The Curious Way New York Times Columnists Are Covering Hillary Clinton

Promoting his latest column deriding Hillary Clinton for being chronically unethical and a lot like Richard Nixon, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni took to Twitter to suggest the Democrat's campaign constituted “psychological torture,” which definitely sounds bad. Unsubtly headlined “Hillary the Tormentor” (because she inflicts so much pain on Democrats, apparently), Bruni's effort was unusually overwrought even by his dramatic standards.

In his column, the essayist outlined concerns from two nameless “Democrats,” who viewed Clinton as “tainted” and guilty of creating “ugly, obvious messes.” One source was so “disgusted” he wants “never to lay eyes on [Hillary] and Bill again.”

Turns out that same day, fellow Times columnist Ross Douthat also made Clinton the focus of his column and he also dinged the candidate. Far less excited than Bruni's effort, Douthat nonetheless made it clear that Democrats supporting Clinton should consider themselves “warned” for when things go terribly wrong if she's elected president.

So on the same day, two different Times columnists attacking the Democratic frontrunner; a candidate who enjoys historic and unprecedented support among the party's faithful. It was just a case of bad timing for Clinton's on the Times opinion pages, right? Just a coincidence where not one but two columnists for the supposedly-liberal newspaper of record unloaded on her?

Not quite.

In truth, the Bruni-Douthat tag team was a rather common occurrence among Times columnists, some of whom have banded together this year to publish a steady stream of attacks on Clinton. (Yesterday, columnist David Brooks announced Clinton's electoral strategy is all wrong, and that it's bad for America.) What's unusual is that the conveyor belt of attacks hasn't been balanced out by clear signs of Clinton support among Times columnists. More importantly, the Times' odd brand of Clinton wrath has not been duplicated when columnists assess Republicans.

Searching essays written by Times columnists this year, I can't find a one that unequivocally supports the Democratic frontrunner. (There have been passing sentences and paragraphs of support, but nothing focused or thematic by columnists.) By contrast, I can count more than two dozen that have focused on attacking her.

Is the New York Times under any obligation to employ a columnist who supports Clinton? Of course not. But it's worth noting that Clinton enters this campaign season with more Democratic support than perhaps any non-incumbent frontrunner in recent party history, yet the New York Times hasn't published an opinion column in support of her possibly historic run. (The Times has published editorials backing parts of her agenda.)

Increasingly, the Times is facing criticism about its off-kilter Clinton coverage and its, at-times, odd obsession with the Democratic candidate. Is that attack-dog mentality also playing out on the opinion pages?

The Times website lists eleven op-ed columnists who regularly contribute to the newspaper's opinion pages, but not all of them write about politics. Of the eleven, seven are identified as being regular commentators on politics: Bruni, Douthat, Brooks, Gail Collins, Maureen Dowd, Charles Blow, and Paul Krugman. Of those seven, Douthat and Brooks clearly identify themselves as conservatives and so their lack of support for the Democratic frontrunner isn't surprising. (Both men have cheered and encouraged Sen. Marco Rubio's candidacy.)

Together, those seven have penned more than 200 columns this year, and nearly 40 of those mentioned Hillary Clinton at least three times, according to Nexis. Of those 40-odd columns, approximately two dozen focused lots of (negative) attention on Clinton. Note that in New York, Clinton remain an extraordinarily popular politician. But seemingly not among Times columnists. At least not yet.

One reason for the Times' Clinton sympathy gap may be because liberal columnists Charles Blow and Paul Krugman haven't focused much of their newspaper attention this year on the still-distant primary season. In April, Krugman highlighted his contempt for the drawn-out campaign process and how little stock he puts in the media's “endless attempts to psychoanalyze” candidates. “Please pay no attention,” he urged readers.

On his blog, Krugman earlier this year signaled his ongoing skepticism regarding over-excited media assaults against Bill and Hillary Clinton, and how they often amount to little more than empty, partisan Republican attacks amplified by the press.

But again, presidential campaigns are the big leagues, right? So what's wrong with Times columnists throwing high-and-inside to Clinton during the campaign season? The problem is there's nothing even remotely similar happening to Republican candidates on the Times' opinion pages via its columnists. That level of oddly-personal vitriol targeted at Clinton, and certainly the sheer repetition of the vitriol, simply doesn't exist when Times columnists ponder GOP performances and even belittle them.

For instance, when Ross Douthat ridiculed Mitt Romney in January for contemplating a third presidential run, the columnist belittled Romney's “conspicuous” campaign performance from 2012. He didn't write an armchair psychology essay about what a flawed and entitled person he thought Romney was, or try to extrapolate all kinds of dark, ulterior motives from Romney's campaign pronouncements. There were no claims that Romney's possible run was rooted in an endless grab for power and fame. That kind of nonsense seems reserved exclusively for Clinton.

Is it really that bad? It is.

Here is a small sample of what readers of Times columns have learned about Hillary Clinton this year: She gives off an "atmosphere of hostility," "exploit[s] our better angels and our desire," is guilty of "shakedowns," remains "suffused with paranoia and pre-emptive defensiveness," and boasts "self-destructive instincts."

Times columnists have noted Clinton recently wore a "forced smile, which was practically cemented in place," she seems "like an annoyed queen, radiating irritation at anyone who tries to hold you accountable," and she "doesn't sparkle with honesty and openness." Clinton, a flip-flopping "shapeshifter," has been around so long the electorate "has known her since the Mesozoic era," “she looked as if she was getting sucked into the past,” and to she wants become "grandmother of our country."

Worse, Clinton's surrounded by the "usual hatchets," is known for her "lordly appetites and her queenly prerogatives," "cannot emulate the wholesale allure of Bill Clinton or Barack Obama," and there's a "paranoid/legalese perspective that permeates" her.

More? Clinton's "still idling on the runway, but we're already jet-lagged." She's too often "hunkered down, steely, scornful and secretive." She has a "reputation for flouting rules and operating in secrecy" and may have "a political death wish."

And oh yeah, "she can't figure out how to campaign as a woman." That from Dowd, who has spent her career at the Times personally attacking Clinton.

There have been moments of praise -- notes that Clinton could present “serious change,” has “unquestioned smarts,” and has made “remarkable and audacious” moves. But the vitriol is drowning out the glimmers of support.

The Times' institutional antagonism towards the Clintons goes back decades. During Bill Clinton's first term, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. once told Clinton that paper had adopted a “tough love” policy towards his presidency. “I've seen the tough,” Clinton quipped. “Where's the love?”

As she reads Times columnists, Hillary might be asking the same thing.