From The Right-Wing Echo Chamber To The Democratic Debate: Clinton Email Edition

During Univision's March 9 Democratic primary debate, moderator Jorge Ramos based two questions on spurious right-wing media talking points when he brought up Hillary Clinton's emails and Benghazi. As a result, the dubious conservative claims have been subsequently amplified throughout the media without acknowledgement that they are based on right-wing media myths that have been debunked by both legal experts and congressional reports and investigations.

Since it was reported that Clinton used a private email server as secretary of state, right-wing media outlets, often led by Fox News, have repeatedly suggested it's only a matter of time before Clinton is indicted, incorrectly compared Clinton to former CIA director David Petraeus, and dubiously suggested that Clinton herself is the target of the FBI investigation into her private email server. However, numerous legal experts have repeatedly said that Clinton is very unlikely to be criminally charged.

On March 9, the right-wing media talking points over Clinton's emails were amplified in an unexpected place -- Univision's Democratic presidential primary debate. Moderator Ramos repeated a dishonest claim made by Republicans -- that Clinton's emails have “endangered our national security” -- and asked Clinton “would you drop out of the race if you get indicted?”

Subsequently, morning shows highlighted Ramos' indictment question, airing footage of it on MSNBC's Morning Joe, CNN's New Day, NBC's Today, ABC's Good Morning America, and CBS' CBS This Morning. While all of the shows aired the question, most failed to note that it was based on a spurious, worst-case-scenario premise, thus amplifying the right-wing media talking point outside of its usual echo chamber and lending it an air of credibility.

That was not the only conservative media-fueled talking point to make it into the debate. Ramos also asked Clinton whether she lied to the families of victims of the 2012 Benghazi attacks when she “sent an email to [her] daughter Chelsea saying that Al Qaeda was responsible for” the attacks. The baseless charge, which originated from Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) during Clinton's October Benghazi committee testimony, was repeatedly pushed by Fox News as a “smoking gun.” However, previous congressional reports and investigations noted early intelligence on the attacks was conflicting and that Clinton's email was consistent with intelligence at that time.

According to a graph from InsideGov, questions based on Clinton's emails and Benghazi constituted nearly 14 percent of the total debate questions. While Ramos was right to challenge the Democratic candidates, using inaccurate claims based on conservative media talking points as the basis for questions problematically misleads viewers and allows misinformation to spread. Former Meet the Press host David Gregory called Ramos' indictment question “a little too heavy” and “a bit pointed,” noting that there's no evidence Clinton is the target of the FBI investigation. Gregory added that just because conservatives have made the claim, it does not mean it's justifiable for journalists to push it, saying, “Just because Donald Trump says it doesn't mean that there's a good basis to, as a journalist, to ask the question.”