The chances of Hillary Clinton getting fair coverage from national news organizations, whether as candidate or as president, are two: slim and none. And the reason is that community we’ll call “The Bubble People.”
They live in their own little world, but have the position to determine the course and shape of news coverage. They shape much of what we see on the front page or on the home screen of news sites (and sometimes the two aren’t the same.)
As a past practitioner of the journalistic arts, it pains me deeply to say that. Yet the evidence is clear, on the front page and on the screen (TV or computer) every day.
Sometimes the situation jumps out and bashes you over the head, like the Matt Lauer disaster on the “Commander and Chief Forum” in which he asked Hillary Clinton detailed questions, spent lots of time on the nothingburger email and rushed her along, while pitching softballs to Donald Trump and letting him babble unchallenged.
The stories after were telling. the Washington Post saw Clinton as “guarded, even stilted,” and the Times saw her as “on the defensive, I saw someone answering calmly and deliberately BS questions asked dozens of times before.
More often, however, the lack of fairness shows up in more subtle ways that insinuate themselves into stories and into the reader’s thought process.
It could be characterizing Hillary Clinton’s accurate remarks about Donald Trump’s base as containing many racists as a “stumble,” when it was not. Unlike Mitt Romney’s crack about 47 percent of Americans, polling data has shown Clinton was correct.
Let’s look a couple of stories, one from the Washington Post by campaign finance reporter Matea Gold, and the other from the New York Times, by the double team of Amy Chozik and Jonathan Martin. Both deal with the same subject — how candidates raise money from those who have it. But the difference is startling.
In Gold’s story, we get the astounding news that people who are schmoozed by, and give money to, Donald Trump, say nice things about him. In the story headlined, “How Trump charms wealthy donors in private — by listening to their advice,” we learn Trump has spent the summer “forging bonds with wealthy GOP financiers.” They are impressed that “he leans in close, moves his chair over, focuses only on what they are saying — as well as his intense efforts to glean new information.” And then they write checks.
Mercy me. Stop the presses.
Now let’s turn to the Times, which focuses on Hillary’s fundraising in a story, “Clinton Uses Access to Woo the Ultrarich,” That was the print headline. The online version: “Where Has Hillary Clinton Been? Ask the Ultrarich.”
How does the Times describe essentially the same function as the Post story? With snark:
“Mr. Trump has pointed to Mrs. Clinton’s noticeably scant schedule of campaign events this summer to suggest she has been hiding from the public. But Mrs. Clinton has been more than accessible to those who reside in some of the country’s most moneyed enclaves and are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to see her. In the last two weeks of August, Mrs. Clinton raked in roughly $50 million at 22 fund-raising events, averaging around $150,000 an hour, according to a New York Times tally.
And while Mrs. Clinton has faced criticism for her failure to hold a news conference for months, she has fielded hundreds of questions from the ultrarich in places like the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard, Beverly Hills and Silicon Valley.”
I am not the first person to point out how Hillary is getting crappy coverage, and I won’t be the last. Luminaries like Paul Krugman have written about it, as have many distinguished commentators like Digby and Eric Boehlert. Media Matters has a good rundown of some obvious examples.
Inside the Bubble
The question is not that this disparity is happening. It’s why. The answers are inside the Bubble, and are the reasons why, despite all of the legitimate criticism, coverage of the Clintons will continue to be unfair and inaccurate. Those reasons have to do with history and culture of political journalism and Washington, D.C., both separately and in a toxic mix.
A reporter doesn’t get a reputation for writing stories explaining policy. They get a reputation for stories that hit the target and, if possible, taking down the target. There’s no bigger target than the Clintons. That people have been trying to hit it for 30 years doesn’t mean a thing. They and their editors want stories that tear down Hillary Clinton because they believe that’s their job. If they happen to twist stories into unrecognizable form and distort reality, well, that matches the mindset. Think of that every time you read a story.
Once upon a time, the ideal for a reporter was to be “objective.” At one point in my journalism education, people realized that goal was unattainable. It was replaced by being “fair.” The snark and distortions in today’s stories approach neither goal.
The national political press are a subset of the press culture. You take all of the characteristics of normal reporters and editors and load on top of that the creation of a self-serving interest group. They live in their own Bubble world.
The best book on the subject, “Boys on the Bus,” came out in 1973, about the 1972 presidential campaign. Nothing has topped it. The book, by Timothy Crouse, was the first to reveal the “pack journalism” mentality of a bunch of reporters traveling around the country together in their own little Bubble world in which email servers are more important than climate change. The Pack is The Bubble.
