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R.I.P. Political Journalism (1440-2016)

THE CLINTON RULES In July of 2015, reporter Jonathan Allen famously defined the Clinton Rules: “The Clinton rules are driven by reporters’ and editors’ desire to score the ultimate prize in contemporary journalism: the scoop that brings down Hillary Clinton and her family’s political empire.” Independent studies have reinforced Allen’s observation, concluding Clinton has received the most negative coverage […]

By Peter Daou - September 10, 2016
hillary strong light

In July of 2015, reporter Jonathan Allen famously defined the Clinton Rules:

“The Clinton rules are driven by reporters’ and editors’ desire to score the ultimate prize in contemporary journalism: the scoop that brings down Hillary Clinton and her family’s political empire.”

Independent studies have reinforced Allen’s observation, concluding Clinton has received the most negative coverage of any candidate in the 2016 election.

On May 18, the Washington Post quoted Paul Senatori, chief analytics officer of research firm mediaQuant:

“It’s amazing that Hillary Clinton has gotten more negative sentiment than Trump has gotten.”

This chart is from a Harvard analysis of 2016 reporting:

Harvard study on media

A candidate who wallows in bigotry, who incites violence, who verbally abuses his critics, who is a self-avowed threat to the free press, who trashes U.S. generals while praising Vladimir Putin, who demeans Gold Star families, gets less negative coverage than his opponent, a lifelong public servant who is one of the most accomplished and admired women on the planet.

It is an unfathomable reality.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that 1440 — the year Gutenberg introduced his printing press — is the dawn of modern journalism. 576 years later, abysmal and unjust coverage of the first woman in a quarter millennium with a viable shot at the American presidency threatens to demolish the credibility and legitimacy of mainstream political journalism.

Perhaps “R.I.P. political journalism” is a premature title. There are certainly great reporters doing exceptional work at major publications. And independent journalists have carved out an important role in local and national reporting. Maybe things will turn around in the remaining weeks of the campaign. But there’s no doubt that the 2016 election cycle is a grim inflection point for the corporate media.

Clinton coverage that was already awful has taken a decidedly worse turn in recent weeks.

Michael Cohen (Boston Globe):

Why is the evidence of Clinton and her aides abiding by the rules, avoiding conflicts of interest, and not blurring lines between professional and philanthropic obligations being so frequently ignored? Perhaps reporters have already made up their minds about the foundation before actually digging into the evidence. Or maybe media outlets are simply passing along the partisan spin of hard right groups like Citizens United and Judicial Watch, which are dribbling out these stories, without looking more deeply into the evidence.

Josh Marshall (TPM):

Trump used money to buy protection from the consequences of his bad acts from friendly politicians. He then tried to cover up his payment of protection money. So here you have straight-up bad acts, political corruption to enable prosecutorial corruption to escape the consequences of fraud perpetrated on vulnerable consumers. And yet the page space gets dedicated to Clinton Foundation stories which raise ‘questions’ that could ‘create appearances’ and all other journalistic workarounds reporters use when they haven’t found what they were looking for.

Paul Krugman (NY Times):

I would urge journalists to ask whether they are reporting facts or simply engaging in innuendo, and urge the public to read with a critical eye. If reports about a candidate talk about how something “raises questions,” creates “shadows,” or anything similar, be aware that these are all too often weasel words used to create the impression of wrongdoing out of thin air.

James Fallows (The Atlantic):

These mental habits of the media included an over-emphasis on strife and conflict, a fascination with the mechanics or “game” of politics rather than the real-world consequences, and a self-protective instinct to conceal limited knowledge of a particular subject (a new budget proposal, an international spat) by talking about the politics of these questions, and by presenting disagreements in a he-said/she-said, “plenty of blame on all sides” fashion now known as “false equivalence.”

