The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Hillary Clinton emails story comes to an end

Hillary Clinton in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Oct. 10. (Jacob Hamilton/AP)

You probably missed it, but over the weekend, the most important story of 2016 came to a close. The story so earth-shattering, so profoundly important to the lives of every American, so monumentally vital to our democracy that it got more attention than any other during that most consequential of presidential campaigns.

I speak, of course, of the question of whether Hillary Clinton used the wrong email account. And guess what:

A multiyear State Department probe of emails that were sent to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s private computer server concluded there was no systemic or deliberate mishandling of classified information by department employees, according to a report submitted to Congress this month.

You don’t say.

With the possible exception of the credulousness granted to the George W. Bush administration’s propaganda push in advance of the Iraq War, the insane amount of coverage given to Clinton’s emails was the worst media screw-up of my lifetime. And apart from an exception here or there, you’ll find almost no journalists — and certainly no news organizations — willing to acknowledge how badly they blew this most minor of misdemeanors out of proportion. The consequence is that Donald Trump is now the most powerful person on Earth.

So what can we learn from that sorry episode? From one perspective, it was merely the culmination of a horrifically dysfunctional relationship between the Clintons and the media, in which legions of journalists decided that former president Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton were corrupt, and then followed that decision with another: Any particular story implying corruption or some other misdeed, no matter how thinly supported or implausible, had to be splashed across every front page and given hour upon hour of cable news coverage. Because after all, they’d say, “The story is out there” and “Questions are being raised,” all of which “plays into a narrative.”

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But it’s about more than Hillary Clinton, and this is where we have to prepare for the future. The email story shows how double standards can develop and then produce shockingly unfair coverage in ways that absolutely affect the outcome of the race. So while hundreds of stories were being written about Clinton’s emails, the trail of potentially scandalous behavior by Trump was treated as barely worthy of attention. You’d see a story or two about his shady casino bankruptcies, or his stiffing small businesses out of money he owed them, or about how his modeling agency exploited young foreign women in conditions one described as “modern-day slavery,” and then the story would disappear, washed under a tide of “Look at these crazy rallies Trump is holding” reports.

At the same time, the media were drawing false equivalencies between Clinton and Trump, and treating her transgressions as far worse than his, despite the fact that the opposite was obviously true.

It is important to understand it, because “I know you are but what am I” is Trump’s favorite argument, and one he will absolutely use in 2020. He always accuses other people of the sins (or crimes) of which he is guilty.

We’re seeing it already: The most corrupt president in history, who, among other things, gave his daughter and son-in-law key jobs in the White House, is charging that former vice president Joe Biden, a Democratic candidate for president, helped his son make money in Ukraine. Most gobsmacking of all, the Republican defense of his strong-arming the Ukrainian president into digging up dirt on the Bidens is that Trump — Trump! — did it just because he was so passionate about fighting corruption.

I’m sure there will come a moment when the president, whose total of lies and misleading claims since taking office has rocketed past 13,000 with no sign of slowing, will charge his Democratic opponent with dishonesty. The news will then be filled with stories reading, “President Trump said today that his opponent is a liar because she told someone she had an Egg McMuffin for breakfast when in fact it may have been a Sausage 'N Egg McMuffin. Our investigation raises new questions for the Democrat about her candor.”

One way or another, in an effort to show how even-handed and unbiased they are, in 2020 journalists will hammer on the Democrat for a scandal real or imagined, giving Trump’s ludicrous attacks the amplification he seeks. There will be some new version of “But her emails!”

Unless we just decide not to.

Read more:

Erik Wemple: CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin — again — expresses regret for his Clinton email coverage

Robert J. Samuelson: Why we should impeach and remove President Trump

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Trump’s Fifth Avenue theory is showing some cracks

Randall D. Eliason: A G-7 summit at Doral might not have been a crime, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be corrupt