If you can summon the resolve, pity the political media. Their jobs aren’t easy. To do them well means they will satisfy few and enrage the vocal, and none is as noisy today as the last of the Clinton family’s courtiers. In defeat, they are reduced to wielding their waning influence over anyone still listening. By focusing on media—a profession whose members are still torn over their role in electing Donald Trump to the presidency—the Clinton court has found a set of uniquely receptive scapegoats. Team Clinton is now throwing brushback pitches at the heads of reporters and pundits, and their targets are flinching.
The thinly veiled aspirations of the heir to the throne, Chelsea Clinton, brings out the protective instincts among the courtiers. “I’m not running for anything,” Chelsea professed again, apparently stunned by the incredulity this inspires in reporters. Their suspicions—prompted by her hagiographical profiles in political media, her face on the cover of magazines like Elle, Parade, Fast Company, and Variety, and the ambiguity inherent in her chosen verb tense (“I’ve no plans”)—cannot be tolerated.
“Seriously Ben you are better than this,” scolded Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden. What inspired her reprimand was the temerity of The Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, who asked Clinton if by “I’m not running for anything” she meant “ever.” When Tanden insisted that the question itself was out of line because no one could honestly make such a long-term assessment, she was essentially confirming the answer was “no.”
“Lotta dudes in the media are VERY concerned about whether Chelsea Clinton will run for office and they WANT HER TO KNOW ABOUT IT,” wisecracked political consultant and former Obama administration official Brandon Friedman. Of course, female reporters also probed Clinton regarding her apparent political aspirations—aspirations that she will not outright deny—but Friedman wanted male reporters to be self-conscious about how they go about their work.
This kind of transparent emotional manipulation should be dismissed outright, and would be but for its source. It’s Team Clinton, after all, and Team Clinton was robbed. At least, that’s the narrative it’s seeking to project, and it’s finding a receptive audience in reporters, particularly when the matter of media’s role in raising awareness of the legal troubles arising from Clinton’s use of a secret server is examined. A recent New York Times report on the behavior of the FBI and its director, James Comey, in the presidential campaign demonstrated how raw the subject remains.
“The case that the Comey letter—or the media’s handling of the letter—cost Clinton the election is painfully obvious,” declared statistical analyst Nate Silver. “It’s a fairly open-and-shut case. But the media’s election post-mortems have mostly ignored it because it implicates the media’s judgement.” The point Silver is making is far more debatable than he acknowledges, but that’s a digression. By pointing to a front-page New York Times story from last year headlined “New Emails Jolt Clinton Campaign,” Silver suggests that reporters had been guilty of over-reporting James Comey’s letter to Congress—a letter revealing the existence of potentially classified emails on a former congressional representative’s computer, who was himself under investigation by the FBI for potentially improper contact with a minor. If you find a newspaper that would underreport that story, you’ve found a newspaper that won’t be a newspaper for very long.
What, precisely, were the Times and other media outlets supposed to do? What was James Comey supposed to do? The FBI director had been granted extraordinary powers by former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, following her ill-conceived decision to take a private meeting with Bill Clinton amid the investigation into his wife. Following Comey’s bizarre July 5 speech in which he indicted former Secretary Clinton in every way but literally, he functionally became Congress’s point person on that investigation, and he was required to keep the legislature informed of developments in the Clinton case. The discovery that emails from Clinton’s server had migrated onto a device operated by her aide Huma Abedin’s estranged husband Anthony Weiner certainly constituted a development—one that might have cost Comey gravely had it emerged after the election. His decision to write that letter to Congress can and will be second-guessed to death, but there isn’t a newspaper on earth that wouldn’t have reported that story in a political context just one week out from a national election.
This isn’t the first instance that Clinton operatives have targeted the New York Times and other media outlets for the crime of committing journalism. As the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple ably demonstrated, a June 2015 piece detailing the Justice Department’s criminal inquiry into Clinton’s server sparked a flurry of attacks from Clinton loyalists over the story’s inaccuracy. Those attacks eventually compelled the paper to correct its claim that there had been a “criminal referral” in the investigation into the surreptitious server. Except that there had been. Wemple cites a variety of usual suspects—Salon, Media Matters, Mother Jones, Rep. Elijah Cummings—all attacking the Times for overstating the seriousness of the investigation into Clinton when they were, in fact, understating it.
These are pretty poorly disguised attempts by Team Clinton and company to blackmail reporters and editors into ignoring their professional instincts. If these Clinton loyalists were doling out good advice, it would be one thing. But they’re not. So why anyone in the press listening? The truth is that many media professionals struggle with survivor’s guilt. They covered Clinton as fairly and honestly as they could despite the historical uniqueness of her challenger, and she didn’t make it. That wasn’t supposed to happen, and there must be atonement.
To even indulge this kind of sentiment is dangerous. It will lead reporters and editors—consciously or otherwise—to shade their coverage of Democrats in the future to make amends for past transgressions against Clinton. Media don’t owe Hillary Clinton or her team a thing. She has no one to blame for 2016 but herself, and her followers are only looking for a foil onto which they can shift blame for her—and their—mistakes. Journalists would be foolish to let them get away with it.