Paul Waldman (The Week):

An enormous institution like The New York Times doesn’t have a singular will — it’s made up of individuals, each of whom has their own perspective on what’s newsworthy and what good coverage looks like. … But it does appear that when it comes to the nation’s most important newspaper, Hillary Clinton is always going to be presumed guilty of something, even if they haven’t quite gotten the goods on her yet.

Brian Beutler (New Republic):

For liberals, last week was faith-shaking. Major outlets saturated the news environment with innuendo-heavy reports, creating an aroma of malfeasance around Clinton unsupported by their actual findings. The same week that the Times and Post were “raising questions” about Clinton—questions with simple answers like “no evidence of corruption”—Trump, among other things, gave one of his most extreme immigration speeches yet, in which he detailed his plan for an “ideological certification” for immigrants. This is not unlike leading a newscast with a weather report, or a story about firefighters pulling a kitten out of a tree, in the midst of an ongoing national emergency.


The signs that Clinton would be subjected to deeply unfair reporting were apparent early in the race.

Within weeks of her presidential campaign announcement in 2015, the terms used to describe her in major “non-partisan” publications included “slithering, imperious, musty, petulant, paranoid, stale, scornful, regal, devious, deceitful, robotic, and abnormal.” It has only gone downhill since.

During the course of 2015, it was obvious that actual reporting on her policies would take a back seat to toxic narratives about her character. Many of those corrosive storylines have their roots in carefully tested message frames concocted in shadowy rightwing opposition research shops funded by conservative billionaires.

There is an unmistakable gender component to these negative Clinton frames. In August, 2015, I created a gender bias thesaurus to juxtapose coverage of Hillary Clinton with that received by her male counterparts.

A male candidate is smart, while Hillary Clinton is “calculating, scheming, crafty, manipulative.”

A male candidate values privacy, while Hillary Clinton is “secretive, suspicious, paranoid, uncommunicative.”

A male candidate takes strong positions, while Hillary Clinton is “polarizing, divisive, alienating.”

A male candidate deserves the benefit of the doubt, while Hillary Clinton is “untrustworthy, dishonest, unethical.”

A male candidate is an achiever while Hillary Clinton is “over-ambitious, will do or say anything to win.”

A male candidate is diplomatic while Hillary Clinton is “inauthentic, disingenuous, fake, unlikable, insincere.”

A male candidate is solid and unflappable, while Hillary Clinton is “machine-like, robotic, abnormal, cold.”

A male candidate is a confident leader, while Hillary Clinton is “inevitable, defiant, imperious, regal.”

A male candidate is experienced, while Hillary Clinton is “old, out of touch, represents the past.”

For the duration of the 2016 election, Clinton has been subjected to hostile commentary, misleading analysis, deceptive reporting, and outright poll manipulation, perhaps best illustrated by a dishonest Quinnipiac poll that was debunked in the fall of 2015. Quinnipiac claimed to have found that the most cited description of the most admired woman in American politics was “liar.” The corporate media jumped on it. Commentators seized on the poll as proof that Americans distrust her. That one poll set off a cascade of coverage about her supposed “dishonesty” that continues to reverberate today. But the conclusion was a sham.

While Quinnipiac presented the poll as evidence that all voters associated “liar” with Clinton it was Republican and Republican-leaning respondents to the Q-poll who linked her to “liar” and other derogatory terms (including “bitch”). It is a vastly different thing for Republicans, parroting Fox news and talk radio, to hurl misogynistic insults at Clinton than for all voters to believe she is a liar.

The ‘liar” lie spread like wildfire. One of the most egregious examples was a nationally televised interview in which NBC political correspondent Andrea Mitchell confronted Clinton with the poll’s misleading finding without questioning its methodology. This is reprehensible for any serious journalist. Mitchell essentially ambushed Clinton and compelled her to answer to a falsehood, to explain something that was factually wrong, something that went to the heart of her integrity.

NBC’s Savannah Guthrie compounded the inequity in an interview with Chelsea Clinton when she confronted her with the discredited finding.

