How Clinton Emails Became The New Whitewater: A “Scandal” In Search of A Crime

Journalism is often about priorities. The act of newsgathering and storytelling is more than assembling facts and quotes and providing context. It’s also about deciding what’s important and specifically which stories are more newsworthy than others.

On August 10, NBC News’ First Read, the early morning tip sheet, signaled to readers what the top news story of that day was:

OFF TO THE RACES: New Clinton email questions

From the New York Times: “A new batch of State Department emails released Tuesday showed the close and sometimes overlapping interests between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department when Hillary Clinton served as secretary of state. The documents raised new questions about whether the charitable foundation worked to reward its donors with access and influence at the State Department, a charge that Mrs. Clinton has faced in the past and has always denied.”

Our story on Donald Trump's “Second Amendment people” comment is here. 

So the morning after Donald Trump seemed to make a veiled, yet shocking threat of political violence against his opponent, NBC News dubbed the day’s top story to be a small number of 2009 emails from Hillary Clinton’s State Department that had been released; emails that Clinton neither sent nor received.

For me, that weird prioritization represented an early red flag that the latest round of Clinton email coverage was heading seriously off-track -- again. It also confirmed that there seems to be some weird magnetic bond the press has devised that keeps itself breathlessly attached to the email pursuit, not matter how trivial the developments.

In other words, the Clinton emails are the new Whitewater. It’s the media’s latest Clinton “scandal” in search of a storyline. It’s a meandering genre of overexcited journalism that long ago lost sight of what the Clinton wrongdoing was supposed to be.

Recall that Whitewater, the-hard-to-follow pseudo-scandal sponsored by The New York Times in the 1990s, dragged on so long that it became hard to recall what the Clintons’ alleged original sin was. (Losing money on a real estate deal is against the law?)

“I could never remember what it was supposed to be about,” former Times reporter Todd Purdum recently conceded about Whitewater. “It was so byzantine.”

We’ve seen the same arc with the Groundhog Day email saga. In real time, very few Beltway journalists will admit that the gotcha email story no longer has any gotcha. Likely only years from now will reporters and pundits concede that the Clinton email story was “byzantine” and hard to follow.

Note that I’m not saying the fact that Clinton used a private server for email wasn’t a legitimate news story. It clearly was. The FBI investigated it and found no legal wrongdoing and that’s where the press should have jumped off the GOP’s bandwagon because the story was over.

But the press refuses to disengage or provide honest context, and that’s where the weird clinging comes into play. And that’s what was on display last week as the Beltway press desperately tried to convince news consumers, and itself, that a handful of innocuous, 7-year-old emails represented a startling  revelation. (NBC News insisted Clinton should have been “reeling” from the email revelations.)

But there was no there, there. As Media Matters detailed, while the press excitedly echoed Republican charges about how a couple of 2009 emails revealed dastardly deeds regarding access and policy, “Neither the emails nor the news reports provide any evidence that Clinton Foundation donors impacted decisions Clinton made at the State Department.”

If you dug deep enough last week, you noticed the buried caveat that conceded the newly released emails didn’t actually reveal any wrongdoing. From ABC News: “There has been no concrete evidence linking State Department favors to foreign donors in exchange for donations to the Clinton Foundation."

Here’s the dirty secret about what fuels Clinton scandal coverage and what has always fueled the wayward pursuit: Journalists are invested. And for the email story they’ve been deeply invested since March 2015. Lots of journalists want there to be a story and therefore they’re absolutely not independent observers refereeing a tennis match between two partisan sides.

For the press, the hollow email story allows them to harp on Clinton’s supposed untrustworthiness. It also allows them to show Republicans that they’re putting the Democratic nominee under a microscope; to prove they don’t have a liberal bias. So when Trump seems to encourage violence, the press can say, “Yeah, but Clinton’s emails,” the way NBC did last week.

Meanwhile, an avalanche of good-news polls for Clinton severely undercut any press suggestion that the emails constitute a key issue in the campaign, let alone that they’re hurting her presidential chances. It was hard to take seriously The Wall Street Journal on Friday when it claimed on its front page that the emails were “undercutting” and “hindering” Clinton’s campaign, when that same day she opened up a 9-point lead in the dependably red state of North Carolina. (So without the email story she’d be up 13 points in North Carolina?)

But the press remains pot-committed. Like poker players who’ve already bet too much on a weak hand, journalists refuse to admit defeat. 

Today, the only lynch pin still holding this non-story together is the media's beloved “optics”: the story doesn’t look good. The story has “raise[d] questions.”

You know what else “raise[d] questions”? The fact that in 2013 Donald Trump wrote a $25,000 check to help reelect Florida Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi just six days after her office announced it was reviewing allegations of fraud against the Trump University enterprise. After the generous check arrived, the Florida attorney general said the state wasn’t going to investigate Trump University.

That’s a political access story worthy of extraordinarily focus and coverage. But few news organizations seem interested: Since that story broke in June, The Washington Post and New York Times have published just a handful of articles noting Trump’s convenient $25,000 donation to Bondi, according to Nexis.

By contrast, since June the Times and Post have published more than 200 Clinton email stories.

Journalists today look back and shake their heads and wonder how a convoluted mess of a “scandal” like Whitewater ever dominated news cycles, year after year. Will scribes one day look back and ask the same about the Clinton emails?