In the middle of the Justice Department’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified information during the 2016 campaign, Phoenix ABC morning anchor Christopher Sign broke the bombshell news that Attorney General Loretta Lynch held a clandestine meeting with former President Bill Clinton.
Obviously a secret conversation between Clinton’s husband and the attorney general overseeing her investigation raised alarms among many Americans. But as was so frequently the case from the years 2008-2016, major media reporters were less than enthusiastic in the face of a potential major Obama administration scandal.
Newly released emails showed Washington Post reporter Matt Zapotosky doggedly pursued the story by asking, “Any chance one of you could give me a call for another, hopefully quick, conversation on this AG-Clinton meeting? My editors are still pretty interested in it, and I’m hoping I can put it to rest by answering just a few more questions about how the meeting came about—who approached who, and how did they realize they were in the same place?”
New York Times reporter Mark Landler was equally tenacious. “I’m a White House correspondent at the NYT, and I’ve been pressed into service to write about the questions being raised by the Attorney General’s meeting with Bill Clinton,” he wrote. The emails from reporters led Sean Davis to tweet:
I retweeted it with the tagline of the Washington Post, “Democracy dies in darkness.”
The paper’s fact checker Glenn Kessler responded by pointing to an obligatory article the Post ran about the meeting in Phoenix. The article’s anodyne headline might as well have included a lengthy yawn and a sign that read “MOVE ALONG, NOTHING TO SEE HERE”: “Attorney general meets with former president Clinton amid politically charged investigation into his wife’s email.”
Zapotosky gave us seven paragraphs of innocuous descriptions of the interaction before writing, “Despite the innocuous descriptions of the interaction, the encounter generated instant buzz in political circles. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said on the ‘Mike Gallagher Show’ that the meeting was ‘really a sneak,’ ‘so terrible’ and ‘so horrible.’ He also said it was ‘one of the big stories of this week, of this month, of this year.'”
There were a few more paragraphs with people tamping down the story or throwing water on it and that was it. It was what you’d expect from a reporter who explicitly stated at the outset that he was hoping he could put the story to rest.
A contemporary analysis of news reports shows just how reluctant the media were to jump on the scandalous story, even after Lynch publicly confirmed days earlier she had taken a private meeting with the husband of the high-profile woman being investigated.
Erik Wemple, a media writer at the Washington Post, weighed in on the story this week to defend his newspaper and the media’s general coverage of this story. He cited a Washington Examiner story that “secured a great deal of pass-around in conservative media circles,” Davis’ tweet, and President Trump’s tweet about the issue. His response is in the sassy headline, “Trump says Post, NYT ‘reluctant’ to publish Lynch-Clinton articles. Which they published on their front pages.”
Wemple looks at some of his paper’s early coverage of the scandal and sarcastically concludes, “Examining the actual coverage of two newspapers, of course, is nowhere near as conclusive as fixating on random and easily misinterpreted remarks in quickie emails from reporters to government flacks.”
But his examination of the actual coverage leaves a bit to be desired. Wemple interprets Zapotosky’s desire to “put to rest” the story as, “Zapotosky was trying to put the finishing touches on his story.” He adds, “The email states in plain language that editors at The Post were ‘still pretty interested in it.'”
Okay, fine. Let’s look at this days-late, explosive front-pager that blew the doors off the scandal. One would think an actual meeting between Lynch and Clinton would be front-page material for many days, but I think Wemple is saying the coverage it needed was satisfied with a single front-page story. Let’s see this story!
Oh dear, well this is unfortunate. The front-page, hard-hitting story in question appears to be the one headlined, “Attorney general pledges to accept FBI and Justice findings in Clinton email probe.”
Yes, I’m 100 percent serious. The story referenced in Wemple’s headline as being the front-page coverage of this scandal is one that you would probably not bother reading because the headline is so boring and apparently not tied to clandestine meetings with the former president and husband of the person being investigated. The part about the private meeting at the Phoenix airport is included in the fifth paragraph and accepts without evidence the claim that the meeting was impromptu:
Lynch made the comments during an interview with Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado. She said that in the wake of a controversial, impromptu meeting she had with former president Bill Clinton aboard her private plane at a Phoenix airport, she felt it was ‘important that people see what that process is like’ with regard to the investigation involving his wife.
The story then quotes anonymous sources upset that Lynch is setting a bad precedent by saying she would accept prosecutors’ recommendations. The ninth paragraph describes the meeting as “social” and focused on grandchildren. The tenth paragraph introduces the “Republicans pounce” trope — the media’s favorite way of dismissing real problems as solely the figment of Republican imaginations:
Republicans have said the meeting creates the appearance of a possible conflict of interest and undermines the overall integrity of the probe, even if Lynch’s description of the session is truthful. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) called for her to appoint a special counsel to oversee the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email setup.
Then the story quotes Donald Trump criticizing the meeting and making fun of media coverage of it.
So, uh, yeah! Well, the Post did “cover” the story on the front page if enough paragraphs were included on the front page under that boring headline. Also, it seems worth noting that the same day the Washington Post ran an in-house editorial headlined, “It’s time to wind down the Clinton email investigation.”
So the Post actually covered it quite a bit. But more in the covered with a pillow way described by David Burge:
If you’re just amazingly observant, you might detect a slight difference between the Post’s coverage with the Lynch/Clinton story and the media’s breathless coverage and hyping of every innocuous meeting or conversation held by anyone even remotely connected to the Trump administration. I mean, you have to be really observant, because the difference in the Post’s coverage of the Obama administration and the Trump administration is just so terribly subtle, but I think you might be able to detect it.
Putting snark aside for a minute, the media’s problem is that everyone outside of the resistance — whether that’s the actual activists, the NeverTrump Republicans, or the media themselves — can see the unfairness in the media coverage of President Trump relative to the media coverage of President Obama and other Democrats. There is the flood-the-zone, histrionic-headline, up-the-ante, worst-construction approach versus the put-to-rest, boring-headline, wait-days-before-being-forced-to-cover, best-construction approach. People aren’t stupid. They can very clearly see the game that’s being played here.
It might be a better approach for media writers to acknowledge that discrepancy and disparity and how it harms media credibility. After all, not every story about the Obama administration and media sycophancy toward same needs to be “put to rest.” The media have an obvious tendency to put stories to rest — or unduly hype them — depending on the party identification of the subject in question. And that’s a dereliction of duty for a great country’s free press.