The Anatomy of a Nothingburger
How to create a scandal without really trying…
On Friday, FBI Director Jim Comey doused our tortured presidential election with gasoline, lit a match, tossed it, and walked away. The highly irregular nature of Comey’s 11th hour intervention into the race aside, the media went into a frenzy. Instead of allowing the letter to speak for itself or seeking clarification from DOJ officials on the nature of Comey’s vague letter (you know, reporting), a narrative crystalized within minutes: the FBI had reopened the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. The race had been turned upside-down and with 11 days left, the political implications for Clinton would be grievous.
Let’s review how the initial response to this political earthquake unfolded on Twitter:
FBI director says Clinton email probe reopened https://t.co/8tGg6hiX51
BIG: The FBI is reopening its investigation into @HillaryClinton's email server. Here's the letter from the FBI to Congress:
With the mainstream media seemingly confirming that the investigation into Clinton was heating up again, Democrats began to bed-wet, Republicans popped champagne and stocks began to tank:
In the wake of the FBI email announcement, stocks fall sharply. As I've said before, markets *hate* the idea of a Trump presidency.
Saturday morning, papers across the country led with breathless headlines touting the FBI’s “reopened investigation”:
The Clinton email news leads almost every single one of the big swing state papers this morning …
And Republican candidates used this information to fundraise and attack their opponents:
GOP campaigns running with a description of Comey letter that reporting is not backing up. https://t.co/ZUkk73xhkl
Text from Trump campaign just now explicitly says Hillary should be in jail:
All pretty damning stuff right? Not so fast. It turns out someone was doing actual reporting Friday afternoon. NBC’s Pete Williams is a highly respected Justice Department reporter. He’s been on the beat since the early 90s and has an impressive rolodex of sources throughout the DOJ. He did what every good journalist is supposed to: dig for the truth and report the facts. Soon enough, information from Williams started to roll in. Other journalists began to disseminate Williams’ reporting from their natural habitat, Twitter:
Pete Williams sources say in course of a separate investigation, FBI came across "a device." found emails there. but emails NOT from HRC
NBC's Pete Williams says Clinton email FBI investigation not related to Wikileaks or Russian hacking
senior law enforcement official to @PeteWilliamsNBC: Comey letter sent out of "abundance of caution." no indication anyone withheld evidence
Pete Williams just confirmed on @allinwithchris that "many" of the newly found emails could be "duplicates." As I suggested earlier.
As the public and media figures began to digest the possibility that the initial headlines may have been overblown, the Twitterverse took note of Williams’ crucial role in breaking through the noise:
Does the profusion of leaks to Pete Williams rowing back the news suggest the FBI Director didn't realize the gravity of what he was doing?
What if the FBI tried to communicate clearly with the public rather than talking off the record to Pete Williams?
Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her… what? There's actual reporting on the subject and the details appear far from damning?
Shortly after, other organizations began to follow up with their own reporting and the initial knee-jerk narrative took more hits:
BREAKING: US official: Newly discovered emails related to Clinton investigation did not come from her private server.
Justice Department reporter for Wall Street Journal says, per his sources, all the emails that prompted Comey's letter could be duplicates https://t.co/RxjgwpPMeZ
So, this is 1. not abt Clinton-sent emails 2. not about her server 3. found on weiner device 4. may be only 3 emails 5. wtf
Then Newsweek (another bright spot in Friday’s dismal coverage) informed us that “despite the widespread claims in the media that this development had prompted the FBI to “reopen” the case, it did not; such investigations are never actually closed, and it is common for law enforcement to discover new information that needs to be examined.”
Even the stock market began to recover:
Looks like the stock market has decided the FBI email notice is all much ado about nothing
So how did we get here? How did we go from a complete Clinton meltdown to “meh” in a matter of hours? For that answer, we again turn to Twitter:
FBI Dir just informed me, "The FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation." Case reopened
There it is. Congressman Jason Chaffetz, Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, tweeted that the FBI Director personally informed him that the investigation was reopened. To many reporters and editors, Chaffetz’ tweet was good enough. Instead of doing independent reporting, they relied solely on the word of a partisan to shape their stories. The initial reporting on this matter wasn’t journalism, it was stenography for House Republicans.