Quinnipiac’s “liar” poll was the proverbial egg that can’t be uncracked, the genie that can’t be put back in the bottle, the lie that “travels halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

The vast amount of airtime given to that Q poll — as recently as June, 2016, a CNN guest alluded to it — contributed to negative impressions of Hillary Clinton, a self-reinforcing process I’ve described in simple terms:

MEDIA: Is Hillary a liar? Is Hillary a liar? Is Hillary a liar?

PUBLIC: Sounds like Hillary is a liar.

MEDIA: See, we told you Hillary is a liar.

The widespread (mis)use of a highly misleading poll to prove that Clinton is perceived as a liar was just the beginning. Independent studies have confirmed what anyone who follows the news already knows: Hillary Clinton gets far worse coverage than any other candidate:

Hillary Clinton, who had almost nowhere to go but down and who was drawing regular fire from both parties and from media sources themselves, had far and away the most negative coverage.


There is a vast gulf between Hillary Clinton’s character and the grotesque caricature portrayed in the corporate media.

Kevin Drum explains:

Don’t let Donald Trump or the press or anyone else convince you that Hillary Clinton is “dogged by scandal” or “works under a constant cloud of controversy” or whatever the nonsense of the day is. That constant cloud is the very deliberate invention of lowlifes in Arkansas; well-heeled conservative cranks; the Republican Party; and far too often a gullible and compliant press. Like anybody who’s been in politics for 40 years, Hillary has some things she should have handled better, but that’s about it. The plain fact is that there’s no serious scandal on her record. There’s no evidence that she’s ever sold out to Wall Street. There’s no corruption, intrigue, or deceit. And if anything, she’s too honest on a policy level. She could stand to promise people a bit of free stuff now and then. If you don’t believe me, then for God’s sake, at least believe Jill Abramson. If she thinks Hillary is “fundamentally honest and trustworthy,” then you can probably bank on it.

In the caricatured version of Hillary Clinton promulgated by her detractors in politics and media, Hillary Clinton is lying and corrupt. In actual reality, she is a person of integrity who is respected, loved and trusted by those who know her best.

Some of the most admired people on the planet put their reputations on the line for her. They do it knowing from personal experience that she is mischaracterized and maligned, that she is falsely portrayed as dishonest and untrustworthy. They do it because they know who she really is.

Joe Biden:

“The hardest thing is vouching. When you vouch for them you say ‘I’m putting my reputation on the line. I believe this person is a good person, has character.’  You’re putting your rep on the line. You’re saying, ‘I think this person has character,’ and that’s what I’m prepared to do for Hillary.”

The list of political leaders, public officials, organizations, and labor unions who have endorsed Clinton, who have expressed faith in her to lead our country, is long. She has the trust and support of people like President Obama, Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Warren, Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, Bernie Sanders, John Lewis, Joe Biden, Lilly Ledbetter, Dolores Huerta, Jim Clyburn, Morgan Freeman, Cecile Richards, Jerry Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bernice King, and numerous others. Not to mention 15.8 million voters who cast their ballot for her, entrusting her with their future.


So how are we to explain corporate media coverage that reeks of negativity?

cnn attacks hrc

decline wapo



Washington Post:

Judging by the amount of time NBC’s Matt Lauer spent pressing Hillary Clinton on her emails during Wednesday’s national security presidential forum, one would think that her homebrew server was one of the most important issues facing the country this election. It is not. …  There is no equivalence between Ms. Clinton’s wrongs and Mr. Trump’s manifest unfitness for office.

NBC’s September 7th Commander-in-Chief forum was a major inflection point, a bracing moment for anyone seeking fair coverage of the 2016 presidential race. The consensus was that the hour-long event was an unmitigated disaster. Moderator Matt Lauer was widely panned for his outsized emphasis on Clinton’s emails and his failure to fact check Trump’s lies.

