On Thursday, the Washington Post ran an editorial calling for a cease-fire in the media’s endless barrage of breathless coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails. The final straw, it seems, was Matt Lauer’s singular fixation on Hillary’s inbox during NBC News’ Commander in Chief forum earlier this week.
“Ms. Clinton’s emails have endured much more scrutiny than an ordinary person’s would have, and the criminal case against her was so thin that charging her would have been to treat her very differently,” writes the Post editorial board, beseeching the media to put this election into context. “Imagine how history would judge today’s Americans if, looking back at this election, the record showed that voters empowered a dangerous man because of . . . a minor email scandal.”
It’s a fair point, albeit one that has been made over and over and over again for months. But if the Post is looking for the media’s worst offenders, they would do well to start inside their own walls.
Take the team at The Fix, the Post’s rapid-fire politics blog. Chris Cillizza and his team have for months been poking and prodding at the email story, seizing on the tiniest of revelations and plugging it into their proprietary formula that converts scandals into electoral math in order to explain what it all means for the November election.
Except, as often as not, Cillizza gets the story wrong. Here he is last month writing about Colin Powell, who was dragged into the middle of this saga when it was revealed he engaged in similar email practices as Secretary of State:
Colin L. Powell wasn’t too happy that Hillary Clinton laid her decision to use a private email address at his feet during her interview with the FBI. And he made that annoyance plain over the weekend in the Hamptons.
Powell is not an enemy Clinton needs or wants — but she may have turned the former secretary of state into one with her seeming attempt to use him as a shield against any wrongdoing in the eyes of the FBI.
And here’s Cillizza just this week, after new emails between Clinton and Powell were released that showed Powell offering advice on how to obfuscate correspondence using some nifty technological workarounds:
What Powell was doing was simply telling Clinton about a workaround he found to avoid the cumbersome State Department bureaucracy and outdated technology. Seen that way, all Powell is doing in his email is explaining to Clinton the way in which he figured out how to do the best job he could given the impediments he faced.
That’s the exact point Powell made in a statement sent to The Fix. “Secretary Clinton has stated that she was not influenced by my email in making her decisions on email use,” he wrote. “I was not trying to influence her but just to explain what I had done eight years earlier to begin the transformation of the State Department’s information system.”
One day Clinton is using a Colin Powell-shaped shield to deflect criticism, the next Powell himself acknowledges that Clinton said no such thing. Cillizza has been downplaying the Powell connection for weeks, often defending his actions as entirely unrelated in the process, until finally, he couldn’t anymore.
The nature of journalism is that stories change. New information comes to light that causes reporters to course correct while covering a beat. But merely adjusting for future coverage—and neglecting to thoughtfully rexamine all those stories left in the wake—does very little good to readers.
Several weeks ago, the Associated Press published a story about the Clinton Foundation, and how several donors were also able to schedule meetings with Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. The AP shared the story with a highly dubious teaser, wildly inflating the facts and settling on a deeply misleading tweet.
The AP went as far as admitting their tweet was “sloppy,” but still refused to delete it. Until:
By the time it was scrubbed from the internet, thousands of readers had retweeted or otherwise shared it with friends. The false implication—that half of Sec. Clinton’s private meetings were with Clinton Foundation donors—metastasized long before the AP’s social team finally hit delete. The damage was done. Deleting the tweet wasn’t for the benefit of readers, it was for the benefit of the AP, who would rather not be associated with something so demonstrably false.
Still, a correction is a correction, and that is more than was has been offered by Cillizza or the Washington Post. They continue to produce dozens of stories a day about the campaign and about Hillary Clinton, but even after their previous work has been refuted or contextualized, it lingers unedited. Did they intentionally mislead readers? Of course not. But as Cillizza likes to write so often of Clinton, failure to acknowledge past mistakes may cause the Post to find itself in a place on the honest/trustworthy question from which it may not be able to recover.
There’s a well-worn saying that goes: “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”
It was true when it was penned by Jonathan Swift in 1710, and even more so in 2016 to describe the tendency for unsourced, exaggerated or outright fabricated stories to be shared millions of times before anyone takes a step back to think critically about it.
Newsrooms and their inhabitants are supposed to be our firewall, though. Journalists are supposed to be the adjudicators — slowing, not accelerating, the pace of falsehoods.