Friday, April 24, 2015

Dickens Laments Declining Clinton Email Coverage, Declines To Share Reasons For It

MRC Watch Dept. - Geoffrey Dickens on Tuesday complained that major network news coverage of the Hillary Clinton email matter has been declining. The MRC tabulated the numbers for 7 weeks of coverage since the story broke in the New York Times. The initial reaction of the networks was a feeding frenzy:
“When news first broke that Clinton improperly used her own private e-mail account, the Big Three networks actually jumped to cover the story, filling their evening and morning shows with a total of 124 minutes and 55 seconds of airtime (NBC: 53 minutes, 51 seconds; CBS: 36 minutes, 39 seconds; ABC: 34 minutes, 25 seconds) within the first two weeks (March 3-16) of coverage that encompassed Hillary Clinton’s March 10 press conference.”
But coverage by week 3 had declined precipitously. A brief uptick in week 4 was followed by another decline and “the networks have essentially discarded the story, reducing their coverage to just a total of 2 minutes and 11 seconds (CBS: 14 seconds, ABC: 42 seconds, NBC: 1 minute, 15 seconds) by the seventh week.” Dickens complains that
“The waning interest in this latest Clinton controversy actually follows a familiar pattern of the networks initially covering Obama era scandals (IRS, Benghazi, VA) only to drop them like a hot potato and sadly seems to validate the Clinton strategy of stonewalling until they and their allies in the media can claim a controversy is old news and move on without ever really getting to the bottom of the story.”
Dickens doesn't even try to substantiate the charge of a “Clinton strategy of stonewalling,” something not really in evidence in this matter, and his account of the course of the story over these weeks is, at best, grossly misleading.

The controversy began on 2 March with a sloppy article in the New York Times that sought to scandalize Clinton’s use of a private email server for official business during her years as Secretary of State and alleged Clinton “may have violated federal requirements that officials’ correspondence be retained as part of the agency’s record.” It’s all a lot of “may haves” because the author, Michael Schmidt, apparently didn't bother to learn anything concrete about the rules in place during Clinton’s tenure regarding such records or the procedure by which such records are preserved or if there even was an established procedure and if Clinton followed it. In the wake of the Times story, the press pounced, and the intense and extensive interest documented by the MRC ensued.

And the story began to fall apart almost immediately.

Clinton loyalists noted that, while the fact that Clinton had used a private email server was breathlessly treated as a scandalous revelation, it has actually been a matter of public record for 2 years. As the Times had noted, Clinton returned 55,000 pages of emails in response to a request by State last year, asserting she’d only withheld some that were of a personal rather than official nature. Old news. In spite of the Times’ insinuation that emails were supposed to be filed on official servers in real time, that was actually a feature of a law signed by Obama two years after Clinton had retired as Secretary of State. Experts including Jason Baron, who, in the Times piece, had raised serious concerns about Clinton’s practices, conceded there was nothing illegal about these practices. Clinton returning her emails after she retired apparently satisfied the regulations existing during her tenure.

That disposed of the most explosive of the Times’ allegations, using one of its own sources, no less.[1] Though this took a lot of the steam out of the story, Dickens doesn't even mention it in his detailed bemoaning of the decline in coverage.

While Dickens asserts that “unanswered questions still persist,” there’s really only one unanswered question related to Clinton herself: What was withheld? To that, we have Clinton’s insistence that she only withheld personal material and anything beyond that is probably unknowable. Lost to history. As a Clinton story, it quickly became a dead end. Clinton’s behavior reflects badly on her and has significant implications for her fitness to hold the executive office she now seeks but though Dickens complains about the story coming to be seen as a partisan fight, those are partisan political arguments and not subject to infinite clamor on the evening news without any new developments to cover.

