“The biggest problem she has is that a ton of people in the media have Hillary fatigue. I don’t know if the grass-roots Democrats do; eight years ago they did, which is why they looked to Obama. People had Hillary fatigue — really Clinton fatigue — and were looking for a new direction. Now in the grass roots there’s some Clinton nostalgia, especially as Obama’s presidency looks shaky. But the Hillary fatigue in the press corps is going to be a challenge.” (emphasis mine)
If I told you this was a quote from Meet The Press moderator Chuck Todd, I am sure you would not be surprised. What might surprise you is that Mr. Todd said this in November 2014, months before Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for President but a clear harbinger of the type of coverage she would receive once she did.
If this all has a vague whiff of deja vu, it is because we saw this movie once before. In 2000, the mainstream media landed on a narrative about Al Gore that went something like this - he was a earth-tone wearing beta male with a penchant for exaggeration and a bit of a know-it-all. Meanwhile, his opponent was an affable cowboy who you could have a beer with and a solid hang. This framing minimized Gore’s long-standing passion for environmental causes, his forward thinking when it came to information technology, and his role in streamlining government services. At the same time, his opponent’s poor business record, thin executive resume (in Texas, the Governor is a largely ceremonial role) and “fuzzy math” when it came to the few policies he actually spoke about were also turned down because with a last name like Bush and some “adult” supervision from people like Condi Rice or Colin Powell, how bad could the guy screw up?
Back then the stakes did not seem particularly high. The country was at peace, the budget was in surplus, unemployment was below 4 percent, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Nasdaq were flirting with record highs and all was good in the world. It seemed like the country was on auto pilot, raking in tax revenue hand over fist while employers fought over job applicants. And so, even though Bill Clinton had taken office at a time of skyrocketing deficits he converted to surpluses and an economy that was limping along and now running on all cylinders, through dint of five Supreme Court justices, Clinton’s Vice President was denied the Presidency in favor of the son of the man Clinton had defeated for the job.
In the after action, the press took little responsibility for their caricature of Gore, instead placing fault on him for his weak campaign, refusal to deploy Clinton to help, and of course, the sighing he did during one of his debates with Governor Bush. The consequences of failing to fully vet Bush would become clear quickly, but even after the horror of 9/11 and invasion of Afghanistan, the press credulously pressed the Bush Administration’s case for war in Iraq, a sin we are still paying for to this day.
So flash forward from 2000 to 2016. Another Democratic President has successfully pulled the country out of economic dire straits created by his Republican predecessor. His potential successor is a well-known commodity who the media have pilloried and harangued for the better part of three decades. Chuck Todd tipped the media’s hand when he lamented “Hillary fatigue” months before she started her run, but the imbalance of coverage she received was the Gore treatment on steroids.
As has been chronicled by Harvard University, the coverage Hillary received in 2015 was far more negative than anything experienced by any other candidate, while Donald Trump received largely favorable coverage. Clinton was hounded incessantly over her use of a private email server - a story to be sure that deserved some coverage, but not the wall-to-wall reporting it was given. Indeed, as chronicled by Media Matters, the email story received more news coverage on the main nightly news programs than all policy discussion combined - not Hillary’s policies, all candidates’ policies. In the 9 days between the release of FBI Director James Comey’s two letters in late October and early November, the five major newspapers in America ran no less than 100 stories on something that turned out to be much ado about nothing.
And although the email story largely died down after Comey’s original exoneration in early July, the narrative had been fixed. “Questions had been raised” and the media turned its attention to the Clinton Foundation, turning an organization that helps millions of poor and needy people, mostly in the third world, obtain needed medicine, education, and other basic services, into some sort of quasi-criminal enterprise and slush fund for Bill and Hillary Clinton’s personal gain, when of course, nothing could have been further from the truth.
The result of this was a populace that considered Clinton less trustworthy than Donald Trump, a man who, pick your poison, had bankrupted multiple companies, may have evaded federal taxes (we will never know, he never released any of his tax returns), may have groped or assaulted more than ten women, bragged about the fact he could grope women with impunity, and whose few policy ideas were either patently ridiculous (the vaunted border wall) or vague (getting rid of state “lines” around health care as a substitute for the Affordable Care Act) you would have thought his policy shop was run by a high school dropout. But no mind. Although Clinton had been criticized for not holding “press conferences” (CNN literally had a count UP clock to track the time since her last one), Trump snubbed the press for the entire general election - a time, remember, when so much reporting was finally being done on the Trump Foundation, on his tax returns, on his groping of women - and the press did not say a word about it. What few interviews Trump gave were largely within the friendly confines of Fox News and on the off chance he gave someone else the chance to question him, he would end the interview abruptly if he did not like the subject matter.
For Clinton, it was a no win situation. Her accessibility was used to ask her about her email issue (even though she had answered questions dozens of times) and the Foundation, never mind her robust and specific policy proposals, all of which went largely ignored by her traveling press corps and surely got no coverage on cable news. Ultimately, the press landed on the idea that the election was a “lesser of two evils” choice even though Hillary had spent her entire adult life in public service and with a record that any fair-minded journalist would have to acknowledge was focused on improving the lives of women, children, and families. Was she perfect, of course not, but by minimizing her career and elevating the narrative that she was deceitful and untrustworthy, the press did her and the country an incredible disservice. Everyone understood Trump was a bigot and a misogynist and worse, but if she was equally bad, just for different reasons, than the permission structure to vote for him became much easier to erect.
Sadly, this is not 2000. While the economy has recovered, we are still running a budget deficit in excess of $400 billion a year, which will likely spike if the tax cuts and military spending Trump has promised come to fruition. We are no longer on a glide path, as we were when Bill Clinton left office, to pay off all of our debt. Instead, our long-term borrowing will soon hit $20 trillion and will rise regardless, but far faster and to a greater amount if Trump’s proposals, which got minimal coverage during the campaign, are enacted. But do not expect the press to own up to its role in any of this. As they did with Gore and the Iraq War, they will largely absolve themselves of responsibility for the coming catastrophe. If you need any further proof, just look who they helped put in the White House a few short days ago.
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