 2016
The pervasive, fact-challenged, conspiratorial non-journalism on Clinton’s emails has also spread worldwide. Over the last few months, during my international travels, I spoke with people from a half a dozen countries. I was amazed at the number of foreigners who asked me about the email story and Clinton’s actions. Not a single one of them was able to explain what exactly Clinton did that was wrong, but they had gotten the impression from media coverage that she had done something illegal.
Up Next (Part 3): Just when you thought the media’s coverage on Clinton’s emails could not get worse, it did, just before Election Day. That illustrated one of the most important factors that has systematically destroyed journalism — the desire for speed in reporting, above everything else.
T.R. Ramachandran is a blogger on politics, policy and media, a longtime veteran of the tech industry and co-founder of Kanvz. You can follow his latest work on Twitter @yottapoint or on the web at electionado.com.