How Politico became a GOP stooge: Republicans want to destroy Hillary Clinton—and the media is helping them out

The political press's obsession with taking down the Clintons has led them to regurgitate Republican untruths

By Heather Digby Parton
Published July 7, 2015 6:49PM (EDT)
  (Reuters/Rick Wilking)
(Reuters/Rick Wilking)

Aaron Blake at The Washington Post wrote a piece yesterday entitled, "The Clinton campaign is roping off reporters. But who will cry for us?" in which he lamented the treatment the press received over the weekend at the hands of Hillary Clinton. Again. If you were to read the twitter feeds of political reporters as it unfolded, it was a trauma they will not soon forget.

Here is Politico's Glenn Thrush, who saw the deeper meaning of the event immediately:

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The weirdly obsessive Clinton twitter stalker Maggie Haberman of the New York Times brought all the strands of Clinton's various alleged crimes together:

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Even three days later, everyone's still abuzz:

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Aaron Blake recounted the event in all its chilling detail and then rather sheepishly admitted that nobody in America really gives a damn about how Hillary Clinton treats the press. (A point I made a month ago.) After all, the press is held in only slightly higher esteem by the public than loan sharks and puppy mill operators. The thinly veiled threat underneath all this outrage is that the media will react to being treated badly by giving the candidate bad press, but it's pretty clear that train left the station a long time ago when it comes to Clinton, so the cost-benefit analysis probably doesn't argue in favor of the campaign giving a damn either.

As it happens, another political reporter wrote a piece about the way the press covers Hillary Clinton yesterday and it was quite a blockbuster confessional. Jonathan Allen of Vox laid it all out:

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.

I understand these dynamics well, having co-written a book that demonstrated how Bill and Hillary Clinton used Hillary's time at State to build the family political operation and set up for their fourth presidential campaign. That is to say, I've done a lot of research about the Clintons' relationship with the media, and experienced it firsthand. As an author, I felt that I owed it to myself and the reader to report, investigate, and write with the same mix of curiosity, skepticism, rigor, and compassion that I would use with any other subject. I wanted to sell books, of course. But the easier way to do that — proven over time — is to write as though the Clintons are the purest form of evil. The same holds for daily reporting. Want to drive traffic to a website? Write something nasty about a Clinton, particularly Hillary.

As a reporter, I get sucked into playing by the Clinton rules. This is what I've seen in my colleagues, and in myself.

This does not come as a surprise to many observers. It's been obvious for more than 20 years. But it's refreshing to see a journalist admit that the dynamic is driven by the media's Ahab-like obsession with bringing down Hillary Clinton --- and that this means they have a common interest with Republicans. It's not ideological, it's professional.

Allen goes on to list the unofficial rules for covering the Clintons and elaborates on each one. (There are, by his reckoning, five.) He notes that the media must always assume that the Clintons are acting in bad faith until proven otherwise, that everything is newsworthy (even things that really are nobody's business) because the Clintons are like America's royal family, and because everything Hillary Clinton does is, so the thinking goes, "fake and calculated." These assumptions distort political coverage in a dozen different ways. But it's two rules in particular which should be of very serious concern to the public.

The first is, "everything, no matter how ludicrous-sounding, is worthy of a full investigation by federal agencies, Congress, the 'vast right-wing conspiracy,' and mainstream media outlets." Allen notes that the Clintons have been investigated for 25 years and have probably revealed more about their lives, some of it intensely personal, than any other people in American public life. This has made them protective of their privacy and, perhaps perversely, fatalistic about the media's hostility. But he also notes something that we should acknowledge is a big problem for our politics:

This is, for Republicans, a reasonable strategy. They know that if they keep investigating her, it will do two things: keep the media writing about scandals that might knock her out, and turn off voters who don't want a return to the bloodsport politics of the 1990s. They leak partial stories to reporters hungry for that one great scoop that will give them the biggest political scalp of them all.

He points out that the Republicans are never able to deliver, which often plays into Clinton's hands, but that's hardly a justification for the media's behavior. There is nothing new about this arrangement. This was exactly what happened back in the 1990s. It's embarrassing for the press that so many of their ranks are either unaware of this history, don't care about it, or are taking up the challenge to harpoon that big fish without having the slightest compunction about being used by political operatives for partisan purposes. It's tragic for our country that after the ridiculous spectacle of impeachment, a stolen election, the war in Iraq, and an epic economic meltdown that our political media is still this shallow. That they are willing to enable this three-ring circus that calls itself today's Republican Party in order to gain power is frightening.

