Hillary Clinton likes to watch Parks and Recreation.
That's what the Clinton email kerfuffle seemed to amount to this week. News organization excitedly dove into the latest trove of emails released from Clinton's time as secretary of state, only to have to settle for vacuous nuggets about her TV viewing habits.
We seem to be at the stage where the mere existence of publicly-available Clinton emails prompts journalists to hype each additional set as big news, even when the contents of the emails are non-descript. Hard-wired into the Republican way of thinking, the Beltway press often automatically treats Clinton's electronic communications as damning and suspect.
But they're not.
We've seen this pattern repeated numerous times in recent days, and not just with the latest, monthly release of Clinton's State Department emails. Last week, news outlets including CNN, Washington Post, and ABC News dutifully typed up reports about emails obtained by the Clinton-bashing group Citizens United, which filed lawsuits for the release of Hillary Clinton's communications. Presented as containing some damning revelations, upon closer examination the emails simply produced more yawns. They contained nothing proving any kind of wrongdoing on the part of Clinton. (Unless Clinton aide Huma Abedin using emails to organize a small dinner for the former secretary of state now qualifies as wrongdoing.)
Ordinarily, I might chalk up this oddly breathless coverage about ho-hum emails to the summer doldrums, as journalists are hard-pressed to create compelling content during the traditionally slow news month of August. But the Beltway press did the exact same thing with the previous email release. And I suspect we'll see this pattern continue for months to come, in part because a U.S. District court has decreed that the email dumps are going to be monthly events through January.
There have now been three enormous batches of State Department emails released, totaling more than 10,000 pages, and none of them have produced blockbuster revelations or truly fueled the so-called Clinton email scandal.
So why hasn't the press treated the release of boring, "mundane" emails as proof that widespread partisan claims of malfeasance are simply not supported? Why doesn't the press openly concede that the email disclosures that show the former secretary of state to be funny and hardworking represent good news for Clinton, instead of perpetually presenting them as bad news? (i.e. A “fresh headache,” according to Yahoo News.)
As I previously noted, the out-of-context coverage likely stems from the fact there's a standing army of Clinton-assigned journalists who are responsible for producing endless content for the next year. Additionally, many in the press have invested a huge amount of capital in the email story since it broke in March, and now seem reluctant to acknowledge there might not be any there there.
Today in fact, The New York Times published a column from a Republican operative who announced the email story had “crippled” Clinton's campaign, and claimed she may have committed a crime worse than former CIA director David Petraeus, who pleaded guilty to unauthorized removal and retention of classified information. The Times published this claim days after Petraeus' prosecutor, former U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins, explained there's no connection between the two cases and that unlike Petraeus, “Clinton committed no crime.”
Elsewhere, the press forged ahead on the email dump in search of news. This was Politico's news lede for the email release:
A new batch of Hillary Clinton's emails made public by the State Department on Monday night show her expressing interest in the presidential aspirations of Gen. David Petraeus, who ultimately took a job as CIA director in the Obama administration rather than run for president in 2012 and was then driven out of government by scandal.
According to Politico, the most newsworthy “insight” from the thousands of Clinton emails released this month was that the former secretary of state expressed “interest” that a famous U.S. general was possibly eyeing a White House run. How did Politico gage Clinton's “interest”? How did Politico conclude she “sounded intrigued”? A friend emailed Clinton some information in 2010 and she typed back a five-word response.
Meanwhile, after being given Clinton emails from Citizen United regarding foreign speech offers Bill Clinton had received, and his insistence on getting guidance from the State Department on whether he should accept the offers (he did not), ABC News's Jonathan Karl announced:
ABC News has obtained State Department e-mails that shed light on Bill Clinton's lucrative speaking engagements and show he and the Clinton Foundation tried to get approval for invitations related to two of the most repressive countries in the world -- North Korea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In fact, the emails did not show Clinton and the Foundation “tried to get approval.” The emails showed that Clinton and the Foundation sought advice on the matter. At no point did Clinton or the Foundation try to overrule the State Department. And in the end neither invitation was accepted.
In other words, Bill Clinton's office routinely ran speech requests past the State Department to “review for any real or apparent conflict of interest with the duties of Secretary of State.” So when ABC News obtained emails that confirmed that fact, rather that presenting the emails as proof the Clintons did in private exactly what they said they were doing in public, ABC News presented the emails as somehow troubling and controversial -- they showed “show just how far Bill Clinton was willing to go to earn those lucrative fees.”
This is what's called heads you lose/tails you lose.
Without any discernible news value found in the emails themselves, the press instead clings to the “glimpse” and “window” crutch. From ABC News: “The emails also provide a glimpse into the person behind the office.” And The New York Times stressed the emails “offered a rare window into” the Clintons.
But again, how does a “glimpse” into routine communications pass as news? It doesn't.
The truth is, the wind continues to go out of the email “scandal” sails. As the Associated Press reported this week, experts agree there's currently virtually no chance Clinton faces any criminal jeopardy over the handling of her emails.
Indeed, after speaking with “half-dozen knowledgeable lawyers,” longtime Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius recently broke from the D.C. pack and concluded the email "'scandal' is overstated."
So with the criminal element of the so-called scandal evaporating, the press is left to dwell on the perception and the optics of the controversy. And the press remains mostly in heated agreement that it's all very bad news for Clinton, insisting this summer that her polling has gone "under water" because of it. (Note that a national survey released Tuesday showed Clinton maintaining a 35-point lead in the Democratic primary race, the same large advantage she enjoyed the previous month.)
“Clinton” + “email” has become media shorthand for big, big news. But with each new batch of emails released, it's becoming impossible to defend that formula.