The media’s four-alarm fire drill over FBI Director James Comey’s announcement that the bureau would further investigate more emails related to its Hillary Clinton server investigation stands in stark contrast to the cautious, measured approach the press took when reporting on several stories about Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s alleged ties to Russian entities. The divergent approaches to the so-called “October surprises” underscore the media’s double standard when reporting on Clinton and Trump.
After Comey released a letter on October 28 to congressional leaders stating that “the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the [Clinton email] investigation” and that the bureau was going to “review these emails” (which may or may not be “significant”), the chorus of pundits hyping the DEFCON 1 “bombshell” was unrestrained, despite the dearth of information about the FBI’s decision or next moves.
With scarcely any details about the new developments, cable news talking heads -- relying solely on Comey’s vague letter and Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s (R-UT) misleading spin that the investigation was “reopened” -- hyped the news as “damaging” and called it “a dramatic new twist” and “an exclamation point on the end of a horrible week for Clinton and the Democrats.” Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin crowed that the “presidential race has been rocked by another head-scratching, rally-bending, M. Knight Shyamalan-worthy plot twist.”
CNN’s Brooke Baldwin even conceded that “there is so much we do not know,” yet nevertheless declared that “it’s a significant story … [with] 11 days to go.” Indeed, the media’s immediate email coverage relied solely on speculation, but it sounded as if the damage and implications were definitive: So much was made of so little.
Contrast the Clinton email reaction with that to the litany of stories that were published on October 31 about Trump: that Trump allegedly has a secret server that communicates with a shady Russian bank; that the Russian government has allegedly “for years tried to co-opt and assist Trump”; that the FBI is reportedly “conducting a preliminary inquiry” into the “foreign business connections” of Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort; and that Comey was reluctant “to name Russia as meddling in the U.S. election” because “it was too close to Election Day.” The double standard becomes pretty clear.
CNN’s Erin Burnett, referring to the CNBC and Huffington Post stories about Comey’s objection to naming Russia as an “election meddler,” said that “CNN has not been able to corroborate” the reporting. Likewise, CNN’s Alisyn Camerota asserted that “reports about [the Trump] campaign’s links to Russia” were “uncorroborated.” On MSNBC, Bloomberg’s Megan Murphy called the series of Trump stories “Russian conspiracy theories,” and MSNBC host Craig Melvin calmly asked about the “new information” regarding “possible Russian business ties in the Trump campaign” (emphasis added).
The media’s treatment of the Trump stories with a cautious eye is not unwelcomed -- in fact, it embodies the best possible way to report on new developments with limited information and uncorroborated claims. As it turns out, the veracity of some of the allegations about Trump’s Russian ties seemingly came into question hours after the initial reports, with The New York Times reporting that no FBI “investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government.” The media’s measured approach to the initial spate of stories was thus a proper safeguard for reporting on stories that may or may not be true.
But the overhyped media freakout, the rush to judgment, the presumption of guilt, and the reliance on GOP spin after the FBI letter was publicized couldn’t have been further from the media’s approach to the Trump stories, and the disparity falls in line with what James Carville calls the “Clinton Rule”: “There shall be one standard for covering everyone else in public life, and another standard for the Clintons.”
Media figures qualified the Trump-Russia stories by noting that they were unproven allegations with little supporting information, yet they didn’t give that same benefit to the FBI email story (for which, to be sure, there is even less information). The cautious reporting isn’t the problem; the double standard is.