The Media’s Final Email Flop, A Fitting End To Journalism’s Troubled Campaign Season

“Whatever message Hillary Clinton is putting out, all people hear is 'email'” --Washington Post writer Chris Cillizza

And just like that, the latest Clinton email controversy evaporated on Sunday. FBI Director James Comey announced that recently discovered emails that “appear[ed] to be pertinent” to the bureau's investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server turned out to not be significant enough to alter the bureau’s decision in July that nothing Clinton had done constituted criminal wrongdoing.

For those who have closely followed the email saga for the last 18 months, the FBI’s findings probably weren’t surprising; there’s never been any compelling evidence that Clinton did anything to warrant the type of five-alarm mega-scandal coverage we’ve seen from the media. (See here and here for detailed analysis supporting that conclusion.)

But boy, did the campaign press go all in on the latest email mirage, just like they’ve done every time the Republican Party screams “Clinton scandal!” The press gorged senselessly on the story.

The latest data from television news analyst Andrew Tyndall confirms that broadcast network evening newscasts this year devoted nearly four times as much airtime to covering Hillary Clinton’s emails as they have spent covering all campaign policy initiatives from all candidates for the entire year: 125 minutes for emails, and 35 minutes for in-depth policy discussions on issues like terrorism, immigration, policing.

Specifically in the last two weeks, which include the media's meltdown over Comey’s unprecedented decision to insert the bureau into the election process, ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News set aside a total of 25 minutes to cover the emails. That compares to their grand total of three minutes for covering policy during that span.

For the entire year, however, the networks have devoted zero minutes to in-depth policy discussions of climate change, drugs, poverty, guns, infrastructure, social injustice, or the deficit. But they dedicated 125 minutes to Clinton emails.

The updated network evening news numbers continue to spotlight the extraordinary newsroom disconnect that has at times defined this campaign: The press cannot stop covering a D.C. process story, and that obsession is crowding out actual campaign news (important news such as this).

“When Gallup recently asked Americans to say what they recall reading or hearing about her, one word -- 'email' -- drowned out everything else,” according to Gallup’s Lydia Saad and Frank Newport.

The Comey letter was the subject of more than a week of breathless coverage across the cable news channels.

In the nine days following Comey’s announcement, “email” or “emails” was mentioned thousands of times on the three cable news channels, according to TVEyes. 

And following Comey’s surprise announcement, five of the country’s largest newspapers also went completely overboard with their email coverage. Media Matters found that in the week following’s Comey’s announcement, The New York TimesLos Angeles TimesUSA TodayThe Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post published 100 stories about or mentioning the emails, 46 of which appeared on the front page.

Does that seem overly obsessive to anyone? Does that seem like a press corps blindly in search of a crime? Does that seem like a press corps that simply doesn’t like Hillary Clinton and applies different standards to covering “scandal” stories about her? 

Obviously, the press treated the Comey announcement as an “October surprise,” which meant it was Very Big News -- a “bombshell” and potential game-changer. But note that during the final weekend of the 2000 campaign, during an extremely close race, it was revealed that George W. Bush had previously been arrested for drunk driving and had hidden that fact from voters. The Times ran a single news story that focused on it on page 25. The following day, the Times ran a media piece, on page 14, about how the drunk driving story had been covered and noted that some journalists weren’t sure voters cared about the revelation.

Compare the Times' reserved coverage to the FBI email onslaught and gaze in wide wonder at the double standard that’s been at the center of this campaign season.

Insult to injury? A lot of the email coverage hasn’t even been very good because it has constantly lacked context.

From Harvard University professor Thomas Patterson, who helped oversee a study this year of media campaign coverage:

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.

It’s safe to say much of the press has not covered itself in glory this campaign season. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that the press has failed on perhaps an unprecedented scale. “The media have never performed less responsibly in a modern-era presidential election,” wrote Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik.

While fact-checkers deserve credit for doggedly cataloging Trump’s torrent of casual lies this year, the day-to-day campaign coverage itself, often adrift in mindless narratives and gotcha Clinton fantasies, was at times completely detached from reality. And at the center of that newsroom crisis was the Clinton email saga and the press's decision to essentially treat that one process story as a placeholder for the first female nominee’s entire campaign.

Think about how so much of Clinton’s political resume and her years worth of service were virtually whitewashed during the election season. “Her many accomplishments as first lady, U.S. senator, and secretary of State barely surfaced in the news coverage of her candidacy at any point in the campaign,” noted Harvard’s Patterson: “[I]t has been Clinton who has suffered substantially more negative news coverage throughout nearly the whole campaign.”

Why did Clinton receive so little coverage about her past accomplishments and about the policies of her campaign platform? Because the press created an entire news category just for her (“Clinton emails”), which then devoured time and attention, leaving little room for substance.

Over the years, after having watched countless previous Clinton “scandals” evaporate into nothing, I never thought there was much substance to the latest email kerfuffle. Nor did I think the original revelation of her private email server deserved to be treated as a never-ending blockbuster news story. But if the media wanted to cover the story, that’s their right -- and their obligation if they thought it constituted news.

What’s been utterly depressing is the collective decision to relentlessly cover a story that had already been beaten to death nine different times and from every conceivable angle. That and the fact that lazy email mania bumped aside actual, important news that Americans deserve to know about.