On blaming the media for “what happened”

Hillary Clinton’s attempt to explain “what happened” in the 2016 election has been greeted with derision from many on the right and on the left. However, the folks at FiveThirtyEight defend both the effort and the product. In doing so, they give voice to an emerging complaint that the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets helped elect Donald Trump.

I find it difficult to take this complaint seriously. However, I thought readers might be interested in what Nate Silver and company have to say about the campaign and the Clinton book. I’ll add my observations about their observations.

First, their discussion is often devoid of any data-based analysis. Much of it seems like seat-of-the-pants punditry of the kind FiveThirtyEight tends to disparage.

Second, though there is nothing wrong with Clinton writing a book about why she lost, it is an unusual reaction to defeat in a presidential election. One of the FiveThirtyEight panelists notes that “Al Gore made a freaking movie after he lost and no one was like, ‘Why is he making this movie?’”

But there’s an obvious distinction between producing a documentary about a momentous (as Gore sees it) policy issue and writing an election post mortem. Gore would say he made his movie to save the planet. What is Hillary trying to save?

I don’t recall any other unsuccessful presidential candidate writing a book devoted solely to discussing his or her defeat. Richard Nixon wrote a book called Six Crises, the last crisis being his very narrow loss to John Kennedy in a presidential election that might have been stolen.

When Nixon is the only person even arguably in your boat, your behavior is not normal. But if it helps Clinton cope with such a galling defeat, she was right to go for it.

Third, FiveThirtyEight backs Clinton’s claims that she lost the election in part because of “the unprecedented intervention in our election by the director of the FBI.” I agree that the Comey investigation and his public statements might well have made the difference in this election, given how close it was.

The problem with Clinton’s claim is the way she frames it. Comey’s “unprecedented intervention in our election” was the result of Clinton’s unprecedented (for a presidential candidate) commission of actions that amounted to a violation of the Espionage Act, construed literally. Comey declined to prosecute not because the elements of the crime were absent but because of his view of how decisions about whether to prosecute under the Espionage Act have been made in the past and, almost certainly, because of his great reluctance to prosecute the presidential candidate of a major political party.

The FiveThirtyEight folks ignore the question of how significant Clinton’s email misconduct was. They also reject the idea that Clinton has failed to take appropriate responsibility for her defeat. Yet, her characterization of Comey’s behavior amounts to a ducking of responsibility. Comey violated no precedent because there is no FBI precedent for dealing with a presidential candidate who has placed herself in legal jeopardy, much less legal jeopardy under the Espionage Age.

Fourth, FiveThirtyEight agrees that Clinton lost because, as she puts it, “a political press that told voters that my emails were the most important story.” Indeed, one of the panelists says that certain mainstream outlets should admit that they “f****d up” their coverage of the email story, just as FiveThirty admits when it makes a bad prediction. Yet there is no sensible analogy between erroneous political predictions and editorial judgments about what news stories to cover.

The “political press” never “told voters” that Clinton’s emails “were the most important story.” Nate Silver cites a study showing that her emails received more coverage than any othersingle topic. He also presents a word cloud showing that “email” was the thing voters read/heard most about Clinton from July 11 through Sept. 18 of last year.

These phenomena are not the result of a media “f*** up.” By its nature, the email story was bound to generate more ongoing coverage than any other single topic. First, Clinton failed to come clean about the matter. This meant that, as emails were discovered that refuted her initial story and subsequent fall back positions, the matter would receive significant coverage.

Second, there were just so many emails and they were revealed bit-by-bit. Each batch made for more stories.

Third, the FBI was conducting a criminal investigation (though Clinton denied this and the Democratic Attorney General tried to conceal the fact). How does the media not cover extensively the criminal investigation of a candidate for president, and matters relating thereto? Our mainstream media leans decidedly to the left, but it hasn’t reached full whitewash mode yet.

On a given day during the campaign, the Washington Post (to take the example of a paper I read every day in hard copy) might have had two negative stories about Donald Trump. In a given week, it might have had two stories about Clinton’s emails, one of which might be negative and the other defensive. But the negative stories about Trump covered a wide range of conduct and misconduct, real and imagined.

So yes, the Post ran more Clinton email stories than negative Trump stories about any given subject. But it didn’t tell readers that emails were the most important story about Clinton, and judging by the vote in the Post’s areas of primary readership, few readers concluded that it was.

Nor, to the extent that it covered each new development in the Clinton email saga, need the Post apologize. As noted, the volume of coverage was the logical outgrowth of scandal’s nature. Only those who agree with Clinton that there was no genuine scandal have any complaint. They should consult the Espionage Act and relevant government documents on the subject of proper document handling.

When one panelist suggests that the email scandal accelerated an image problem Clinton already had, Silver insists that “a lot of that image problem was a self-perpetuating media narrative.” At another point, though, he says she was “a below-average candidate,” but “not terrible.”

Clinton performed well below expectations against Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, and that was with an electorate far more prone than the general electorate to consider her gender a plus. Was she the victim of a “self-perpetuating media narrative” in 2008?

I think she was the victim at all times of an inability to connect with voters, i.e., people. They don’t like her and they don’t trust, and it’s not the media’s fault.

Trump was constantly trashed by the media, but he was able to connect with the voters he needed to connect with, and to figure out who those voters are and where they live.

My favorite moment in the FiveThirtyEight discussion is this statement by Perry Bacon:

I see [the Clinton campaign’s] mistake in being too focused on certain kinds of voters (non-white, college-educated, suburban). That is what I came away thinking might be the case after reading the Jonathan Allen-Amie Parnes book.

But her staff, when I talked to them, and maybe this is self-serving, said that Clinton visits to some areas in rural Pennsylvania turned off voters. Her campaigning more there would not have helped and may have hurt.

That’s not the sign of a “below average” candidate; it’s the sign of a “terrible” one.


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