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The Clinton Rules and the Media’s Ghastly Failure to Inform the Public


200px-AtlasShruggedAbove: the novelistic version of Paul Ryan’s domestic policy agenda, albeit with less religion

As a couple of commenters have noted, Ygelsias has filed a couple of exceptionally good columns recently. First, on the assumptions that cause “scandals” to be routinely manufactured ex nihilo:

The latest Hillary Clinton email revelations arose out of an unrelated investigation into Anthony Weiner’s sexting.

The best way to understand this odd hopscotch is through the Prime Directive of Clinton investigations: We know the Clintons are guilty; the only question is what are they guilty of and when will we find the evidence?

So somehow an investigation that once upon a time was about a terrorist attack on an American consulate becomes an inquiry into Freedom of Information Act compliance, which shifts into a question about handling of classified material. A probe of sexting by the husband of a woman who works for Clinton morphs into a quest for new emails, and if the emails turn out not to be new at all (which seems likely), it will morph into some new questions about Huma Abedin’s choice of which computers to use to check her email.

Clinton has been very thoroughly investigated, and none of the earlier investigations came up with any crimes. So now the Prime Directive compels her adversaries to look under a new rock and likewise compels cable television and many major newspapers to treat the barest hint of the possibility of new evidence that might be damning as a major development.


Knowing all that, the natural thing to assume when you learn that one of Weiner’s laptops includes client-side copies of emails sent to or from Clinton’s private server is that there is nothing new in these emails. They are going to be duplicates of emails that have already been turned over. If by some chance some of them are different, they are almost certainly not going to expose grave crimes in Benghazi or willful mishandling of classified information on Clinton’s part. This has all already been thoroughly investigated.

But then you remember the Prime Directive: Clinton is guilty; we just don’t know what she’s guilty of or what the evidence is that proves it.

The Prime Directive is how meeting with a Nobel Peace Prize winner and rescuing hostages from North Korea or raising money for a foundation that saved millions of lives becomes a scandal.

In Prime Directive terms, the Weiner laptop is a major break. After all, the evidence of guilt must be out there somewhere. So why not Anthony Weiner’s laptop?

It’s only when you step outside the circle of madness that you can see how ridiculous this is. If nobody had ever seen a Hillary Clinton email before, uncovering a trove of them on the laptop of the estranged husband of one of her key aides might be a big deal. But Hillary’s email has already been exhaustively investigated from multiple different angles, and it shows no wrongdoing whatsoever. If you assume there is wrongdoing, then, yes, maybe all evidence of the wrongdoing was suppressed from what was turned over and Weiner’s computer contains secret new damning emails.

Even if Clinton had done something wrong, the email scandal would be trivial — it wouldn’t rank in the top 50 of “horrible things Donald Trump has done.” The extent to which her emails have dominated press coverage even though she is not guilty of any serious wrongdoing is remarkable in the worst way.

And we should emphasize the media’s agency here. Comey’s letter was an appalling and indefensible partisan intervention into the election. But if it matters, it’s because the media failed to cover it accurately (as a scandal about Comey’s violation of longstanding procedures to provide no information worded in a way to allow the implication that Hillary Clinton is guilty of something) rather than inaccurately (as a Hillary Clinton scandal) or with meta-coverage that does Comey’s dirty work (did this letter damage Clinton?) Or, of course, the media could do something crazy like covering policy differences rather than email storage trivia:

Imagine, in other words, that Trump does what he says he wants to do on taxes, the environment, immigration, and health care. It’s true that he is not a passionate policy wonk; nor does he seem like someone who is deeply invested, on a personal level, in the non-immigration aspects of his policy agenda. But the agenda is there, and on all these non-immigration issues his views are basically in line with the vision put forth by Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who will do the boring work of drafting the bills for Trump to sign.

The result would be a sweeping transformation of American life. Millions would be forcibly removed from their homes and communities as new resources and a new mission invigorate the pace of deportations. Taxes would drop sharply for the richest Americans while rising for many middle-class families. Millions of low-income Americans would lose their health insurance, while America’s banks would enjoy the repeal of regulations enacted in the wake of the financial crisis. Environmental Protection Agency regulation of greenhouse gas emissions would end, likely collapsing global efforts to restrain emissions, greatly increasing the pace of warming.

Millions of Americans would love some or all of these changes, and millions of others would hate them. But most of all, the vast majority of Americans would simply be confused. Someone who’d been following the election moderately closely — scanning headlines, watching cable news, and tuning in to debates — would simply have no idea that this sweeping shift in American public policy is in the offing if Trump wins. Nor would they have any real sense of what the more modest shift in public policy that would emerge from a Clinton win would look like. Beneath the din of email coverage and the mountains of clichés about populism, the mass-market media has simply failed to convey what’s actually at stake in the election.

One of the most frightening things about a Trump administration is the fact that he’d sign whatever Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan put on his desk. The public should be being told repeatedly, for better or worse, what this agenda is. Instead, they’re getting a steady stream of drivel about Hillary Clinton’s fucking emails that is consistently inept and misleading even on its own terms. It’s an absolutely grotesque collective failure. And as with 2000, the right-wing media is not the important problem here.

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