“What is it about our political system that made us vulnerable to these kinds of potential manipulations? How it is that a presidential election of such importance . . . with so many big issues at stake and such a contrast between the candidates, came to be dominated by a bunch of these leaks”?
President Obama raised these questions at his press conference last week when asked about the Russian government’s efforts to help Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election. They deserve far greater scrutiny than they’ve received.
We, unfortunately, know the answer to the first question: Since Donald Trump feels wedded to no political norm and has no ethical core, he was happy to benefit from Russia’s involvement. He not only shamelessly used the fruits of a Russian disinformation campaign to help him win the presidency — he also encouraged it. Trump’s complicity in a foreign government’s meddling in a presidential campaign is fundamentally what made the United States so vulnerable to Russia’s manipulation.
The answer to Obama’s second question is equally uncomfortable: What about the media outlets that shamelessly mined the WikiLeaks e-mail trove? What about the steady drumbeat of stories from the leaks that bolstered the already ingrained, media-driven narrative that the Clintons were secretive and ethically challenged politicians?
What about the fact that reporters must have realized that the e-mail leak was the work of Russian intelligence and that the intention was to hurt Clinton? Common sense and the intelligence community confirmed both.
Yet, the response of many journalists has been to argue that it’s all on Hillary Clinton. “The Kremlin didn’t tell Clinton, ‘Don’t go to Wisconsin,’ ” said CNN anchor Jake Tapper in what’s become a familiar refrain. But there is no reason to believe that more time on the hustings in Wisconsin and Michigan would have made the difference for Clinton. Even if she’d won both states, she’d still have lost the presidency. And there’s the inconvenient fact that she spent lots of time in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Florida — and still lost all three states.
Other reporters have been more direct in their criticisms. Clinton was a “bad” candidate with a “bad message” who ran an uninspiring campaign that focused too much on Donald Trump’s foibles and not enough on a more positive appeal.
Clinton is hardly blameless for her loss. But this is a strange argument. On the one hand, Clinton allegedly had a weak message that she didn’t translate to voters, but how exactly can a campaign get its policy argument out to voters if election coverage is dominated by everything else?
That’s not mere conjecture. According to one study done by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, Clinton’s “bad press” (coverage) outpaced her “good press” by 64 percent to 36 percent. Over the entire campaign she received more negative coverage than Trump, which is an astounding data point, particularly when one takes into account Trump’s far more numerous — and far worse — scandals than those of Clinton, including the “Access Hollywood’’ tape
Had Clinton talked more about the economy and done greater outreach to the white working class, would major media organizations have covered the race differently? It’s hard to see much reason to believe that. Many journalists seem to be adopting the position of “we just work here,” as if their news choices play no role in how voters perceived the candidates.
While no one can say for certain that the Russian hacks and subsequent leaks cost Clinton the election, we do know that coverage of FBI Director James Comey’s last-minute letter to Congress (which turned out to be a giant nothing-burger) was catastrophic for Clinton. By one measure, her national numbers fell three points in the week after the letter was made public.
That surely cost her the presidency. While Comey deserves the lion’s share of blame, to paraphrase Tapper, Jim Comey didn’t tell reporters to gorge themselves on the e-mail story and allow it to dominate the last week of election coverage.
To be sure, the Comey letter and the Russian e-mail hack are two sides of the same coin. Both went to charges made by Trump, and earlier by Bernie Sanders, and reinforced by press coverage, that Clinton was not trustworthy. Indeed, many voters probably made little distinction between the Clinton’s e-mail server and the drip-drip of hacked e-mails from her campaign staff. The earlier DNC leak, before the Democratic National Convention, infuriated Bernie Sanders supporters and convinced many — wrongly — that the Democratic primary fight was rigged. I recognize that it’s hard not to cover a leak like this, but the bar for what represented the public interest value of the DNC hacks was placed extraordinarily low — and there was shockingly little introspection at the time about the provenance of these leaks.
When The New York Times argued last week that “every major publication, including The Times” became “a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence,” it’s hard to disagree. But we also knew that in real time.
It’s understandable that reporters want the finger of responsibility for Trump’s victory to be placed on anyone but them. And they certainly aren’t the sole reason Clinton lost. But the brazen lack of introspection among media organizations doesn’t pass the smell test.
Clinton was a flawed candidate for president. Trump was an unqualified and congenitally dishonest politician, who regularly utilized racist, xenophobic and misogynist rhetoric. They were treated as comparable candidates and Clinton’s shortcomings were given equal billing with those of Trump. That was a mistake for which millions of Americans will pay a heavy price. It’s too late to right the wrongs that happened in the 2016 campaign, but it’s not too late to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.