Stories about Hillary Clinton’s email server management, which has somehow become one of the most important political developments of 2015, tend to follow a certain trajectory. First, we’re confronted with a startling, provocative headline about new revelations that, at first blush, seem important. This is followed by a round of commentary about the lingering significance of an elusive, hard-to-identify “scandal.”
Finally, we discover that those startling, provocative headlines weren’t entirely true, and that the revelations aren’t especially controversial at all. Then a few days go by, at which point the cycle begins anew.
Last night, for example, the AP’s headline seemed design to sound an alarm: “Emails: Russia-linked hackers tried to access Clinton server.”
Russia-linked hackers tried at least five times to pry into Hillary Rodham Clinton’s private email account while she was secretary of state, emails released Wednesday show. It is unclear if she clicked on any attachment and exposed her account.Clinton received the infected emails, disguised as speeding tickets from New York, over four hours early the morning of Aug. 3, 2011. The emails instructed recipients to print the attached tickets. Opening the attachment would have allowed hackers to take over control of a victim’s computer.Security researchers who analyzed the malicious software in September 2011 said that infected computers would transmit information from victims to at least three server computers overseas, including one in Russia.
The lead story on Politico overnight featured a similar, top-of-the-page headline: “Hackers targeted Hillary Clinton’s email account; Virus in spam attack traced to Russia.”
There’s just one problem with the breathless coverage: we’re talking about an email account that received some spam. That’s it. That’s the story. The coverage of the 2016 presidential race has reached the point at which major news organizations consider it very important that Hillary Clinton received some of the same generic phishing spam that everyone gets all the time.
Chiding the AP’s overwrought report, MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin joked, “This is a scary headline for what seems to be, ‘Email account got spam.’”
And so the cycle continues. Americans saw scary headlines, which led to concerned punditry, which concluded with the realization that there’s no meaningful reason to find the story the least bit interesting.
To be sure, the most obvious example of the phenomenon occurred in July, when the New York Times falsely reported that two inspectors general asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into Clinton email activities – which never actually happened in reality. But it helped establish the pattern – alarming headline, outraged pundits, collapsed allegation – that remains ongoing.
Last week, the AP published a scary-sounding piece on Clinton emails, which turned out to mean very little. A few days before that, it was a different story that quickly unraveled. Sometimes, stories that make Clinton appear even less guilty of wrongdoing are characterized as evidence of the exact opposite.
Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this is the cumulative effect. Beltway pundits seem content to argue, “The ‘controversy’ is hurting Clinton; just look at all of these news stories.” But the fact that these news stories ultimately tell us nothing of import seems to get lost in the shuffle.
TPM’s Josh Marshall recently summarized the dynamic nicely: “Is this coverage damaging for Clinton? Undoubtedly. When reporters produce numerous stories all of which suggest wrongdoing or dishonesty, people’s impression of you will suffer. And there’s no question it has. But every once in a while, it’s worth returning to planet Earth and dissecting what these stories actually contain. In this case, good lord. Not much.”