Hillary Clinton, The Media, And The "Optics" Of Untrustworthiness

sen. hillary clinton  speaks at ...
sen. hillary clinton speaks at ...

"Hey Cassie, I want to ask you a question. Do you think 'honest' and 'straightforward' mean the same thing?"

My 17-year-old daughter, whose favorite subject is not English, didn't hesitate. "Totally different. Honest means telling the truth. Straightforward means you are blunt. You can lie in a blunt way." Thank you, Cassie. Sure wish you had written the questions for the NBC/Wall Street Journal Presidential Survey.

For several days, I'd been watching the media pundits salivate over last week's poll results, in which Donald Trump rated 16 points better than Hillary Clinton in a question asking which one was "better" at "being honest and straightforward." These astonishing results, amazingly, merely afforded the media an opportunity to chew yet again over one of their favorite topics: "Hillary's honesty problem." This week, it could be freshly juiced up because Bill Clinton had just put his foot and mouth into the wrong airplane. This allowed Chuck Todd, on Meet the Press, to smoothly segue into a discussion of how the "optics"of that event showed that "The Clintons" [sic] "don't play by the same rules as other people." Never mind that Hillary and Bill are, last time I looked, two separate people. As usual, Bill and Hillary, fact and "optics,"got smooshed together in the favored "narrative"of Hillary's troubles getting people to trust her.

It never occurred to any of the pundits (or simply wasn't journalistically hot enough) to question the poll question itself. As in: Which quality did respondents have in mind? Truthfulness? Or straighforwardness? As my daughter correctly pointed out, they aren't the same thing at all. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, "straightforward= easy to understand, simple; without unnecessary politeness" while "honest=truthful or able to be trusted; not likely to steal, cheat, or lie." So, it's perfectly possible to lie in a straightforward way (the best liars, in fact, do so baldly) OR to be truthful but not in a straightforward way--for example, when one is trying to tell someone something that will be hurtful or explain something complex or contradictory.

In fact, a good argument can be made that Trump is a perfect example of a straightforward liar, while Hillary, who (surprise!) is rated by PolitiFact as the most honest of all the candidates (Sanders runs second, Trump last), has, after decades of concocted scandals, developed her famous "honesty problem" precisely because she has learned to speak the truth so cautiously it seems phony.

It may also be, dictionary be damned, that saying whatever you feel like without regard for fact (Trump's favored strategy for getting cheers) has come to be equivalent to "telling it like it is"--which in turn is conflated with "honesty." However you approach it, the question is a classic example of a bad survey question.

For Chuck Todd et al, these kinds of questions might be seen as more appropriate to a classroom than a news show that depends on ratings. The trouble is, unless the perpetuation of Hillary's "honesty problem"is deconstructed and not merely "reported," it will continue to be recycled and reinforced--and its status, over time, transformed from "optics" into fact. Wait, forget "over time"; it's already been engraved as a fact in the minds of millions of Americans.

Daniel Boorstin, way back in the 60s, predicted this turn. Mass media, he warned, generates "pseudo-events." A pseudo-event is something that acquires its reality and power not because it is accurate, but simply because the media has reported it, repeated it, exaggerated it, re-played it, made a mantra of it. A classic early example is Richard Jewell, who was wrongly accused of being the pipe bomber at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. All we heard about for weeks was the duct tape found under his bed. No real evidence against him existed and he was ultimately exonerated, but that duct tape was made into such a compelling detail that many people today still think he was the bomber.

Today, the pseudo-event rules the air-waves, especially on the rolling news channels where leaks, poll results, gaffes, and blunders are immediately turned into high-voltage headlines and endlessly repeated, organizing people's perceptions into yet-to-be-analyzed "narratives" of dubious factual status.