Lauer held Clinton and Trump to entirely different standards, aggressively grilling her on her emails while letting Trump dishonestly claim that he had never supported the Iraq War. He repeatedly interrupted Clinton as she was speaking, while treating Trump with sheepish deference. Lauer’s segment with Clinton looked like an antagonistic debate; his segment with Trump looked like a polite conversation.

Lauer spent so much time on Clinton’s emails — for which she has been officially exonerated of wrongdoing, and for which she has already expressed regret multiple times — that he later had to rush her through her response on ISIS, a real national security crisis.

Jonathan Chait expressed the shock so many viewers felt:

Lauer’s performance was not merely a failure, it was horrifying and shocking. The shock, for me, was the realization that most Americans inhabit a very different news environment than professional journalists. I not only consume a lot of news, since it’s my job, I also tend to focus on elite print-news sources. Most voters, and all the more so undecided voters, subsist on a news diet supplied by the likes of Matt Lauer. And the reality transmitted to them from Lauer matches the reality of the polls, which is a world in which Clinton and Trump are equivalently flawed.

In August, I wrote an open letter to the corporate media asking that Trump be subjected to three immutable tenets of Clinton reporting:

  1. Always assume bad character and attribute malicious motives.
  2. Ignore and marginalize supporters.
  3. Focus relentlessly on negatives (and portray positives as negatives).

Below is an updated version of my open letter.


I write this letter as a concerned American, a father who fears for his children in the event of a Trump presidency. And I write it as the CEO of a political media company with a community of over one million people whose engagement rates rival the largest media platforms in the U.S.

On the one hand, I know you understand that Donald Trump is a menace to America and that Hillary Clinton is the only plausible president in the race. On the other hand, I recognize these facts:

a) You’re chasing clicks and therefore you want a contest.

b) You face relentless (and ridiculous) accusations from the right that you have a “liberal bias.”

c) You feel compelled to appear even-handed in a misguided quest for “balanced” reporting.

d) You’re intimidated by Trump and his team of bullies like Roger Stone, Stephen Bannon and David Bossie.

e) The price of entry into the elite media club is open disdain for Hillary Clinton.

And so you twist yourselves into rhetorical pretzels trying to legitimize Trump’s unhinged behavior.

If you seek true fairness, apply the three rules of Clinton reporting to Trump:

1) Always assume anything he says or does is corrupt. Start from the position that he’s malicious and manipulative, as you do with Clinton. Presume everything he does is part of a duplicitous scheme. Treat him like a grotesque caricature of a human being, an ambitious automaton, a power-hungry monster devoid of the most basic humanity. Attribute nefarious motives to anything he says, even the way he laughs or smiles.

2) Pay no mind to his supporters. None whatsoever. Don’t worry about offending them. If you have the slightest pang of guilt, just keep in mind how you’ve continually dismissed her 15.8 million voters with the demeaning “enthusiasm gap” narrative. Tell your audience only about the people who don’t like him, never those who do. In every interview, ask him why he’s so despised. Focus relentlessly on every negative data point to portray him as an isolated outcast, just as you do with her.

3) Roadblock every negative story, just like you’ve done with her emails, which our research shows you’ve covered every single day for an entire year. Obsess, obsess, obsess. Endlessly obsess until your audience goes numb from the repetition, until a single word like “transcripts” or “emails” or “foundation” conjures oceans of opprobrium. Probe every permutation of his words and actions and fit them into damaging frames concocted by rival opposition researchers. Examine every nook and cranny of what you consider to be his rank awfulness, just as you do with her.

I could go on, but you get the point.

Here’s the bottom line: With Trump inviting the assassination of his opponent, calling President Obama the “founder of ISIS,” attacking a Gold Star family, calling on Russia to hack us, openly courting white nationalists, and displaying a total lack of preparedness for the office he seeks, you are facing an ethical dilemma. Do you continue treating Hillary Clinton with contempt or do you tell the truth about Trump? Do you report his transgressions fleetingly or with the same insistence, the same loud drumbeat that you use for Clinton?