Dickens mentions one such development, which didn't lead to a resurgence in coverage:
“Even a new angle on the e-mail scandal–the New York Times reported April 14 that Clinton never responded to a congressional inquiry [in December of 2012] that ‘directly asked’ if she had used a private e-mail account–failed to re-ignite the interest networks initially showed when the scandal first broke in March.”
But the Times story in question was just another sloppy job by Michael Schmidt. Its lede:
“Hillary Rodham Clinton was directly asked by congressional investigators in a December 2012 letter whether she had used a private email account while serving as secretary of state, according to letters obtained by The New York Times.
“But Mrs. Clinton did not reply to the letter. And when the State Department answered in March 2013, nearly two months after she left office, it ignored the question and provided no response.”
Schmidt obscures the fact that the congressional inquiry, which came from Darrel Issa (the clownish chairman of the House Oversight Committee), was a general letter sent, in identical form, to many cabinet officials at the same time, not just to Clinton. “Mr. Issa had sent letters to the State Department and other executive agencies,” he writes, his sole reference offered as a virtual afterthought in the closing paragraphs of his article (it was left to the Hill the next day to reproduce the letter and reveal it had been sent to 18 different officials). The letters went out only days before the Christmas break and only a few weeks before Clinton’s tenure at State came to an end. While Schmidt notes the State Department’s reply came in March 2013, he declines to share with his readers the fact that this was the same month Clinton’s private email server was first revealed to the public.[2] Schmidt does quote a Clinton aide as saying Clinton’s
“usage [of the private server] was widely known to the over 100 department and U.S. government colleagues she emailed, as her address was visible on every email she sent.”
…but he immediately drops the subject, declining to address its implications. It’s the torpedo that takes out his entire story, as among those who would have known of Clinton’s use of the private server–before it went public–were the members of the House Oversight Committee. Dickens, whose account of this is quoted in full above, is even less forthcoming than Schmidt.

There is a scandal in all of this, of course. One of the highest officials in the U.S. government was able to use a private email server over which she had complete control to conduct all of her official business. Then she was allowed to pick and choose which emails to return to the government for inclusion in the official record. The scandal is that, one of the central lessons of Watergate still unlearned, all of this was legal. The preservation of public records isn't a very sexy issue but it’s an important one to which lefty writers (including this one) and liberal interest groups have tried for years to draw attention. That article in the Hill referenced above appeared the day after the Times piece and hit this nail on the head:
“‘What she [Clinton] did was not technically illegal,’ said Patrice McDermott, a former National Archives staffer and the head of the Open The Government coalition, a transparency group.
“However, ‘it was highly inappropriate and it was inappropriate for the State Department to let this happen,’ she said…“John Wonderlich, the policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, agreed that the practice ‘seems like it’s not unlawful, which suggests to me that we’re in pretty serious need of a legal reform.’”
And reform, in fact, followed. Inadequate reform that should be followed up. That’s the matter that could have carried this story forward: it could be a spur for reform. But in spite of the MRC’s “liberal media” talk, the corporate press simply doesn't care about the concerns of public-interest-minded liberal groups who agitate on this issue and certainly isn't going to carry out a crusade on their behalf. While Clinton earns and has taken lumps for her activities being quite ill-considered and inappropriate–an outrage, really–and those who are predisposed to regard her every move as sinister see dark conspiracies in them, the policy that allows them is the real scandal, not Hillary Clinton.

Screamingly relevant to the larger project of Dickens and the MRC–portraying the media as hopelessly liberal–is that during the same timeframe as the Clinton email controversy, several “dark money” stories and scandals involving the top Republican presidential nominees have appeared in the press and just as promptly disappeared, having never been picked up by anyone. Media Matters has publicized the stories and has noted the lack of coverage given them. While, by Dickens’ own figures, the Clinton email matter has received 147 minutes of coverage on the major network newscasts, none of these stories have even been mentioned on any of those same newscasts. Not once. As MM documents, they've been almost as entirely ignored by the print media.

Don’t expect a Dickens “study” on that.


[1] Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times’ public editor, replied to criticism the article had received. She conceded the story “was not without fault,” but largely defended the story, limiting her own criticism to the fact that it was unclear on what regulation Clinton was supposed to have violated.

[2] The Clinton loyalists at press watchdog Media Matters provided further context the day after the Times story when they did some original reporting of their own and discovered that State’s reply to Issa, treated by Schmidt as a non-response, wasn't unusual.

[Note: This article was written for MRC Watch, a blog dedicated to a critique of the Media Research Center]

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