First as scandal, then as farce: The absurdity of the Beltway media's Hillary email fixation

Multiple outlets openly acknowledge this story is a nothingburger, but that won't stop their breathless coverage

Published July 9, 2015 9:00AM (EDT)

  (AP/Richard Shiro)
(AP/Richard Shiro)

This article originally appeared on Media Matters.

When the story of Hillary Clinton's private email account first broke in March, the Beltway media's response resembled barely controlled hysteria as pundits searched for adjectives to describe the impending political doom in store for Clinton.

Ron Fournier at National Journal immediately announced that perhaps Clinton shouldn't even bother running for president, the damage she faced was so grave. And New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wondered if the revelation meant Clinton had a secret political "death wish."

According to the nattering nabobs of negativism (to borrow a phrase), the revelation that Clinton had used a private email server while secretary of state was possibly the story that would doom Clinton's White House hopes.

As the media firestorm raged, the State Department announced it would release 55,000 pages of former Secretary of State Clinton's emails next January. But a U.S. District Court ordered the department to release portions of the email archive on a monthly basis. The first batch was released in May, and the second round, or roughly 3,000 emails, came late last week. Clinton has always said she welcomed the emails being made public. And now we know why.

Among the "highlights" from the latest email revelations, a story that has at times consumed the Beltway press? She once emailed then-Center for American Progress chief John Podesta to "Please wear socks to bed to keep your feet warm." She on one occasion requested some iced tea. In June 2009, she wrote aides, "I heard on the radio that there is a Cabinet mtg this am. Is there? Can I go? If not, who are we sending?"

That October, Clinton sent an email to longtime confidante Sidney Blumenthal, asking in the subject line, "Are you still awake?" The body of the email read, "I will call if you are." (That Clinton emailed with Blumenthal has been treated as very big news, although there's rarely a press explanation as for why it's treated that way.)

More scintillating insights? Clinton emailed an assistant to get the phone number of Judge Sonia Maria Sotomayor so Clinton could congratulate her on being nominated for the Supreme Court. Clinton once sentsenior advisor Jake Sullivan an appreciative email, telling him what good work he was doing. And of course, there was the media's never-ending fax-machine coverage, detailing the trivial back-and-forth between Clinton and her aide as they struggled to get a piece of office equipment to work.

So since March, we've gone from breathless claims that Clinton's emails might end her presidential hopes, to reporting about how Clinton's emails revealed she was flummoxed by the office fax machine.

In other words, the story has traveled from scandal to farce in just four months' time.

But as the U.S. District court decreed, these emails dumps are going to be monthly events for the foreseeable future, which means the press is going to repeat its email coverage over and over through January. And like the Republican Party, the press will likely hold out hope that the big revelations are really just around the corner. ("Those hoping to find a smoking gun will probably have to wait for next month's dispatch," New York reported.)

But as is often the case with the media's Clinton excesses, the tone and tonnage of the email press coverage tells us more about the media than it does about Clinton; about the brazen and unapologetic double standard the press applies to Clinton.

Of course, Clinton's not the first politician whose emails have been turned over to the public. Jeb Bush is regularly touted as a transparency champion -- and held up as a contrast to Clinton -- because he released a portion of his emails (via his private accounts) from his days as Florida governor. Largely glossed over by the Beltway press is the fact that Bush has categorically refused to release any emails that dealt with the controversial 2000 Florida recount involving his brother, George W. Bush, or emails that dealt with the controversial Florida custody case of Elian Gonzalez, or with the controversial Florida right-to-die showdown surrounding Terri Schiavo.

"The emails [Bush] released were from a public-facing account that he used primarily to communicate with random constituents, not to actually govern" noted Gawker. "It's as though he released his spam inbox and proclaimed it as a window into his soul."

Meanwhile, who else but Hillary Clinton could prompt the press to produce these kind of shallow dispatches?

* "15 Fun Tidbits From Hillary Clinton's Emails"

* "The Biggest (and Funniest) Revelations from the Hillary Clinton Email Dump"

* "The 12 Hillary Clinton Emails You Must Read"

It was that weird sense of pointless voyeurism that dominated the coverage, and will likely do so for months to come.

The New Republic touted the "guilty pleasure" of reading the private Clinton emails, admitting on the one hand the stash was "profoundly boring" and "revealing no consequential political machinations," while simultaneously insisting the email reading itself was "compelling" and "intriguing" as "windows into the mundane everyday dramas of Clinton and her staff."

Then again, lots of news organizations did the same. They conceded upfront that the emails were a big nothingburger ("Most of Mrs. Clinton's messages were clipped, usually no more than two or three sentences, dealing with schedules or setting up phone calls"), and then devoted hundreds of excited words detailing the nothingburger emails. The New York Times actually bemoaned the "banality" of the emails -- while writing multiple articles about them.

But why the giddy, overboard coverage? Part of it is because there's a standing army of Clinton-assigned journalists who are responsible for producing reams of content for the next 16 months. Consequently, the traditional guidelines of what qualifies as news now seem to be ignored.

In a long piece detailing the "media's 5 unspoken rules for covering Hillary," Vox's Jonathan Allen this week suggests the press falls prey to those excesses and "double standards" in part because Clinton has been in the spotlight so long, and because she doesn't like the media. And because she's really, really famous.

"Everything is newsworthy because the Clintons are the equivalent of America's royal family," Allen explained, which has a "distorting effect."

In essence, much of the press has written itself a blank check to over-indulge in Clinton minutiae in the name of "news" because the D.C. press is now pretending that Bill and Hillary Clinton are the King and Queen of the United States.

That, of course, makes no sense. But it does represent a creative bout of self-justification from an armada of Clinton reporters who have reduced themselves to writing, en masse, about the former secretary of state's scheduling missives to her aides and doing it under the guise of breaking news.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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