Enter FBI director James Comey and the media's handling of yesterday's report on the status of the investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server. Comey's report, not unlike the poll question I discussed earlier, pulled in two different directions at the same time. On the one hand, Comey announced his recommendation to the justice department that Clinton be cleared of all criminal charges. But before he came to that conclusion, in an unprecedented, irregular, and irresponsible set of additional "assessments," he publicly criticized Clinton and the State Department for "extreme carelessness" in the handling of classified emails. His remarks were so harsh that many viewers (including me) were expecting him to conclude with an announcement of indictment.

Without allowing themselves a moment to examine Comey's words with care or question any contradictions or missteps the FBI director had made, MSNBC commentators Andrea Mitchell and Michael Steele immediately began to weave his report into their favored narrative of Clintonian untrustworthiness. Clinton, they pointed out, said she didn't send or receive any emails marked classified. But Comey said she did: 110 of them! Claiming that Coney had "completely disputed Hillary's claims," Mitchell predicted "grave political problems" for Clinton.

The evening commentators followed their lead. "It's a complete political indictment of her conduct," declared Kristen Welker. "A direct disputation of the stories she's been telling."(Chris Cillizza.) Demonstrates that "trust and honesty continue to dog the Clinton campaign" (Chuck Todd).

By the time Joe, Mika, and Nicole Wallace got in on it in the morning, it had become, predictably, a tale of bald-faced deception on Clinton's part. The show began with artfully arranged side-by-side clips contrasting Clinton's statements with Coney's "assessments." Guests like Steve Ratner and Howard Dean, who tried to caution against too-quick conclusions, were interrupted and talked over. Nothing was allowed to interfere with the "untrustworthy Clinton" thread, into which the tarmac meeting and even President Obama were dragged. "Why did she lie?"asked Joe, simulating curiosity (but fooling no-one.) "We can only assume," said Wallace, "that it was a lie" when Clinton said the emails were unclassified. And so on.

A few small but important details that none of the pundits seem to care about:

Clinton had said she never sent emails marked as classified, while Comey's 110 (except for a "very small number"--which turned out, on later questioning, to be just 3) were not marked, but rather (according to Comey) contained "subject matter" that "any reasonable person should have known...had no place in an unclassified system." The "subject matter" in the three (out of 30,000!) was "internally marked" with tiny letter symbols pertaining to specific sentences within the emails. None of the 110 were clearly and boldly designated in a subject line or elsewhere as "classified" or "confidential." And in fact, the State Department has said that it was an error for at least two of them to be considered classified to begin with.

So where's the lie?

Chuck Todd, who as far as I know has never worked in the State Department, called the marking issue "a technicality." A technicality? Doesn't precisely the word "marked" exonerate Clinton from lying? Moreover, Ellen Tauscher, who served as an Under Secretary in the State Department until 2012, objected fiercely to Todd's characterization, and insisted that the separation of emails into classified and unclassified piles and marked accordingly was taken with utmost seriousness and done very rigorously. Of course, mistakes may have been made. But perhaps it wasn't so "unreasonable" for Clinton to imagine they had done their job correctly?

Another seemingly unnoticed piece of Comey's report was his (unexplained) specification that the determination that the unmarked emails contained classified information was made by the "owning agencies."This little detail raises many questions. Were other agencies in agreement, or were there any inter-agency disputes? Could there conceivably be others, no less "reasonable," who might come--or perhaps even did come--to a different conclusion? Comey didn't take questions, so none of these potential complications were addressed. Frankly, I have to wonder whether this might have been a deliberate strategy.

I don't know the answer to these or any other of the many questions, both factual and political, that might be raised about Comey's report. I do know that the current rush to judge Clinton as a liar is a precipitous, irresponsible media maelstrom that indeed, as Andrea Mitchell said, could potentially raise "grave political problems" for Clinton. I also am pretty certain the pundits will happily report those problems while never questioning their own role in making them happen.

Susan Bordo is a cultural historian and Otis A. Singletary Chair in the Humanities at University of Kentucky. She is currently writing a book about Hillary Clinton.

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