Offering up some advice to the political press corps as it prepares to cover the 2016 presidential campaign, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently stressed that reporters and pundits ought to take a deep breath when big stories broke; to not immediately promote stumbles and campaign missteps to be more urgent and damaging than they really are.
“We may wish certain snags were roadblocks and certain missteps collapses, because we think they should be or they're sexier that way,” wrote Bruni.
That was in his February 28 column. Four days later Bruni abandoned his own advice.
Pouncing on the controversy surrounding which email account Hillary Clinton used while serving as secretary of state, Bruni tossed his counsel for caution to the wind and treated the email development as an instant game changer and even wondered if the revelation indicated Clinton had a political “death wish.”
But that fits the long-running pattern of the D.C. media's Clinton treatment: Over-eager journalists hungry for scandal can't even abide by the advice they dispensed four days prior. Or maybe Bruni simply meant that his advice of caution was supposed to apply only to Republican candidates. Because it's certainly not being applied to Hillary and the email kerfuffle coverage.
Instead, “The media and politicos and Twitterati immediately responded with all the measured cautious skepticism we've come to expect in response to any implication of a Clinton Scandal,” noted Wonkette. “That is to say, none.”
Just look how the very excitable Ron Fournier at National Journal rushed in after the email story broke and announced Clinton should probably just forget about the whole running-for-president thing. Why preemptively abandon an historic run? Because she may reveal herself to be “seedy,” “sanctimonious,” “self-important,” and “slick.” This, after Fournier denounced Bill and Hillary Clinton two weeks ago for their “stupid” and “sleazy” actions.
That seems like a temperate way for a Beltway columnist to write about presidential campaigns, right? Then again, both Fournier and Bruni drew a straight line from the unfolding email story to Bill Clinton's extra-marital affair nearly 20 years ago, which strikes me as odd, if not downright bizarre.
“As long as she's a national figure--and especially when she runs for president--Hillary Clinton will get more scrutiny than anyone else in the field,” wrote Jamelle Bouie at Slate this week. (The press is also slow to react when holes in the email stories appear.)
Scrutiny is certainly part of the campaign equation and no candidate should be sealed off from it. What I'm highlighting is how Clinton scrutiny is so often wrapped in an almost a high school brand of social contempt.
Perhaps nobody inadvertently captured the hallmark better than the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza who announced the emails story was hugely damaging. Why? Because it “reinforces everything people don't like about her.” (i.e. She's sneaky, and political and arrogant.) And yes, if you remove the word “people” and insert “journalists” you can really drill down to the larger dynamic at play: Because the email story “reinforces everything journalists don't like about her.”
Despite the media pile-on, most Americans seem unaware they're supposed to think Clinton is sneaky and unprincipled. An ABC News/Washington Post poll from last year found that 60 percent of people think Clinton is “honest and trustworthy.” And political scientist Brendan Nyhan noted this week in response to the email hullabaloo, “If there's one thing we've learned from past presidential campaigns, it's that most supposed game-changers like this quickly fade from the memory of the political class, having never been noticed by most Americans in the first place."
The last time we witnessed this kind of whipped-up Clinton media frenzy came during Hillary's book tour last summer, which was roundly, and at times even hysterically, denounced as being a "disaster"; the "book tour from hell." She was “rusty,” and making all kinds of "dumb" statements. Clinton was deemed guilty of bad optics for weeks and weeks by the chattering class.
In the end though, the theater criticism did nothing to diminish her political advantage, which on the eve of the presidential campaign season remains historic. As the The New York Times noted last month, “No candidate, excluding incumbent presidents, has ever fared so well in the early primary polls as Mrs. Clinton.”
It's impossible for me to picture commentators getting this wildly excited, and visibly angry, over a revelation that Jeb Bush, for instance, used a personal email account while conducting government business and owned his email server. (Fact: Bush did exactly that.) Rick Klein at ABC News agrees: “Can anyone think of another possible presidential candidate that a story like this would stick to?”
Why does it “stick” to Clinton? Because the email story is packaged and marketed by the press as part of a Larger Story. The controversy fits into a Disturbing Pattern about Bill and Hillary, news consumers have been told over and over. The conventional wisdome is they're “contemptuous of anyone who would get in their way,” wrote Matt Bai at Yahoo News.
Keep in mind that this week we're not chasing millions of deleted government emails. (Can you imagine?) The story, as of now, is about the type of email account Clinton used and how the emails were archived. Confession: For veteran Clinton watchers, today's' “scandal” certainly pales compared to some of the previous, epic battles that were waged. But does the topic even matter? Isn't this kind of invective guaranteed? Recall the words of the Washington Post's Dana Milbanks, circa Hillary's 2008 campaign: “The press will savage her no matter what.”
And they did. One of Milbanks' colleagues suggested that Clinton's 2008 campaign team needed to fit the former first lady with an electric shock collar that could zap her when she went astray -- when she became “screechy” -- like a dog being trained on an invisible fence.
And note this New York Observer snapshot from the Clinton campaign trail:
“Reporters sandwiched together in the scrum studied their BlackBerrys and rolled their eyes. One whispered to another sarcastically, ” Can you feel the excitement?" Another asked: “Can you please pour some Drano in my mouth?”
Seven years later and the media's committed disdain is hard to miss.