Comey’s letter is publicly available and nothing in those three vague paragraphs indicated that the FBI was re-opening its investigation into Hillary Clinton. This entire incident is a case study in journalistic malpractice. Those breathless tweets are still out there and those morning papers are still sitting in newstands, doctors offices, and on coffee tables around the country. With 10 days until the election, it’s very hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube.
This incident conforms with an all too familiar pattern when it comes to coverage of Hillary Clinton — publish the sensational headlines and quietly walk them back when more details emerge. After the damage is done. Clinton scandal mongering is the lifeblood for far too many reporters. When the news broke Friday afternoon, some, like this ostensibly non-partisan Washington Poster reporter, could hardly contain his glee:
Did someone mention the FBI and Hillary? https://t.co/wk3pD5I1Rz
We’ve been down this road many, many times before. Time after time, media outlets rush to publish damaging Clinton “bombshells” only to have them debunked or watered down once additional facts come to light. The most egregious example of this pattern (until yesterday) occurred during the start of the Democratic primary. The New York Times published an explosive story claiming that the FBI had opened a criminal investigation into the email practices of Hillary Clinton. The Times’ indispensable former public editor Margaret Sullivan took her paper to task:
“The story — a Times exclusive — appeared high on the home page and the mobile app late Thursday and on Friday and then was displayed with a three-column headline on the front page in Friday’s paper. The online headline read “Criminal Inquiry Sought in Hillary Clinton’s Use of Email,” very similar to the one in print.
But aspects of it began to unravel soon after it first went online. The first major change was this: It wasn’t really Mrs. Clinton directly who was the focus of the request for an investigation. It was more general: whether government information was handled improperly in connection with her use of a personal email account.
Much later, The Times backed off the startling characterization of a “criminal inquiry,” instead calling it something far tamer sounding: it was a “security” referral.
From Thursday night to Sunday morning — when a final correction appeared in print — the inaccuracies and changes in the story were handled as they came along, with little explanation to readers, other than routine corrections.”
Sound familiar? Of course it does. We’re seeing the same playbook unfold today. You’d think media organizations would want to avoid the embarrassment of walking back their own reporting but unfortunately, for every Pete Williams, there are 50 Chris Cillizzas.
Media companies have been struggling to deal with the death of the newspaper for decades. They still haven’t cracked the code but clickbait works and the rush to be first is real. In this environment, facts matter less than how many shares a story receives on social media. The same goes for cable news ratings. Sullivan summed up the problem best herself last year:
“There are at least two major journalistic problems here, in my view. Competitive pressure and the desire for a scoop led to too much speed and not enough caution.”
How do we avoid this? As Sullivan notes, “Less speed. More transparency.” Instead of rushing to be first and relying solely on dubious sources to do it, be like Pete Williams. Keep powder dry until the facts are determined. If the story has legs, you’d better believe it’ll be clicked, shared and talked about. No sensationalism was needed to hype the failure of healthcare.gov back in 2013. Yellow journalism wasn’t necessary to report on Mitt Romney’s 47% tape or Donald Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood hot mic recording. Let the facts speak for themselves, conduct original reporting, be suspicious of partisan sources and you won’t get burned. By the way, who burned the Times on that story? You guessed it — anonymous DOJ and Hill (read House Republican) sources.
One can hope that in the aftermath of this election, media companies will strive to clean up their act but I’m not holding my breath. That’s why we created Rantt. It’s not easy to sift through the bullshit but its vital. Our country needs healthy institutions and we’ll be doing everything in our power to hold them accountable.
UPDATE: On the Sunday prior to the election, Director Comey sent a follow-up letter to Rep. Chaffetz confirming that the Director’s bombshell announcement was, in-fact, a big nothing-burger.
Swing state papers mostly leading with the Comey decision as Clinton being "cleared.
It is in the informed opinion of this author that Director Comey’s October letter cost Secretary Clinton the election.
Clinton went from having a 6-point lead pre-Comey to a 3-point lead post-Comey. https://t.co/LgJkfYpZCk