Why The New York Times Should Grapple With Its Coverage of Hillary's Emails

Brendan McDermid / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This week Jill Abramson, the estimable former executive editor of The New York Times, whom I’ve always admired and never criticized, contended that I had been “stoking” the idea that the NYT had a vendetta against Hillary Clinton.

That is false.

What I have argued, repeatedly during the campaign and most recently nine days ago in an item about Hillary Clinton’s new book, is that the Times very badly erred in its wild over-coverage of the Clinton email “issue,” and that this distorted coverage was, in turn, one of many factors leading to Donald Trump’s elevation to the presidency.

Here’s an example of the kind of thing I had in mind: the blow-out front-page treatment in the Times, just 10 days before the election, of the “Comey letter” on Clinton’s emails:

New York Times front page, ten days before last year’s presidential election.

And here’s an example of the effect that media over-coverage of email had:

What voters heard or read about the two candidates during the campaign, via the Gallup organization.

Crucially, the point is not that likely Trump voters were carefully reading the Times. Rather it’s that the Times has an enormous steering and legitimizing effect on the rest of the media, notably including cable TV news. If the Times is treating email “questions” as worth continued coverage on its front page, something must be going on there.

And the email coverage was notoriously followed by this item, the week before the election:

Eight days before the 2016 presidential election, in the NYT.
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Am I saying this is a vendetta? I am not, and have not—though I unwisely used that word one time, back in the summer of 2015 when the Trump campaign had barely begun, in a tweet about a letter the Clinton campaign had sent to the Times. (You want to see an argument that the Times has an anti-Clinton vendetta? I give you The Daily Howler. For what it’s worth, I’ll note that the Howler is no fan of my own work. Or, from someone I’m on better terms with, see Joe Conason in The National Memo, here and here.) I have no inside info about the newsroom deliberations that went into what I consider hugely excessive coverage of the email “issue”—which, for the record, occurred after Abramson was out of her job at the Times. I haven’t written online or in-print articles contending that the Times was purposefully anti-Clinton. I understand why conservatives laugh at the idea that the Times was against the presidential candidate its editorial page so strongly endorsed.

What I have emphasized is effect: the prominence the Times so memorably gave the email story, rather than any assumption about the underlying cause. In most news organizations, the vast majority of things the public complains about arise from haste, from honest error, from decisions that seemed sensible at the time. For instance: this weekend, meeting a deadline, I said about the 1968 Olympics what I thought I remembered: that the American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos had been stripped of their medals, after their medal-ceremony protest against U.S. racism. In fact, as many readers wrote in to point out, Smith and Carlos were expelled from the games—but didn’t lose their medals. It was a mistake of haste on my part, which we’ve recognized and corrected.

I don’t know why the Times covered Hillary Clinton’s emails the way it did. But I believed then, and do now, that its emphasis was excessive. I stand by what I wrote last week, in the item about Hillary Clinton’s book:

No sane person can believe that the consequences of last fall’s election—for foreign policy, for race relations, for the environment, for anything else you’d like to name (from either party’s perspective)—should have depended more than about 1 percent on what Hillary Clinton did with her emails. But this objectively second- or third-tier issue came across through even our best news organizations as if it were the main thing worth knowing about one of the candidates….

The press is among the groups that messed this up, badly, in particular through the relentless push in New York Times coverage that made “but, her emails!” a rueful post-campaign meme. With this book, Hillary Clinton has gone a considerable distance toward facing her responsibility for the current state of the country. Before any news organization tells her to pipe down or stop explaining herself, I’d like to see them be as honest about their own responsibility.

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Imbalanced and credulous Times coverage of the WMD (weapons of mass destruction) threat from Iraq, in 2002 and early 2003, was not the only or even the main reason the George W. Bush administration went ahead with its disastrous invasion. But it was a legitimizing and enabling factor. To its credit, afterwards the paper approached this as a mistake deserving re-examination. (For instance, here and here and here and here.)

Imbalanced and credulous (in my view) Times coverage of the Clinton email “issue” was not the only or even the main reason that Donald Trump carried the Electoral College. But it was a legitimizing and enabling factor. In contrast to their response to the Iraq problems 15 years ago, Times editors now seem to resist the very idea that they have anything to re-examine in their approach to the 2016 campaign. I think they do, and that it would enhance rather than diminish their standing in the public eye as our leading national news organization to be open in discussing what went right and wrong, and why.