Not everything is #ButHerEmails
The media has changed a lot since 2016. Progressive complaints about it have turned into The Big Cope.
Did the media’s obsession with Hillary Clinton’s private email server cost her the 2016 election?
Actually, I don’t think it’s such a crazy theory. The most important context is that Clinton’s loss was extremely narrow — by a combined 80,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — and so lots of things might have mattered enough to swing the election to Trump. I don’t mean to suggest that coverage of HER EMAILS was the most important factor as compared to, say, Clinton’s misread of the mood of the electorate or the populist backlash that Trump catalyzed. But it probably was an important factor. In particular, the letter sent by then FBI director James Comey that the Bureau was investigating newly-surfaced Clinton emails on October 28, 2016 — which was breathlessly covered by the media — was correlated with a shift in the polls against Clinton that was larger than her margin of defeat in the tipping-point states.
The other important context is that it was kind of a silly story. If you’re a regular reader of this newsletter you’ll know that I rarely take much interest in the broader category of political scandals. So I’m probably biased toward not caring much about this sort of story to begin with. But I do think that Clinton’s email handling was treated with roughly 10x its objective importance, a disproportionate focus even as compared to other scandals that also make my eyes glaze over:
To put it another way, #ButHerEmails was a uniquely bad case — a story where news judgment was exceptionally poor and which plausibly made the difference in a close election.
But lately, I’ve seen progressives using #ButHerEmails as a dubious pretext to criticize media coverage that has negative implications for Democrats but is entirely fair and reasonable. Some recent examples:
I’ve sorted these complaints in very rough order from what I deem to be most reasonable to least reasonable. The Hunter Biden story is similar to the Clinton email scandal in the sense that it’s a matter of somewhat peripheral importance. However, as I’ll show you in a moment, there hasn’t been very much coverage of Hunter Biden in the mainstream/center-left media sphere that I call the Indigo Blob, which as I define it excludes expressly conservative outlets like Fox News. It has not only been covered proportionately by the Indigo Blob — coverage of Hunter Biden was often explicitly censored.
There also isn’t as much coverage of cancel culture-related topics as you might think — yes, I’m going to show you some data on this — especially when it comes to hard news outlets like The New York Times. I understand that this cluster of topics gets a lot of pickup on Twitter and on Substack. But this is more of an issue of demand than supply — political junkies really like arguing about these things.
The other three comparisons are entirely inapt. As I’ve written, Biden’s age is a completely legitimate worry — he’s an 81-year-old seeking a second term, and it goes directly to his fitness for office — and one that voters have an extremely high degree of concern about in poll after poll. This isn’t some scandal ginned up by the media; talk to regular people in your life and Biden’s age will come up organically all the time as well. Should the press also focus on Trump’s age and mental fitness? Yes, please, I’d like to see more of that. But that doesn’t mean the coverage of Biden has been wrong.
Immigration doesn’t actually get all that much coverage in outlets like the Times, meanwhile — data inbound momentarily — although there’s been more lately with Congress debating a border control bill (a bill that is probably DOA because the GOP has negotiated insincerely, thinking that a border crisis could help Trump in November). This is despite the fact that immigration is viewed as important by voters; in fact, 20 percent of Americans in Gallup’s most recent polling said immigration was the most important problem facing the country, trailing only the vague category of “The government/Poor leadership” at 21 percent. (The economy also ranks as a bigger concern, at 34 percent, if you lump all economy-related responses together, but not if you take categories like “inflation” and “jobs” separately.)
Speaking of the economy, I have an upcoming story for you that I think persuasively rebuts the notion that voter perceptions about the economy are just a matter of bad “vibes” or unfair media coverage. Voters really have been feeling the pinch when it comes to inflation, and right on cue, they’re growing more optimistic about the economy now as inflation abates. And even if this coverage is negatively-tinged, that’s true for most if not all news stories; as the saying goes, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Furether, the economy has a far greater effect on people’s everyday well-being than Clinton’s email security practices ever did; the comparison just doesn’t make any sense.
OK, now here’s that data I promised you. First, here is the lead story every day at Tuesday at noon Eastern for the past two years on the algorithmic news aggregation site Memeoradnum. This doesn’t necessarily reflect the raw number of stories being published, but it does show which ones are getting traction and linked to by other outlets:
The stories that get the most pickup on Memeorandum basically fall into three buckets: Trump’s various legal woes, including the January 6 investigation; the horse race (both the midterms last year and the GOP primaries this year); and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There is a lot of Trump coverage in the mainstream media. A lot, most of it quite negative. The idea that his scandals or his authoritarian tendencies aren’t being covered is a myth.
