There Is Still Time for the Anti-Clinton Media Narrative to Do Real Damage

by Neil H. Buchanan

I considered myself lucky not to have been scheduled to write a column the morning after the second presidential debate.  That meant that I did not need to follow my usual routine of sequestering myself from all debate discussion (before, during, and after), watching the debate in real time, and then writing about it the next morning.

It would have been nearly impossible for me to do any of that this time.  Last Friday's bombshell revelation that Donald Trump had bragged about sexually assaulting women was so disgusting that I, like many other people, became nauseated even thinking about it.  I needed time to process what had happened.

As the hour of the debate approached on Sunday, I tried to imagine how Trump would behave.  I imagined -- foolishly, it turned out, but still plausibly -- that he would go into his choirboy mode, looking into the camera and uttering scripted pieties.  As unlike Trump as that might be, we have all seen that he is able to act like an adult for short periods of time.

For example, his joint appearance with the president of Mexico a few weeks ago was widely viewed as a public relations coup for the Trump campaign.  True, he followed that up with a rally in Arizona that showed him to be an unrepentant xenophobe, but that does not change the fact that he is capable of faking seriousness.

Not wanting to experience any of that firsthand by watching the debate live, I came upon the idea of reading the blog of the debate that was being provided in real time by the political reporters of The New York Times.  That way, I thought, I could avoid watching the debate while still satisfying my curiosity about what was going on.

This strategy, however, had an unexpected side effect.  I saw in vivid relief an example of how political reporters think in real time, and more importantly how their particularly damaging type of groupthink happens.  And the lessons that I learned explain a lot about how the press's coverage of politics has become so distorted.

Most importantly, I now worry about how the supposedly liberal press is going to treat the leaks of Democratic emails and Hillary Clinton's speeches.  Although those leaks have been mostly ignored so far because of the Trump implosion, there is every reason to think that the press's "Clinton Rules" -- the process of reporting news about Hillary Clinton in the most negative way possible -- will be used to turn non-issues in the leaks into something nefarious.

Indeed, that is already happening.  Before getting into some examples, however, it is useful to describe the experience of "watching" the debate vicariously through the live blog.  The participants were a group of political reporters for The Times -- not the op-ed page columnists, but the people who write the political news stories that make up the bulk of the paper every day.  These are some of the men (and, in this case, one woman) who report on the Clinton and Trump campaigns, break stories that dominate national news, and so on.

Perhaps the best way to describe the experience is to say that, by the end, I was sure that Trump had had a great night.  When I later was able to get myself to watch the debate, I could not believe that I was watching the same thing that those reporters had been seeing.  (Fortunately, the vast majority of commentators and voters also thought that Trump's performance was horrible.)

This is not to say that the gathered reporters were in any obvious way favoring Trump.  They were, instead, engaged in the kind of in-the-know banter that allows them to decide as a group that something is going well or not going well.  The comparison of journalism to high school is by now almost a cliche, but it truly was difficult not to imagine that group sitting around a table in study hall, making snarky comments about who is cool and who is a loser.

One of the blockbuster moments of the night, which has now been widely discussed, was Trump's promise to begin his presidency by siccing his Attorney General on his defeated opponent, and that Clinton would be in jail if he were president.  This was one of the most chilling moments in American political history.

How did the reporters respond to that in real time?  By noting how happy that comment must have made the Republican base.  I am not saying, in other words, that the reporters approved of Trump's dictatorial urges, but rather that their automatic response was to think, "How will this play politically?"  And their political lens is incredibly narrow, not even noticing whether a vow to end the rule of law might be politically explosive.  Instead, the response was very much about the trees and not the forest.

There were also comments about how "well prepped" Trump's answers seemed to be (in the eyes of the reporters), along with comments about how the debate had not focused on Trump's confession of committing sexual assault.  They barely even noticed that Trump's comments during the debate actually showed less contrition than his scripted video the day before.

What was especially odd about reading the live blog was that The Times was also adding its real-time fact checking results to the feed.  This meant that, while the political reporters were amusing each other with inside jokes and generally missing the big picture, it was possible to see that Trump was engaged in his usual practice of lying through his teeth.

