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Opinion The circular logic behind media coverage of the Clinton email story

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton took some questions from the press about her emails, a story that jumps back on to the front pages whenever there’s some new development, whether it’s truly meaningful or not. And without much indication of serious malfeasance on Clinton’s part, we’re reaching the point where a circular logic is taking over: the story is a story because it’s a story, and therefore we need to keep talking about it because it’s a story.

A reporter asked Clinton at that press conference: “Is this an indication that this issue isn’t going to go away for the remainder of your campaign?” It was an all too familiar meta-inquiry, not about the substance of the issue (though there were questions about that too) but about the questions the reporters themselves are asking, and whether the candidate thinks reporters are going to keep asking them. Unfortunately, candidates get questions like that all the time. How will this controversy affect your campaign? Why aren’t these questions going away? Doesn’t this issue suggest that this is an issue? It’s as if the reporter decides that asking about the substance isn’t getting anywhere, so they might as well treat the candidate like a panelist on The McLaughlin Group. And the candidate never says anything remotely interesting or informative in response.

Now before the chants of “Clinton apologist!” begin, let me say that like many liberals, I have complicated feelings about Clinton, some positive and some not so positive. I’ve written many critical pieces about her in the past; I’ve even criticized her for setting up a private email server.

But we have to be clear about just what it is we’re looking for in this story.

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Republicans are no doubt hoping that lurking somewhere in Clinton’s emails is evidence of a terrible crime she committed whose revelation will destroy her career forever and deliver the White House to the GOP for a generation. But just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that no such horror will be revealed. What do we have then? Well, we have the plainly foolish decision to use a private server for work email, which we’ve known about for months. Maybe you think that a person who would do such a thing is unfit for the presidency, or maybe you don’t (though that would disqualify Jeb Bush).

Then there’s the possibility that she discussed sensitive or classified material in emails. She says she didn’t, but as yet we don’t know for certain. You might or might not consider that disqualifying as well. But the government classifies an absurd amount of material, even things that are publicly available; what would really matter is the details, like whether somebody else said something about a classified matter in an email to her (which wouldn’t be her fault), and more importantly, what specifically the material was. And while some argue that private email servers are more vulnerable to hackers and therefore it’s particularly bad if she ever discussed classified information there, government systems get hacked all the time. That isn’t to excuse the original decision to set up the private account, it’s just to say that if there’s going to be a new accusation, like “She received classified information!”, then we should get as specific as we can about it so we can judge how serious it is.

Or maybe you want to argue that this issue is important because it shows that Clinton has a “penchant for secrecy.” Which she obviously does, but you have to go further and say exactly what that means and how it might affect her presidency. It isn’t enough to say, “Cuz, um, Nixon!” The problem with Richard Nixon wasn’t that he was secretive. All presidents are secretive to one degree or another. The problem with Nixon was that he and his aides committed dozens of crimes, for which many of them went to prison.  Out of Watergate we got the oft-repeated cliche, “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up,” but that’s completely misunderstood. It’s the cover-up that gets you caught; the crime is what matters (and in Nixon’s case, the cover-up involved committing more crimes).

We’re still waiting for somebody to explain the crime Hillary Clinton committed. And to repeat, maybe there is one; who knows. Reporters who find this story interesting should keep digging into the substance, and eventually they and the investigators looking into it will be able to tell us definitively whether there’s anything there.

But the campaign reporters trailing Clinton around aren’t adding much of anything to the story, they’re just asking whether they’ll be asking more questions about it. That’s partly the nature of campaign reporting, and partly because with a Democratic race that’s far less compelling than what’s going on over on the Republican side, they’re starved for things to talk about (and they’d be much more interested if Bernie Sanders and Clinton were attacking each other, which they aren’t). It’s also because of what are often referred to as the “Clinton Rules,” which state that when it comes to Bill and Hillary Clinton, you can whip up a faux scandal out of nothing, then keep talking about it because it’s “out there,” regardless of whether anything problematic has actually been discovered.

The email story may not be the most ridiculous fake scandal in the history of the Clintons, because there’s a lot of competition for that title. As has often been the case, it was a poor decision Hillary Clinton made that got the scandal ball rolling. But there are only so many times you can ask “What is she hiding???” before you have to come up with something that she might actually be hiding.