Hillary scandal's hidden truth: How the Beltway media embarrassed itself -- again

This week brought us back to the 90s again -- and not in a good way. Here's how the press reverted to hideous form

By Heather Digby Parton


Published March 5, 2015 11:29AM (EST)

  (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)
(Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

I got out my old Alanis Morrisette CD this week and listened to "You Oughta Know" for the first time in a decade or more. I had been hit with a strong sense of deja vu and it made me feel nostalgic. A Clinton scandal was burning bright and there was a feeding frenzy on cable news of which I hadn't seen the likes since Ezra Klein was in grade school. It seems Hillary Clinton did something terrible to do with records she didn't keep properly and "it doesn't pass the smell test".  In any case, "where there's smoke there's fire". Or it could have been fog. A light mist perhaps, who knows? But something very serious must be going on or all these people wouldn't be talking about it, right? So they have to talk about it. Incessantly.

Just like back in the day, no one was prepared to report what was actually supposed to have been wrong about all this, of course, because it was pretty clear after the first NY Times vague report was clarified  that Clinton didn't actually break any laws and there's no evidence she didn't adhere to the rules that were in place during her tenure. Sure, something could be wrong with it, but until someone else does some reporting it's important to discuss ad nauseum what "the problem" really was: this scandal, true or not, important or unimportant, "feeds the narrative" that Clinton is a person of hugely flawed character. None of them were prepared to say this themselves, of course, being unbiased reporters just reporting the facts and all. It's just that a lot of other people think Hillary Clinton is a devious, Machiavellian control freak and therefore it's important to report this story. Which will, of course, further feed that narrative.

This is the laziest form of political reporting and commentary imaginable. They are basically sitting around gossiping about what people in DC say about Hillary Clinton and surmising that this story will force them say it even more. Which they will because all these commentators are saying it 24/7 on cable news in a shrill, shrieking feedback loop they mistake for actual public opinion.

Chris Cilizza in the Washington Post was just one of many who weighed in with "the problem.":

[It}speaks to the suspicion that has long hung around the Clintons that they are always working the angles, stretching the limits of how business can be conducted for their own benefit.

Now, it's true that conservatives have always had that suspicion. They spent the best part of a decade and nearly 100 million taxpayer dollars trying to prove it without success. And the political media have never been able to think straight about Hillary Clinton. Indeed, the beltway press was stunned when she ran and won a Senate race during her last year in the White House. The minute the right wing professional oppo types throw a tasty little tidbit about her they start squawking like hungry chicks and open their little beaks to receive it without even knowing what it is. But voters have never bought into this "narrative" and don't seem to hold the same low opinion of her. Indeed, the latest show her to be very popular among Democrats with even 15 to 20% of Republicans willing to consider voting for her. So it's not exactly clear why this so-called narrative is such "a problem." If it has been out there for more than 20 years it's hard to see how anyone so tainted with this horrible image could now be the frontrunner for the presidential nomination of the Democratic party.

Nobody knows at this point if this story has any legal or political ramifications despite all the very excited chatter. The underlying assumption among the beltway chatterers is yes, largely based on the fact that the original story was published on the front page of the New York Times which means it isn't a partisan story. But then so was Whitewater and we know where that came from --- and how that turned out.

In fact, this has all the markings of a similar hit job. This very useful piece in the Washington Post spelled out how this works for those of you who were either too young or too busy to follow the story in the 90s:

One of the best practitioners of the political dark arts used to refer to the kind of story that appeared yesterday about Hillary Clinton using a personal e-mail account instead of an official one while at the State Department as a “Picasso.” By that, he meant a masterpiece of his craft: placing, without fingerprints, negative stories that wind up on the front pages of a major newspaper and command the political news cycle for a few days. These stories are often months in the making and, at best, reinforce or create a new negative narrative about the target. So it is with this latest story on Clinton and e-mails. For Clinton-haters and skeptics, it underscores a pattern of deception and rule-breaking and threatens to become a chronic annoyance for her eventual candidacy. What e-mails are missing? What’s in them? A congressional investigation, anyone?

This is how you create one of them there "narratives" that get the beltway press's juices flowing. That article goes on to point out that one of the most masterful of all the Republican Black Ops soldiers has recently signed on with Jeb Bush. (This email scandal may be Jeb's way of letting the party know he's ready to rumble. If so, he hasn't lost that Bush touch.)

Brendan Nyhan explains why  this likely will not affect voters impressions of Clinton.  I would go a step further and say that once the wingnuttiest of the wingnuts get going, there could be a backlash.  It certainly happened back in 2008 and Newt Gingrich lost his job over it. They are already getting way ahead of themselves. For instance, Greg Gutfield on  Fox News' The Five said on Tuesday:

"Hillary turned over 55000 emails but only after her aides had looted all the best stuff. You can bet what they handed over was junk nobody wanted. It's like leaving the congealed tapioca from a day old buffet. Was she looking for new lamps to replace the ones she's always throwing at Bill."

He then declared victory saying she was "done" because Democrats were abandoning her ship in droves. I'm going to guess he was smoking something potent back in the 90s or he'd know that this is just the beginning, not the end.

Now having said all that about 90s style political gossip pretending to be news, may I also say that there are many legitimate stories to be done about Clinton. This may even turn out to be one, although it's already moved well beyond what the facts at hand should allow. She has a very long record and some very cozy relationships with power and money that deserve to be hashed out. Her record in the Senate on foreign policy and National Security should be examined in detail. Nobody says she is above scrutiny and it's the media's job to do it. But to breathlessly report a story which was clearly planted by the Republicans with the express purpose of drawing out these lazy "character" stories is pathetic. Nobody wants to hear that any more than they want to sit and listen to "You Oughta Know" while watching "Friends" reruns. Believe me, it was bad enough the first time. Get a new song.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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