Last week, a pattern began to emerge. Every time there’s a new development in the saga surrounding Hillary Clinton’s email server management, the coverage follows a specific trajectory: (1) the public sees startling, provocative headlines that, at first blush, seem important; (2) pundits reflect on the degree to which the hard-to-identify “scandal” is lingering; (3) the new developments prove to be unimportant.
Rinse and repeat.
A week ago today, the coverage focused on the fact that Clinton received the same kind of spam the rest of us receive all the time. Why was this important? It wasn’t, but news consumers were nevertheless confronted with over-dramatized headlines such as, “Emails: Russia-linked hackers tried to access Clinton server.”
Today, the pattern offers another example. The Associated Press’ headline reads, “Clinton subject to hack attempts from China, Korea, Germany.” Sounds serious, right?
Hillary Rodham Clinton’s private email server, which stored some 55,000 pages of emails from her time as secretary of state, was the subject of attempted cyberattacks originating in China, South Korea and Germany after she left office in early 2013, according to a congressional document obtained by The Associated Press.
The AP’s scoop, such as it is, apparently came by way of Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), whom Republicans chose to chair the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
So, where’s the part of the story in which we learn nothing particularly important happened?
As it turns out, the same article notes that Clinton’s anti-virus software worked effectively and the server wasn’t hacked. In the sixth paragraph of the piece, we learn that the malicious emails may very well have been “the sort of nuisance attacks that hit computer servers the world over.”
The story, in other words, is that Clinton received the same spam everyone receives, and though her server could have been vulnerable, nothing happened.
And as we discussed last week, the cycle just keeps rolling.
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.
Two weeks ago, 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.”
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Latest Clinton email story fits a familiar pattern