The Media Freakout Over the Clinton Email Story Is a Preview of the Next Four Years

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton pauses while speaking at a rally at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa, Friday, October 28, 2016. 

If there's an archetypal Clinton "scandal" story, it may be the one we saw break on Friday. Some piece of information is revealed, though it really isn't any information at all, just the fact that someone says there might be some information somewhere that we might someday find. There's nothing indicating any wrongdoing on anyone's part. There's nothing to be disturbed or outraged about, yet Republicans dutifully pretend to be disturbed and outraged anyway. And the media react as though they just got an injection of adrenalin, had a quadruple espresso, and then did five lines of coke. An explosion has rocked the campaign! New revelations send Clinton reeling! The race is upended!

If you find this profoundly depressing, then you're going to really hate the next four years.

But before we get to that, let's review. On Friday, FBI director James Comey sent members of Congress a letter that amounted to "Something something Hillary emails," so vague that it could barely be understood. Sure, it was just 11 days before the election, and the Justice Department has a clear policy against doing anything that threatens to be, or even be perceived as, the Department injecting itself into such a volatile political moment. But for whatever reason, Comey decided he simply had no choice.

Then journalists just about lost their minds. To take just one example, Saturday's New York Times had three separate articles about this story on its front page, written with the contributions of no fewer than seven of its top reporters. You'd think we had just learned that Clinton had killed Antonin Scalia with her bare hands before having an affair with Brad Pitt to break up his marriage to Angelina Jolie. By the time the weekend ended, a mountain of column inches and cable news hours had been devoted to the topic. Yet the most striking thing about this whole story is how empty it is.

You'd have to pay close attention to realize it, but there's virtually nothing there. The FBI, investigating Anthony Weiner's sexting with an underage girl, found metadata on his laptop indicating that emails from or to the Clintons' email server had passed through there. They were likely from or to his wife Huma Abedin, who had an account on that server. What were they about—chatting with friends, trading Game of Thrones recaps with co-workers, cat gifs? We don't know. Were any these emails from or to Hillary Clinton? We don't know. Did they contain classified information? We don't know. Was there any indication that somebody somewhere committed a crime? We don't know, because—and this is important—the FBI hasn't even read them. They needed to get a warrant to do so, which they didn't obtain until Sunday, two days after Comey made his blockbuster announcement. It'll take weeks to actually determine whether there's anything even remotely interesting there.

Nevertheless, from the moment they heard about Comey's letter, the media locked into Full Clinton Scandal Mode, in which things like facts and evidence are all but irrelevant; all that matters is that "This is out there" and "Questions are being raised."

Meanwhile, Donald Trump goes before his frothing crowds, brings up the issue, and the crowd immediately erupts in lusty cheers. Then he says a bunch of things that aren't true, to which they respond with cries of "Lock her up! Lock her up!" And just as it is with the email issue in general, most voters couldn't tell you what it's about or what Clinton supposedly did wrong, but they know it was something about emails and it must have been shady, or everyone wouldn't be making such a big deal out of it.

As exasperating as this event has been, in the end it likely won't matter much to the outcome of the presidential race. Clinton will probably still win, and we'll just add this to the long compendium of 2016 weirdness (and we still have enough news cycles left for two or three more Trump scandals). But it is as good a template as any for how Clinton's time in office will proceed.

There are two vital things to understand about that future. The first is that Republicans will be devoting the bulk of their energies in the next four (or eight) years to finding—or, if that fails, inventing—Clinton "scandals." This isn't a possibility, it's a certainty. Last Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that Representative Jason Chaffetz, chair of the House oversight committee, is already planning on "spending years, come January, probing the record of a President Hillary Clinton." And it won't just be Chaffetz's committee—don't forget that Republicans managed to conduct eight separate congressional investigations of Benghazi in an endless quest to get something on Clinton. If Republicans hold the House, without any actual legislating to distract them they'll do almost nothing but investigate her. They know well, because it was their strategy throughout the 1990s, that if you can't find a scandal you can still create the appearance of a scandal just by launching one investigation after the next, berating administration witnesses, and shaking your fists in the air for the benefit of the cameras.

The second thing to understand is that the news media will eat all this up with a spoon. Washington journalists long ago convinced themselves that the Clintons are corrupt, and there's some kind of Watergate-level scandal about them just waiting for the right intrepid reporter to discover. And just like Republicans, they too know that while a scandal is the best story, a pseudo-scandal is almost as good, because it allows for all kinds of "BREAKING NEWS!!!" chyrons and breathless speculation. As Jonathan Allen wrote in perhaps the best explanation of the special rules that govern how the media treats them, "The Clinton rules are driven by reporters' and editors' desire to score the ultimate prize in contemporary journalism: the scoop that brings down Hillary Clinton and her family's political empire. At least in that way, Republicans and the media have a common interest."

And consider this: If and when Clinton is elected, Republicans will complain bitterly that the news media were too harsh on Donald Trump. This is a complicated issue, but what's undeniable is that Trump has forced journalists to find new ways to talk about a candidate who lies as frequently as Trump, has such contempt for democratic norms, and who attacks journalists themselves so unceasingly and personally. Even if all their decisions in shaping that coverage have been justified, they'll be eager to show they aren't playing favorites, and one of the best ways to show you aren't captive to "liberal bias" is to rake Hillary Clinton over the coals.

The fact that Barack Obama's administration was so remarkably free of scandal may have led you to forget what things were like back in the 1990s, when multiple congressional investigations could be launched on the news that the cafeteria in the basement of the Department of Agriculture ran out of cinnamon crullers last Friday, which was clear evidence that Bill and Hillary were covering up something ghastly and nefarious, if only one could pull hard enough on that thread of suspicion. But it's coming back, have no doubt. And it isn't going to be much fun.  

You may also like