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Opinion CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin — again — expresses regret for his Clinton email coverage

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton speaks during the Trailblazing Women of Park Ridge event in Park Ridge, Ill., on Oct. 11. (Joe Lewnard/Daily Herald via AP)

In an event following the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri called her boss’s handling of emails “the most grossly overrated, over-covered and most destructive story in all of presidential politics.” A study by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the final months of the campaign concluded, "[F]alse equivalencies are developing on a grand scale as a result of relentlessly negative news. If everything and everyone is portrayed negatively, there’s a leveling effect that opens the door to charlatans.”

About three years later, the State Department has completed an inquiry answering a critical question about those Clinton emails: “There was no persuasive evidence of systemic, deliberate mishandling of classified information," noted the report.

News of the inquiry’s conclusions came in a Friday afternoon news dump, though CNN’s “New Day” program still remembered on Monday morning. Co-host Alisyn Camerota summed up the State Department inquiry’s findings, and correspondent Abby Phillip noted that partisans on both sides disagree on the appropriate interpretation.

At which point, CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin added his self-critical perspective. “This is also a story about the news media, about how much time we spent on that," said Toobin. "And that’s something that I have felt a great deal of personal responsibility for because I talked about the emails here at CNN, I wrote about it in the New Yorker and I think I paid too much attention to them and I regret that, and I hope a lesson is learned. I mean, this story turns out to be ... a big nothing. And we spent months on it. Hillary Clinton very likely lost the election because of it, and I think I should have been talking about other issues, not about the emails.”

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In January 2018, Toobin made similar remarks in a podcast with comedian Larry Wilmore. “I think there was a lot of false equivalence in the 2016 campaign," said Toobin back then. "That every time we said something, pointed out something about Donald Trump — whether it was his business interests, or grab ’em by the p---y, we felt like, ‘Oh, we gotta, like, talk about — we gotta say something bad about Hillary.’ And I think it led to a sense of false equivalence that was misleading, and I regret my role in doing that.”

For both of his meae culpae, Toobin has received applause from media-watchers. After all, not all pundits, editors and correspondents offer honest reflection of this sort.

The stickier part of this story is applying what Toobin calls the “lesson learned.” Sure, the email controversy was overblown: It’s fitting that we get a reminder of its puniness just as the plenary corruption of her opponent, Trump, is coming into sharp focus via the House impeachment inquiry. At the same time, it was a sprawling mess of a story, with more than a dozen State Department email dumps, an FBI investigation that ended with a historic announcement by then-FBI Director James Comey, a controversial reopening of the investigation days before the election and some ham-handed political maneuvering by Clinton herself. “Nobody knows for sure whether a story was ‘overcovered’ or ‘undercovered’ until the news spigot runs dry. (The same holds for our current saturation coverage of the Trump Tower scandal.),” wrote Politico’s Jack Shafer in 2017 about the newsworthiness of the emails.

But Toobin’s self-reflection appears well-placed when considering this finding from the Harvard study:

Clinton’s controversies got more attention than Trump’s (19 percent versus 15 percent) and were more focused. Trump wallowed in a cascade of separate controversies. Clinton’s badgering had a laser-like focus. She was alleged to be scandal-prone. Clinton’s alleged scandals accounted for 16 percent of her coverage—four times the amount of press attention paid to Trump’s treatment of women and sixteen times the amount of news coverage given to Clinton’s most heavily covered policy position.

Right there, academic support for flooding the zone with scandals, lies and whatever aberrant behavior Trump might wish to foist on Americans.

Read more:

Erik Wemple: CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin: ‘I regret my role’ in Hillary Clinton false equivalence

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