Conversely, there isn’t a lot of coverage of the topics that the #ButHerEmail people complain about. Immigration hasn’t been Memeorandum’s lead story on a Tuesday even once during this past two years.1 The economy doesn’t get much coverage at all, positive or negative. There’s only one instance where a story in the cancel culture bucket (on Libs of Tik Tok) surged to the top of Memeorandum. There’s only one instance of Hunter Biden. President Biden’s age sometimes does get covered, but it’s usually framed as part of his overall struggles in the polls against Trump (the category I call “Biden/general election concerns”). These are not favorable stories for Biden, but when you’ve been trailing in the vast majority of polls for months, it can be hard to avoid that.
Don’t trust Memeorandum? OK, let’s look at the front pages of the print New York Times each Tuesday morning for the past two years. This is based on what the Times internally calls its ‘A1’ story, which is the story that begins in the top right corner of the front page or has a full banner headline. It’s what the Times deems to be the most important news of the day.
This is a different mix than Memeorandum; there’s considerably less horse race and much more global news and foreign policy, particularly on Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas War. The Times does have a lot on Trump’s legal woes, however. Conversely, there is relatively less coverage on some of the topics that the Times’s critics often claim it to be obsessed with. Immigration was the lead story only once; and “cancel culture” rarely makes front-page news in the print edition. The economy sometimes does — and when it does, the news is more often negative than positive — but not in any disproportionate way.
Hey look, I’ve criticized The New York Times a lot too, particularly for its 2016 coverage. Criticizing the NYT one of those grand old traditions if you’re a journalist, like keeping score at a baseball game.2 But I simply do not understand complaints like this:
Look at the list of Times headlines, and when they’re not covering foreign policy, it’s often in-depth coverage of Trump’s legal battles and the dangerous things that could happen if he wins again in November. When there isn’t huge news happening and the Times has a more leeway to choose its A1, it often leans into progressively-tinged topics like gun violence and climate change and not stuff like immigration.
True, the Times’s digital edition is different, more oriented toward traffic than the print edition, and opinion stories or more parochial news like the Claudine Gay plagiarism scandal often receive more prominent placement. But what the #ButHerEmails people whine about is a self-selected and biased sample. The Times publishes a lot of stories and if you skip past its coverage from the frontlines in Ukraine to look for Harvard news, you’ll find plenty of it. Critics often focus on the stories they’re clicking on — the filter bubble they’ve created for themselves — and assert that the Times is putting a finger on the scale when it isn’t.
Progressives used to cope with their election losses by saying that if only everyone voted, Democrats would win every election. That was never true, and it’s definitely not true now. Instead, with their highly-educated and politically-engaged electorate, Democrats would probably benefit from lower turnout in November.3
Now, there’s a different coping mechanism: I call it The Big Cope. I define The Big Cope as the belief that Democrats would win every competitive election if only it weren’t for unfair media coverage. The cope extends both to the mainstream media coverage of the Indigo Blob and to social media, particularly Facebook, Twitter and more recently TikTok,4 which are often accused of promoting “misinformation”. Oddly enough, there are fewer complaints about Fox News and other explicitly right-wing outlets, I presume because progressives don’t consume news from those outlets very often themselves — but Fox News potentially does have a big impact on elections, as centrists like Matt Yglesias have written about.
The Big Cope is badly lacking in either theory or evidence. It fails to recognize how news coverage is often more demand-driven than supply-driven; the success of Substack — where yes you will find a lot of centrist/heterodox/contrarian culture war stuff — is in part because people like Yglesias were driven out of more progressive outlets. The Big Cope often makes incorrect assertions about the frequency and tone of coverage in the mainstream media. It has some ridiculous beliefs about both the feasibility and the utility of “deplatforming” conservative figures like Trump — Trump’s ban from Twitter (since rescinded by Elon Musk) has probably helped him, for instance. And the Big Cope neglects the fact that the overwhelming majority of staffers at places like the New York Times are liberal progressives or at the very least are unsympathetic to Republicans, and the same is true of their readers. That isn’t always dispositive — the Times has lots of conflicting biases and editorial pressures — but it ought to affect your priors. “The New York Times has a conservative bias” is an extraordinary claim that ought to require extraordinary evidence.
And the Big Cope is lazy. It’s lazy about the necessity of the hard work of political persuasion. It’s smug about the fact that in a democracy, you don’t always get what you want, even as Democrats have won plenty of elections lately anyway. And it’s complacent in its assumption that progressives are right about everything when they’ve made their share of massive errors too, like on COVID school closures in blue states.
The Big Cope is a loser’s mentality. And we’re going to hear even more of it if Biden loses in November.
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Although immigration was the lead story on Memeorandum yesterday — a Monday — for what that’s worth.
I should disclose here that I participated with the Times in a roundtable back in November and I have an invitation to pitch them on freelance stories.
One reason Biden still has a pretty good shot is because likely voter polls will probably show better results for him than polls of all registered voters or all adults, which is most of what we’re getting currently.