Admit It, Reporters: You Go After The Clintons Because It's Easy
July 7, 2015

I've read Jonathan Allen's three-million-word Vox article about why the press is obsessed with trying to bring down the Clintons ... and I keep getting tripped up by the first three paragraphs:

The reporter's job is to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" -- a credo that, humorously, was originally written as a smear of the self-righteous nature of journalists. And so the justification for going after a public figure increases in proportion to his or her stature. The bigger the figure, the looser the restraints.

After a quarter of a century on the national stage, there's no more comfortable political figure to afflict than Hillary Clinton. And she's in for a lot of affliction over the next year and half.

That's generally a good way for reporters to go about their business. After all, the more power a person wants in our republic, the more voters should know about her or him. But it's also an essential frame for thinking about the long-toxic relationship between the Clintons and the media, why the coverage of Hillary Clinton differs from coverage of other candidates for the presidency, and whether that difference encourages distortions that will ultimately affect the presidential race.

So wait -- "the more power a person wants in our republic, the more voters should know about her or him," Allen writes, which would suggest that anyone who wants to be president ought to get the highest level of attention from reporters. Let's amend that in a common-sense way: The rule probably should be "the more power a person wants in our republic, assuming the person has a reasonable chance of attaining that power, the more voters should know about her or him."

But in that case, why is it that "the coverage of Hillary Clinton differs from coverage of other candidates for the presidency"? Why is it that there's more Clinton coverage than coverage of Jeb Bush, or Scott Walker, or whoever smart people think has a decent shot at being the GOP nominee? In fact, why isn't there more coverage of the Republicans than of Clinton? After all, a Republican who's elected president in 2016 would have more power than a Democrat would, because there'll almost certainly be a Republican House, and probably a Republican Senate. We've seen what radical changes Republicans have managed to enact in states where they've gained total control of the government -- Wisconsin, North Carolina, Kansas. President Hillary would have power, but President Jeb or President Walker could have extraordinary power. Radical ideas motivate Republicans right now, even the Republicans we consider "mainstream." So why aren't Jeb and Scott being "afflicted" like Hillary?

Allen's article lists some of the reasons why: "the Clintons are the equivalent of America's royal family," so news about them is sexier than news about even a Bush; also, the Clintons don't like the media, so the media is motivated to attack. I'd add another reason: reporters get brownie points from conservatives when they go after Democrats, and get attacked for "liberal media bias" when they go after Republicans.

But the ultimate answer is that going after the Clintons is easy. They conceal stuff from the press in a way that suggests that what they're concealing is sinister; they telegraph that they're concealing it. The press digs and and digs and, more often than not, discovers that what's being concealed isn't sinister. But the press gets many, many stories. Republicans get many, many talking points. And the Clintons get to claim they're being persecuted. Lather, rinse, repeat. Everybody wins.

And Clinton stories are clickbait, in a way that Jeb Bush and Scott Walker stories aren't. We'll see if that means we don't find out enough about the eventual Republican nominee until it's too late.

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