Allen's other point is: "Every allegation, no matter how ludicrous, is believable until it can be proven completely and utterly false. And even then, it keeps a life of its own in the conservative media world." That correlates to another Clinton rule, which is the "Where there's smoke there's fire" tactic. The idea is for there to be so many accusations floating around that a reasonable person must conclude that there's something to it, even if nothing has been proven. That, after all, is what Benghazi is all about.

Allen writes:

Terrorists killed four Americans. The conservative echo chamber seems convinced Hillary Clinton is at fault. The reasonable argument to make is that we shouldn't have been in Libya in the first place and the murders were a down-the-chain result of bad policy. But the right wing wants to prove that they happened because of Clinton's actions — or inaction — on security matters.

They've talked about security requests denied for Libya (never mind that the stronger contingent would have been in Tripoli, not Benghazi, and that there's no evidence Clinton herself was aware of the requests), a stand-down order that prevented reinforcements from arriving in Benghazi (never mind that they wouldn't have gotten there until after the fighting was done, and that even a House Republican committee found that there was no such order) and, most of absurd of all, that Clinton knew the attack was coming. This is how Limbaugh put it in May.

"The fact is they knew about the Benghazi attack 10 days before it was to happen. They knew who did it."

The freedom of the conservative media to make wild allegations often acts as a bulldozer forcing reporters to check into the charges and, in doing so, repeat them. By the time they've been debunked, they're part of the American public's collective consciousness. Or, as it's been said, a lie gets around the world before the truth gets out of bed.

There's more to this, however, and it goes hand in hand with the previous rule. These investigations are little more than fishing expeditions in which Republicans demand more and more information and then selectively leak juicy bits to the press for partisan purposes. Trey Gowdy's Benghazi select committee has descended into farce already, but that hasn't stopped the New York Times from breathlessly reporting it like it's Watergate.

But it's not just The Times, although they've been among the worst. Eric Wemple of the Washington Post reported that Representative Elijah Cummings came out swinging at Politico yesterday for running with leaked Clinton emails which they didn't actually see, based on intel from unidentified "sources." The selectively presented, and allegedly undisclosed, emails gave the appearance that Clinton was working hand-in-glove with adviser Sidney Blumenthal to circulate Benghazi talking points from the Media Matters, where Blumenthal was then on payroll, inside the White House -- an insinuation used by Clinton detractors to suggest some sort of Benghazi coverup.

However, as the Washington Post explains:

But as Cummings notes in his letter, it didn’t go down like that. The [Hillary Clinton email cited by Politico] actually attaches to a different e-mail correspondence between Clinton and Blumenthal, from a week before Blumenthal’s boast about those Benghazi links. As documents released by the State Department last week show, Clinton was actually intent on sending to the White House a Salon article claiming that the campaign of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was planning a brand-new line of attack based on Benghazi.

Cummings rips away, “It appears that this source fed Politico an inaccurate characterization of these emails and that Politico accepted this mischaracterization without obtaining the emails themselves. The source apparently took an email that was produced to the Select Committee in February, isolated Secretary Clinton’s statement about the White House, removed it from the original email exchange about the presidential debates, and then added it to a different email exchange involving Media Matters.” Another point: The Politico story cites a source as saying that the e-mail wasn’t among those turned over by the State Department. Cummings writes that State had passed it along in February.

Politico later issued a correction (which was clear as mud and clarified nothing).

Cummings is going to have his hands full trying to sort out these leaks. It's a dirty job, but apparently he's decided that somebody has to do it, so that somebody will be him. It remains to be seen if his work to correct the record of this Benghazi committee will have any effect. And who knows if Jonathan Allen's piece will be taken seriously by his fellow political reporters. It's clear they are using Clinton's lack of "accessibility" as a lame excuse for their sophomoric behavior, but it shouldn't take one of their own writing a Vox explainer on "the Clinton rules" for them to understand that they are being willing dupes for Republican partisans who are laughing behind their backs at their credulousness.

Hillary Clinton doesn't need to be handled with kid gloves. The presidency is a tough job. But neither does she deserve to be held to a different standard than anyone else or subject to a set of rules that are based upon lazy, false assumptions fed by partisans with an agenda they aren't even trying to hide. The fact that the press is falling so comfortably into that old groove is a testament to the fact that nobody ever paid a price for what they did the first time.

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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