So, as the debate was going along, the feed was peppered with assessments of Trump's claims, almost of all of which were negative, carrying labels like "Extremely Misleading," "Trump is Wrong," and "Not Even Close."  This was not even a matter of noticing that Trump apparently thinks that one senator -- if she were "effective" -- could have single-handedly changed history.  These were simple questions about whether, for example, Clinton was still Secretary of State in 2013.

And sure enough, when I forced myself the next evening to watch the debate, I saw that Trump really had been incoherent.  After his attack on the Affordable Care Act, for example, he said that it should be replaced with something that was "better" and "cheaper."  Great idea!

The closest he came to making an argument was to talk about "lines" around states, finally suggesting that allowing competition across state boundaries would solve everything.  The problem is that that argument has been fully debunked, much like his repeated claims that illegal immigrants are pouring across the border, that we are losing jobs, that there is a war on coal, and all the rest.

The larger problem, as I noted after the first debate, is that the political reporters at The Times and elsewhere have decided that Trump's utterly absurd arguments about economics and international trade are winners.

Before the debate, for example, one article actually included this gem: "To achieve anything resembling a victory, Mr. Trump will need to turn up his nose and focus on the most compelling parts of his own message: trade, the threat of Islamic militants, and the creation of jobs."  Who cares that Trump has no plan to create jobs?  His message is "compelling."

This bit of shared conventional wisdom among the reporters even came up during the live blogging on Sunday as well.  The reporters were impressed, somehow, by Trump's handling of the Clinton emails, and one wrote: "Nailed it on emails the way he nailed it on trade last time. Just nailed it."  Again, what is that guy watching, and what kind of grading curve is he using to say that Trump's comments are anything but lies and wishful thinking?

This is not to say that it is only the reporters from The Times who are dangerously inbred.  NBC's Chuck Todd described the second debate as Trump's best 90 minutes of the campaign.  Rather than being damnation via faint praise, the larger message from Todd and other pundits in the immediate aftermath was that Trump had done well.  One of the live-bloggers later wrote that Trump "avoids annihilation," somehow turning that into a positive night for Trump.

All of which brings us back to my main concern going forward.  The in-the-know crowd in the U.S. political press knows, just knows, that Clinton does not connect with American voters.  They also amplify the conventional wisdom about Clinton supposedly being untrustworthy and all that.

And they do not merely fail to challenge that conventional wisdom.  A few weeks ago, for example, one of those Times reporters actually validated Trump's claim that the breakup of the marriage between Anthony Weiner and Clinton aide Huma Abedin was somehow a campaign issue.  It is all a matter of reading tea leaves, always with the background assumption that Clinton looks bad.

There was really no reason to be surprised, therefore, that The Times's coverage of the Clinton leaks is already being spun in the most negative way possible.  A multi-authored piece, for example, referred to the "potentially damaging excerpts from private paid speeches Mrs. Clinton delivered to Wall Street executives in which she praised 'open trade and open borders' and lamented that her personal wealth made her 'kind of far removed' from the struggles of the middle class."

The problem with this analysis is that what has been reported from those emails does not support the idea that Clinton or her aides said anything that should be "damaging."  An article from two days earlier, written by some of the same reporters, acknowledged that the actual content of the emails was not problematic.  For example, they wrote:
"When Mrs. Clinton describes herself as 'far removed' from average Americans and their finances, she had just finished describing her growing appreciation for how 'anxiety and even anger in the country over the feeling that the game is rigged.'"
At worst, therefore, this statement can only be turned into a negative story by deliberately taking it out of context.  Much like the "basket of deplorables" comment in its full context, this leaked email shows that Clinton was saying something important, which is that she needs to remind herself just how fortunate she has been in her adult life.  She is trying not to let her own comfort blind her to the problems that middle- and lower-class Americans are feeling.

Although that should be a positive for Clinton, however, the second-order political spin -- again, not by opinion columnists but by news reporters -- is to describe Clinton's quote as one of "the most eye-popping passages" in the leaked emails.

Notice, moreover, that the reporters would surely hide behind the claim that they are not saying that Clinton has anything to be embarrassed about, but only that her political opponents might find some nuggets in the emails that are politically useful.  The defense, therefore, would be that the reporter is not really taking a position, but merely anticipating what Republicans might say.

