The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Assessing a Clinton argument that the media helped to elect Trump

Hillary Clinton's new book, 'What Happened,' published Sept. 12 and aims to "pull back the curtain" on her losing presidential bid. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

A presidential election settled by 0.057 percent of the national vote in three states — as the 2016 election was — will necessarily lend itself to quite a bit of finger-pointing. Swinging 77,744 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin means changing the minds of 38,872 people, 0.01 percent of the American population. If Hillary Clinton’s campaign had changed those 40,000-odd minds, she’d be president today. But she didn’t.

Many of her supporters identify one culprit more than others in that outcome: the media. Clinton herself points a finger in that direction in her new book, “What Happened,” according to an excerpt published at the Hill.

“Many in the political media don’t want to hear about how these things happened and how these things tipped the election in the final days,” Clinton writes. “They say their beef is that I’m not taking responsibility for my mistakes — but I have and I do again throughout this book. Their real problem is they can’t bear to face their own role in helping elect Trump, from providing him free airtime to giving my emails three times more coverage than all the issues affecting people’s lives combined.”

The first point there is fair. By the end of the campaign, Donald Trump had been the beneficiary of the equivalent of some $5 billion in free advertising, according to the media tracking firm mediaQuant. Some of that was a function of the live coverage of Trump’s rallies, which often ran without interruption on cable news, particularly in the early days of the campaign.

But much of that free coverage was also a function of online coverage, often driven by his tweets. In May 2016, as the Street notes, Trump generated nearly $200 million in free media attention — largely thanks to his weird tweet about taco bowls.

It’s also worth noting that Clinton, too, was the beneficiary of free coverage. MediaQuant estimates that she was the beneficiary of $3.24 billion in free media coverage — or, as it’s known in political campaigns, earned media. Politicians work to get this free coverage. It’s part of the process. And Trump earned more than Clinton.

Clinton’s other claim in that excerpt is a little murkier. The media, she claims, “[gave] my emails three times more coverage than all the issues affecting people’s lives combined.” This is the “but her emails!” lamentation, that Clinton’s email server got more attention than was deserved.

The argument that her emails earned outsize attention was bolstered with a new report issued last month by the Berkman Klein Center looking at the issues that were covered during the 2016 election.

The key graph is this one:

Nearly 70,000 sentences were written about Clinton’s emails. In contrast, fewer than 50,000 sentences were written about Trump’s various scandals. About twice as much attention was paid to Clinton’s emails in total than to Trump’s scandals.

It’s worth noting, though, that the study’s categorization of “emails” includes Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state and the emails stolen from the Democratic Party and her campaign chairman that were released by WikiLeaks. Those three things tend to be conflated in the public imagination, but they’re distinct. (There’s no evidence that Clinton’s server was hacked, and the leaked emails didn’t come from it.)

Clinton’s “three times as much” claim appears to stem from a report from analyst Andrew Tyndall, picked up by the Clinton-friendly Media Matters. In total, it estimated, Clinton’s emails earned three times as much nightly news coverage as policy issues from the beginning of 2016 to mid-October.

That’s one data point, from one type of coverage. Our colleagues at Monkey Cage analyzed mentions of Clinton and emails on the cable news networks and found something that adds a bit more context. A disproportionate share of the discussion about Clinton’s emails on cable news was on Fox News and Fox Business.

For what it’s worth, a Suffolk University poll in October found that Fox News was watched much more by Republicans and Trump voters than independents or undecided voters.

None of this is really the media attention with which Clinton is taking issue. She’s mostly taking issue with FBI Director James B. Comey’s announcement about the investigation into her email server in July of last year — and his last-minute machinations about reviewing new evidence related to it. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver figures that Comey cost Clinton the election — in part because of the nature of her loss.

That loss was attributable to hundreds of disparate things, including Comey. Her campaign’s decisions about where and how to target voters. A drop in turnout from black voters in the Midwest. People flipping from Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. Media coverage of her email server and of the leaked emails.

If you’re looking for one cause, there isn’t one. If you’re looking to point fingers, though, you’re quickly going to run out of hands.