The decisions you make, the decisions we each make in the next two months, will affect the fate of our country.

That’s not hyperbole.

Trump’s ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz — who knows him better than we do — explains the stakes:

“I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.”

You can’t just keep pretending that Trump and Clinton are equivalent. They’re not. Nor can you insist that their unfavorable ratings are remotely comparable. One candidate is a dedicated and admired public servant who is smeared and lied about simply for existing. The other is a bloviating bigot who lacks the most basic common decency. One candidate is trusted and respected by the most accomplished people in the world. The other is an intolerant and dangerous bully who is toxic to his own party and mocked across the globe.

Now here’s the staggering reality: You give Trump better coverage. Yes, you do. Look at this recent chart from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center.

Media tone

In return for your obsequious reporting, he bashes you with unconcealed glee:

It’s a toxic dynamic that only you have the power to change. He never will. Why would he?

If you’re worried that you’ll alienate your Republican audience by telling the truth about how ill-prepared Trump is for the presidency, my advice is simple: Be fair to him in the same way you’re “fair” to Hillary Clinton — namely, by doing your best to undermine his candidacy and damage his public image.

And if you think your ratings will suffer by covering both candidates equally, consider the fact that her millions of supporters will flock to anyone who has the guts to report on her without the usual cynicism. That’s not conjecture. As the author of the most shared article about Hillary Clinton of 2016 (half a million shares and counting), I know for a fact that unfiltered reporting on Clinton and her enthusiastic supporters is a path to success.

Here’s what I mean by fair:

  • Don’t help peddle disgusting conspiracies about her health as your peers Andrea Mitchell and Patrick Healy have done.
  • Don’t squander your credibility like the AP by publishing dishonest hit pieces on a foundation that saves children’s lives, drawing a false equivalence between Trump’s conspiracy-mongering and Clinton’s truth-telling, and writing puff pieces then scrubbing tweets about them.
  • Don’t follow in CNN’s footsteps by hiring former campaign managers who are still on the Trump campaign payroll.
  • Don’t indulge the kind of embarrassing headline writing employed by the Washington Post a day after she delivered the speech of the campaign: “Clinton, Trump exchange racially charged accusations.” (No, WaPo, Trump falsely and disingenuously calling Clinton a “bigot” is not remotely the same as her litany of his own words.)

I know it’s hard to let go of Beltway narratives, to defy the conventional media wisdom that Hillary Clinton must be attacked at all costs. I know you must struggle with your own conscience sometimes. At least I hope you do.

So I say this to you respectfully: Get your act together and start covering Donald Trump the same way you cover Hillary Clinton — with dripping disdain, boundless skepticism and utter indifference to his voters.

Stop acting so mystified by his obnoxious behavior. Stop pondering if he magically lives outside the normal rules of politics. He doesn’t. He’s a frighteningly dangerous blowhard (and deep down, a coward) who knows you won’t cover him with the same contempt you reserve for her. So far, he’s been right.

You have fewer than 60 days to show us your humanity, prove him wrong, and help save your country from a demagogue.

UPDATE (9/12/16): After being diagnosed with pneumonia on Friday, Hillary Clinton ran a two-hour national security meeting, gave a press conference, and spent an hour and a half in the heat at a September 11 commemoration ceremony. It was an impressive feat of physical strength that obliterated months of health conspiracies. But after she felt weak and left the ceremony early, a feeding frenzy ensued. Now look at how Politico characterizes the aftermath:

politico headline

Ask yourself if the media have ever “boiled over” or “ripped” Donald Trump. Think about the aggressiveness of Politico’s language to describe a candidate suffering from pneumonia while still campaigning. And consider how Trump insults the media in angry, personal terms with no repercussions.

Something is dangerously wrong with this picture.

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