Ultimately, however, that is an evasion.  That article carries a headline describing Clinton as being "at ease with Wall Street," and the tone is entirely one in which Clinton is being judged negatively.  Two further examples will make this point more clearly.

The article first reports that "Mrs. Clinton said she dreamed of 'open trade and open borders' throughout the Western Hemisphere."  Later in the piece, the authors note that Clinton has opposed the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty (TPP) and has distanced herself from NAFTA.

All of which leads to this: "[I]n a 2013 speech to a Brazilian bank, Mrs. Clinton took a far different approach. 'My dream,' she said, 'is a hemispheric common market, with open borders, sometime in the future.'"  The reporter apparently thinks that this is a big gotcha, because it supposedly contradicts her opposition to specific trade treaties today.

Honestly, however, no reasonable person would reject the dream that Clinton describes.  There is very little opposition in the U.S. to trade with countries like the U.K. and Germany, because we have the sense that they play by similar rules in terms of how they treat their workers and the environment.  The argument on the left against trade agreements has never been against trade itself, but against trading with countries that undermine workers' rights.

A person could, therefore, be fully consistent in saying that our dream scenario should be to reach a time when the other countries in the Americas (and the rest of the world, for that matter) have raised their labor and environmental standards to the point where open borders make sense.  Speaking for myself, I would love to see that world come into existence.  But I, too, oppose TPP today.  There is no inconsistency there.

Similarly, as part of an effort to prove that Clinton is cozy with Wall Street, the article says that "[s]ome of her paid remarks embrace the view that the public can benefit when Wall Street partners with government."  (Note the casual modifier "paid.")

I suppose that this is supposed to sound bad, but why?  "When it comes to writing effective financial regulations, Mrs. Clinton said, 'The people that know the industry better than anybody are the people who work in the industry.'"

Again, why is that completely true statement problematic?  Clinton does not say that the people who work on Wall Street should be given carte blanche to write financial regulations.  She is saying that the people who best know the ins and outs of finance are the people in finance.  If we want to write good regulations, we might want to tap into that knowledge.

Indeed, it would be insane to argue that we should ignore Wall Streeters when we write financial regulations.  We should not defer to their narrow interests, but we should certainly use their knowledge to set up effective rules.  For example, if we want to know where the loopholes might be in proposed regulations, the people who make a career out of exploiting loopholes might be able to tell us a thing or two.

Why would they be willing to do so?  Because some financial players have reasons to prevent their competitors from exploiting one-sided rules.  And perhaps even because some of these people are interested in designing markets that are not rigged against little people.  Not all of them think like Donald Trump.

This is not to say that the next President Clinton will do everything right, or that she will not disappoint liberals like me.  She surely will, because that is the nature of the political environment that she will face.  But nothing that The Times reported even comes close to telling us anything that should make us think: "Whoa, she really has an alternative agenda that she has been hiding from us."

In short, even though the political environment has turned decidedly in Clinton's favor over the last few weeks, there is still a cottage industry of supposedly neutral news reporters who write stories from the standpoint that Hillary Clinton must surely be hiding something.  That their examples are so weak is comforting, but that does not stop them.

And even if she is not hiding something, then these reporters seem to think that it is important to highlight how Clinton's opponents will spin things.  Rather than writing articles that say, "The leaked speeches said X, but Republicans are taking it out of context to say that X means Y," they say, "Clinton's speeches might make her look bad."

None of this should be surprising.  The Associated Press breathlessly reported on the Clinton Foundation in August, insinuating that there were all kinds of ethical problems.  And the "report the controversy, not the facts" mindset of political reporters resulted in a huge pile-on.  As Paul Krugman put it:
"[T]he prime example The A.P. actually offered was of Mrs. Clinton meeting with Muhammad Yunus, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who also happens to be a longtime personal friend. If that was the best the investigation could come up with, there was nothing there."
In both debates so far, the distorted media narrative was insufficient to cause people not to believe their own eyes and ears.  But this default mode, in which political reporters miss the big picture and focus on "what might look bad for Clinton," is unfortunately alive and well.

There is still plenty of time for this media culture to do further damage to Clinton's candidacy, not by reporting anything that is truly bad about Clinton but by emphasizing the negative spin at all times.  And the saddest aspect of this is that the people involved in this scrum surely think that they are not doing anything wrong.