Eight years ago, the New York Times’s Michael Schmidt broke the news that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ignored government rules and used a personal server for e-mail during her time in office, and for two years had failed to provide those messages to the government archives as required.
The revelations threatened the imminent launch of Hillary’s 2016 presidential campaign, so friendly journalists spent the next week furiously attempting to spin her scandalous conduct away, ultimately deriding reporters who provided tough coverage as Hillary “haters.”
Schmidt’s late-night March 2, 2015 story succinctly explained her legal problem: “Regulations from the National Archives and Records Administration at the time required that any e-mails sent or received from personal accounts be preserved as part of the agency’s records. But Mrs. Clinton and her aides failed to do so....”
In a column the next day, The National Journal’s Ron Fournier blasted the former Secretary as dangerously irresponsible: “Clinton exposed confidential and potentially dangerous information to a non-secure, commercial email system. She gave Chinese spies a better shot at reading her emails than U.S. taxpayers.”
While the story was too big for the liberal networks to ignore, Hillary’s friends in the media quickly began establishing their own counter-narrative. CNBC’s John Harwood on the March 3, 2015 Closing Bell argued Clinton’s off-the-books secret server might be just a display of caution: “It is not 100 percent clear to me whether or not this was a clear violation or excessive caution on her part.”
(Leaked e-mails later revealed Harwood spent much of the 2015-16 campaign praising and flattering Clinton’s top echelon.)
“It’s almost like, ‘Don’t take your pens home and use them at home,’” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews lamely spun that night on Hardball. “Is this worthy of this kind of hootin’ and hollerin’?”
“What’s the revelation, that the Clintons didn’t follow the rules?” former GOP strategist Nicolle Wallace, then a co-host of The View, wondered on her future network’s Morning Joe program on March 5. “They’re all going to get turned over and it’s going to be a bunch of wedding stuff. I mean, who did she e-mail that we think we’re not going to see?”
That Sunday, on ABC’s Good Morning America, ex-Bill Clinton staffer George Stephanopoulos pitched in, proclaiming that despite the uproar, “it’s not going bring down her campaign.”
In an effort to suppress the remaining media chatter once and for all, Hillary met reporters at the United Nations on March 10. The first question, from a Turkish journalists, invited her to blame sexism for her woes: “If you were a man, today, would all of this fuss being made be made?”
Minutes later, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer signaled his approval: “Good question from Turkish television.”
At her press conference, Hillary chose to lie to reporters, falsely claiming she “fully complied with every rule that I was governed by.” ABC’s Jon Karl, to his credit, confronted her: “Madam Secretary, State Department rules at the time you were secretary were perfectly clear that if a State Department employee was going to be using private e-mail, that employee needed to turn those e-mails over to the State Department to be preserved on government computers....The President of the United States said that he was unaware you had this unusual e-mail arrangement. The White House Counsel’s office says that you never approved this arrangement through them.”
As damage control, it was a poor performance. Even liberal journalist John Heilemann, then co-host of Bloomberg’s With All Due Respect, scoffed: “The two big headlines: one, she destroyed thousands of e-mails, number one; and number two, as someone tweeted ‘Nixon didn’t burn the tapes but Hillary destroyed the e-mails.’ Those are not great takeaways from this.”
But the point of the press conference was to give Hillary’s allies an excuse to declare the matter closed. CBS’s Scott Pelley that night expressed the futility of further investigation by echoing Clinton’s own words at a 2013 Benghazi hearing: “The partisans are going to believe what they want to believe. There’s no chance any minds were changed there today, so what difference does any of this make in Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination?”
The next night, March 11, Pelley’s Evening News reduced its coverage to a scant 20 seconds and ABC’s World News Tonight dropped the story entirely. NBC Nightly News hit it once more with a full report that evening, then joined their competitors in moving on.
What blossomed next were pundits claiming that the not-so-tough coverage of an obvious scandal was proof that the media “hated” Clinton — a nonsensical spin designed to embarrass any journalists who might be tempted to ask further questions.
The New York Times headline on March 12 screamed: “Early in 2016 Race, Clinton’s Toughest Foe Appears to Be the News Media.” Reporter Patrick Healy painted his brethren as “adversaries” to the potential history-making first woman President: “With no other powerful Democrats likely to run against her, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s toughest adversary for her party’s presidential nomination in 2016 has now become clear.”
“The media, they hate her the most, okay?” Nicolle Wallace slimed on The View. “They hate her. And even the most respected journalists said, you know, ‘Oh, the Clintonian penchant for secrecy is back.’ They have Clinton PTSD from the last Clinton presidency. They are done with her.”
Yet as Hillary’s campaign chugged inexorably forward — first against left-wing Senator Bernie Sanders in the primaries, then against GOP nominee Donald Trump in the general election — the e-mail scandal simmered, much to the chagrin of liberal journalists. NewsBusters’ Bill D’Agostino assembled a compilation of the media in 2015 and 2016 wishing away Hillary’s e-mail scandal as no big deal (in contrast to their fierce reactions to news of classified documents at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home last summer).
“147 FBI agents are focused on this?” ABC’s Cokie Roberts grumbled in March 2016. “I mean, don’t they have other problems?”
FBI Director James Comey gave Hillary and her friends what they wanted in July 2016, when he publicly announced that after months of investigation, he did not believe Clinton should face criminal charges in the case.
“This is a huge burden lifted off of Hillary Clinton’s back,” CNN’s David Chalian beamed. His colleague Jeffrey Toobin phoned in to tout how Comey’s statement was an “enormous relief” for Clinton.
Over on MSNBC, NBC’s senior political editor Beth Fouhy belittled the idea that anyone should doubt Hillary’s innocence at this point: “This sort of notion that the system is rigged — hard for anybody to agree to that after you see what James Comey just did and how clearly and non-partisan he took this matter.”
But the liberal media’s love notes to the “non-partisan” Comey turned to hate mail in October, when the FBI Director announced new e-mails had been found on a laptop belonging to disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner, husband of Hillary’s top assistant Huma Abedin. “Why throw that stink bomb at the very end of the campaign?” CNN’s Toobin griped on October 31, 2016.
MRC’s Geoffrey Dickens tallied the media spin on the Big Three broadcast networks: “Beginning with the evening (October 28) of the announcement through Monday morning (October 31) MRC analysts reviewed all statements (by reporters, analysts, and partisans) that took a position on Comey and Clinton and found arguments against Comey (88) swamped those against Clinton (31) by a ratio of almost 3 to 1. There were a handful of statements that praised either Comey (10) or Clinton (4).”
Some analysts argue that Comey’s last-minute statement about new e-mails clinched the election for Trump. If so, it shows that the stakes of Hillary’s e-mail scandal were always high — and explains why many liberal reporters were so eager to smother the story when it first appeared eight years ago.
For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.