If Donald Trump wins the Presidency, we will likely look back at the roughly three week period between late August and September 11th as the reason why. As you will see, a confluence of bad reporting and tactical decisions by both candidates conspired to change a race that was heading in the direction of a Clinton landslide to a coin toss proposition.
The weeks following both parties’ conventions were not good to Donald Trump. His was a four-day spectacle of oddballs and charlatans and party officials conspicuous by their absence. Her’s was a murderer’s row of validators along with ordinary Americans who testified to Hillary’s compassion, hard work, and decency. What had been a neck-and-neck race before the two conventions quickly turned in Hillary’s favor and she opened large leads in national polls and battleground states while edging within the margin of error in reliably red states like Arizona and Georgia. On August 19th, Trump’s campaign chairman was pushed out after revelations about millions in off book payments he received from the pro-Putin former President of Ukraine became public and in his place Trump promoted a pollster named Kellyanne Conway to campaign manager and the editor of the alt-right website Breitbart.com, Steve Bannon, as his campaign “CEO.” This was the second major shake up of Trump’s campaign in just a few months. His chances of winning the Presidency hovered in the 10-15 percent range on Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com website.
But then the worm started to turn. On August 23th, the Associated Press published a “bombshell” report about the number of donors to the Clinton Foundation who were able to get meetings with Hillary Clinton while she was Secretary of State. Never mind that the headline was slanted, the data cherry picked, and some of those donors included Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus and U2 singer Bono, this story dominated cable news for days. When emails showed Clinton Foundation staffer Doug Band trying to get various “favors” from the State Department (all of which were denied), the story crystallized - somehow a Foundation getting HIV drugs to poor people in Africa, clean water to Haitians and myriad other philanthropic efforts was being portrayed as some sort of sleazy pay-to-play machine for rich people trying to curry favor with the federal government.
It would take members of the media a week or more to unwind and fact check these salacious headlines (the AP’s false tweet touting the story was quietly deleted some two weeks later), including one that had to do with Band trying to expedite diplomatic passports for Foundation staffers trying to travel with President Clinton to North Korea to help extricate two Americans being held there. But the damage was already done. Hillary’s schedule was fundraiser-heavy and while she was doing some public events and one-on-one interviews, as the wave of Foundation stories was cresting, reporters started ginning up stories about how long it had been since she had a “formal” press conference. At the exact time the media horde was doubling down on stories that “raised questions” about Hillary’s conduct in public life, she and her team chose not to aggressively knock down the stories. This would prove to be a big mistake.
On the Friday before Labor Day, the FBI released dozens of pages of notes on their interview with Mrs. Clinton regarding her email server. This continued with their highly irregular actions with regard to this investigation that began with a public statement by FBI Director Comey just before the Fourth of July holiday that Clinton would not be prosecuted, but criticizing her actions. Of course, typical procedure is that people who are not indicted for crimes are not publicly excoriated by the FBI, much less have the notes of their interview released publicly, but hey, Hillary, am I right? Another predictable round of media hand wringing ensued and again, she and her team were not nearly as aggressive as they should have been in response.
The capstone to this was the one-two punch of Hillary calling half of Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables” followed two days later by her getting dehydrated and having to be helped to her vehicle at a 9/11 ceremony, resulting in her disclosure that she had been diagnosed with pneumonia a few days earlier. More “questions were raised” about her secretiveness and her alleged “insult” of Trump supporters (never mind that it was arguably a factual statement but at worst a poor choice of words - “half” as opposed to “some” or “many”). The pneumonia story in particular was too perfect for reporters - it reinforced their belief that she is too secretive (because she did not disclose the illness) and the cell phone video of her wobbling was replayed incessantly on cable news channels.
While all this was happening, Trump was quietly (for him) retooling his message. Luckily for him, a credulous press corps was ready to throw his insults to a Gold Star family, John McCain, Judge Gonzalo Curiel, all Mexicans, all non-American Muslims, and of course, his birtherism down the memory hole because he decided to do some African-American “outreach” in a largely white suburb of Milwaukee. Trump then made a last-minute visit to Mexico City where because he did not throw up on his shoes at a brief media availability with Mexican President Pena Nieto, the press deemed a success (even “Presidential.”) The “basket of deplorables” comment gave Trump the opportunity to feign outrage at an insult to his supporters and after questioning Hillary’s health in the preceding weeks, the video footage of her stumbling into her motorcade needed no embellishment.
While there was some investigative reporting being done about Trump and his business dealings, the coverage was dwarfed by the tsunami of coverage given to the Clinton Foundation, the FBI notes, and Hillary coming down with pneumonia. To take the most glaring example, while there was no proof the Clinton Foundation engaged in any illegal (or even unethical) conduct, the Trump Foundation was found to have violated federal law by giving $25,000 to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi - they even paid a fine! But for some reason, this very apparent act of influence peddling (Bondi’s office dropped an investigation into Trump University several days after the donation was received) was not given nearly the attention paid to the Clinton Foundation, where no quid or quo was even remotely shown. Similarly, Trump continued getting a pass on releasing his tax returns, his health records, or information on his Foundation even as the media portrayed Clinton, who had released 40 years of tax returns, the names of all donors to the Clinton Foundation, had 30,000 emails made public, and released detailed medical information, as the one with the transparency problem.
How did all of this end up impacting the race? Bigly, as Trump might say. On August 25th, Clinton was leading Trump nationally by amounts ranging from four points (right-leaning Rasmussen) to seven points (Reuters-Ipsos) to ten points (Quinnipiac). Six days later, Hillary’s lead had been cut to one in the Reuters poll and the following day, Rasmussen had Trump ahead by one. On August 29th, Nate Silver gave Trump a 19 percent chance of winning. Today, Trump is a slight underdog at 40 percent. In state polls, Trump has gone from high single digit deficits in places like Florida and Ohio to small single digit leads and he has solidified his standing in those red states that just a month ago appeared to be slipping from his grasp.
The after action report of this time period will be interesting. Much of the hysterical reporting on the Clinton Foundation ended up being much ado about nothing, but it allowed the media to reinforce its preferred narrative - that Hillary is untrustworthy, even though she did nothing wrong. They “Swift Boated” a charitable organization and Hillary erred in the same way John Kerry did when the same thing happened to him in 2004 - she did not respond. Of course, in his case, the attacks were coming from the Republicans. Hillary got done by the very media that is supposed to objectively report on the candidates. At the same time, Trump’s mouth was (mostly) under control and because he continues to refuse to release any information about his business dealings, reporters are left to public records requests to try and piece together how he operates.
These are not small points, particularly because many in the media refuse to take ownership for their part in normalizing Trump, failing to hold him to the same standard they do Clinton (some reporters do not even bother pretending the two candidates are held to the same standard - they readily admit the two are not), or admitting they do much to drive certain stereotypes that are not actually based in fact. This would not be a big deal but for the fact this is happening in a situation where we are picking the person who will take on the most important job in the world.
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