It’s December 13, 2016, and the American public is riveted by new information on the ways Russian hacks and other methods had an impact on the US presidential election. That’s a big story that will carry on well into the Trump presidency. The same is true for the scourge of fake news spread by authors from Macedonia to Trump Tower.. But neither of those factors had as big an impact on the outcome of the race as the letter James Comey sent to Congress immediately prior to voting day. And that letter wouldn’t have done nearly as much damage without a key accomplice: The mainstream media.
We may never know exactly what drove James Comey to send the letter to Congress advising them that there was some potential of the Bureau taking yet another look at the Clinton email server situation just days before a presidential election.
But here’s what we do know. Politicians and operatives on both sides of the aisle have a nearly immeasurable incentive to spin the story in the direction that aids their candidate.
So the letter gets sent. One side spins up. The other side defends. And you, the voter, are left to decide what impact it should have.
But there’s supposed to be a layer between all that noise and the voting public: The media. Even with all the attacks on their credibility, we still count on them to ingest the firehose of endless data, analyze it, and spit out a version of day’s events that makes some sense and has some reality-based context.
They failed you. Miserably. And I’m not talking about the cable news channels who depend on these moments for the bottom line. We know what to expect from them. I’m talking about actual journalists.
The email story exploded and became a potentially election-shaking event because it was covered as if it deserved that level of coverage. The emails didn't jolt the election. The coverage given to this story is what jolted it.
Now that the intial onslaught of information has washed over the American public, we’re learning a few more details about this so-called scandal. Consider this from the NYT:
Law enforcement officials have begun the process to get court authority to read the emails, officials said. How soon they will get that is unclear, but there is no chance that the review will be completed before Election Day, several law enforcement officials said.
Yes, you’re reading that right. There’s your October Surprise. This whole frenzy is over content that no one has read yet. The FBI is still awaiting a warrant. At this moment, this is a complete non-story. James Comey found something suspicious — it’s called the Internet.
Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David could sue the media for reproducing a show about nothing.
It’s true that this clarification is coming from the same “media” that covered its digital front pages with breathless coverage of the event. But, it’s coming after the story has already had an impact well beyond its worth.
(Update: We ultimately learned the feds found absolutely no new evidence; the case was never reopened. But that news came too late to matter.)
And this is not just about one story or one political party. This kind of thing happens across the aisle and across the board. I’ve said it before: The media is biased in favor of stories that they can easily understand and that you’ll be likely to follow. But our democracy demands something more.
When a story like this breaks, we expect social media to explode. We expect Tweeters to Tweet. We expect candidates and their minions to toss fuel or flame retardant on the fire. We expect the cables news programs to race to their pundits back to the set to expound on that which they have no actual knowledge of.
But we need journalists and editors to take a breath, examine the real scope of the story, and give it to us in context. It’s not easy. The pressure to publish and publish fast is enormous in the Internet age. But if journalism can’t resist that urge, then who stands between us and the ridiculous nonsense that has become the dominant force in our election cycles?