Some of it has changed, of course. Today it would be about the Boys and Girls on the Bus, and there might be fewer newspapers than back then.
One concept has stayed the same: the national press’s inflated sense of itself. This is why the panelists on CNN, including the Post’s Dan Balz and CNN’s John King, openly laugh when they see Sen. Tim Kaine say that Hillary meets with reporters all the time and answers their questions.
Kaine was right. Hillary does answer questions from local reporters, as President Obama did in his campaign. She has said she learns about local issues from local reporters. The national press sees this as dodging them. Perhaps, but it’s also worth noting that national reporters in their own world ignore the biggest issues and focus on either minutiae or the “horse race” of polls, leaving room for the post-mortem of why they missed the story in the first place.
Having ascended to the heights of their profession, they aren’t ceding ground backwards. It’s like that Saturday Night Live sketch, “You Think You’re Better Than Me?” The answer is clearly, yes.
The national press sees itself as a privileged special interest. If you don’t answer questions from us, you’re not answering questions. Not content with covering what’s going on, they see themselves as one of the vital cogs of the election process, not an observer and reporter of what’s going on.
Their “analysis” isn’t that much better than any informed observer. They might get spun more by all the campaign staff and others, but frankly their insights have never been particularly insightful. The existence of The Bubble is the reason that despite criticism from op-ed columnists, blogs and online publications, coverage hasn’t changed in the news section.
Let’s imagine that during the first presidential debate, Donald Trump says something like, “Hillary Clinton is the most corrupt politician ever to run for president.”
That would be the first sentence (or lede, in journalism parlance) of any story that could be written like this:
“Republican Presidential contender Donald Trump last night called his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, ‘the most corrupt politician ever to run for president.’
“Mrs. Clinton denied the charge, but was kept on the defensive throughout the rest of the debate.”
A Flaw In The Bubble
At the same time as they throw their weight around, however, the national press has a weakness. They are scared of being labeled as “liberal.” The result is that consciously or not, they bow to the right wing as the alternative to catching heat. The reaction comes from the same place as Hillary’s defensiveness — the emergence of GOP talk radio in the early 1990s. Rush Limbaugh brought the Republicans to the House majority for the first time in 40 years, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich enforced it, castigating reporters and journalistic organizations when they stepped out of line with the “liberal media” charge. Never mind the charge was never valid, the elite press has been shaking in its collective boots ever since.
As we saw lately, Hillary Clinton can’t even cough without the conspiracy theorists suggesting her health is at issue. We expect it from the nut cases. We don’t expect it from organizations which should know better, but alas, NBC and others covered it like a news story. Her discomfort at the 9/11 ceremony will no doubt produce another spate of conspiracy stories that “raise questions” about her health. Note the vague “raise questions.” Who raises them and why? We never know.
Other companies have learned to fear the right. When a single, anonymously sources story published in May suggested Facebook might favor Democrats, Republicans who generally like to protect the rights of companies, immediately took umbrage, with the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, John Thune (R-SD), saying there were “serious allegations” to be answered and accusing Facebook of censoring conservative news, backed up by the Daily Caller and Breitbart, among others. Facebook immediately caved, hosting a meeting of right-wing luminaries and promising to do better. Protests from Democrats who called Republicans hypocrites for favoring the free market, except when they perceive unfairness against them, went nowhere.
After the GOP offensive, Facebook fired the whole staff responsible for trending news and went all machine. The new regime promptly posted fake news and then included a 9/11 conspiracy story. That went well.
Finally, should Hillary make it to the White House, she will have to contend with another force working against her — The Village, a subset of the Bubble People.
The Village is defined as the permanent class of Washington inhabitants who think they run the place and brook no outsiders. There is a bit of a Venn diagram aspect to it, because of course many Villagers are in the journalistic and punditocracy classes, but also includes past and present Administration officials, socialites and other hangers-on.
Washington society didn’t like the Clinton’s from the beginning of Bill Clinton’s term. The classic quote came from the late David Broder, the “dean” of political journalists, who was quoted in a piece from society doyenne Sally Quinn: “He came in here and he trashed the place,” says Washington Post columnist David Broder, “and it’s not his place.” George Bush started wars and never “trashed the place.” Richard Nixon never “trashed the place.” It was Bill Clinton, even after he won re-election in 1996 and left with higher ratings than the Congress which impeached him.
Welcome back to Washington, Mrs. Clinton.