The election of the 45th US president had hardly been decided before politicians and pundits began blaming Hillary Clinton for Donald Trump's victory. "What was missing in Hillary?" MSNBC’s Chris Mathews asks. "Where did she go wrong?" "Overconfidence," says one panelist. "The people wanted change," says another. "They weren’t inspired." More than a few believe that "she didn’t speak to the working class and their concerns."
Michael Moore, the filmmaker and activist who supported Bernie Sanders in the primary and came out late in the day for Hillary in the general, declares that she would have won the election if only she had told the press "I feel like crap" when she had pneumonia. Bernie would have done that, he says, and the boys all nod and smile. "If only they would have shown her more human side," Moore says.
The day before, I watched Sanders himself smile with unabashed, almost infantile delight when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked if he ever wondered if things would have turned out differently if he had been the nominee. "What good does that do now?" Sanders bellowed, a bit too emphatically; the implication that it would have done some good then is unmistakable. Earlier, I read an opinion piece that summed it up this way: "She couldn’t escape being the wrong candidate for the political moment."
No. Sorry, but that doesn't do it. Doesn’t come close to doing it. Hillary wasn’t the "wrong candidate." She was made "wrong" — by Bernie (not because he ran against her, but because of how he represented her to the young people who idolized him); by FBI director James Comey (who made a nation forget about the 12 women Trump violated to concentrate again on an utterly unfounded email "scandal"); by the ever-relentless persecution of the GOP (who have always hated her, for her "liberalism" and her feminism); and perhaps most of all by the media (who for years have resented Hillary for not submitting to them, and, in their pursuit of hot headlines, turned a human woman into a fictional character: untrustworthy, dishonest, hubristic). She was made "wrong" by conscious strategists, by those who bought the insanity of a Trump/Hillary equivalence of evil, and by those who purchased their own purity of "protest" at the price of the country.
I have written a book, "The Creation of Anne Boleyn", in which I argued that there are actually two Anne Boleyns. One is the complex, flesh-and-blood woman who made the fatal mistakes of not staying in her proper wifely place and then getting on the wrong side of Thomas Cromwell. The other Anne is a nasty caricature concocted by her political enemies and passed down through the centuries via Catholic polemics, factually loose biographies, sensationalizing novels, films and television. That Anne is an overly-ambitious, calculating, untrustworthy schemer who, while not always represented as guilty of adultery and treason (the crimes for which she was falsely charged), nonetheless got the fate she deserved. I call her "our default Anne" because although there have certainly been more sympathetic versions of Anne over the centuries (which I detail in my book), ambitious, scheming Anne runs like a recurring pattern through the variations. Like Freddy Krueger in the "Nightmare on Elm Street" movies, our default Anne just will not die.
A fictional character invented by the Republicans
There’s astonishingly little basis in fact for this nasty version of Anne. She is a fantasy creation that lives within a narrative developed over time, one that turned politically motivated lies into inflammatory gossip and alchemized that gossip into what we believe to be fact.
Today, with a 24 hour news cycle that has gradually blurred the line between entertainment and information, it doesn’t take centuries. Thus, in a much more compressed timeframe, the real Hillary Clinton has been subjected to the same poisonous alchemy, bubbling over the last several decades, and ultimately resulting in "dishonest," "untrustworthy," "lying" Hillary — a thoroughly fictional caricature concocted by the GOP, mindlessly perpetuated by a headline-and-ratings seeking media, and swallowed, with disastrous results, by large numbers of American voters. It’s not just sexism that created her. It’s not just politics. It’s not just the triumph of the consumable product over the complexities of the real. Rather, it’s the specific historical intersection of all of these.
The young, wild Hillary
It’s impossible to understand the career of Hillary Clinton and the creation of "Hillary Clinton" without an understanding of sexism. Despite the simple-minded thinking of media pundits, it is not equivalent to woman-hating, and Hillary’s problem has not simply been that she’s a woman, but that she’s a woman who refused to occupy the role and place assigned to her.
As a highly successful student at Wellesley College, she was remembered by classmates as a campus activist and as "a sophisticated coalition builder who provided extremely strong and very sensible leadership" and who became the first student to address the graduating class at commencement. Her speech spontaneously included a radical criticism of the official speaker, Republican Senator Edward Brooke; it was published in Life magazine, and she was interviewed by the New York Times. Friends were surprised when, after law school, she didn’t run for public office, but married Bill Clinton instead. "A lot of us thought Hillary would be the first woman president," says Wellesley friend Karen Williamson. "I thought if ever in my lifetime there is a woman president, it would be her."
But alongside her independent achievements, there was pressure to be married — "ring by spring!" was the motto of Wellesley seniors — and like many others of our generation (I am just a few months older than Hillary), Hillary was drawn to, but found unable to sustain, a life subordinated to the ambitions of a husband. When she continued to wear her own independence and identity as a lawyer proudly, it came crash bang against cultural expectations.
As Gay White, the widow of Frank White, who ran in 1980 against then-incumbent Bill Clinton, recalls, "I cannot tell you the number of times [prospective voters] would say to me 'If your husband wins, are you going to keep his last name?' I heard it over and over and over." Hillary Diane Rodham had never changed her name and Arkansans saw this as a rejection of the role she was supposed to adopt as first lady, not to mention wife. Bill was already seen as young and arrogant. The fact that he had what Gay White called a "radical feminist" wife is believed by many to have contributed to his loss to White in that election. "How they perceived her," says White, "was very much a factor."
"You need to protect yourself"
It was not Hillary’s first or last encounter with resentment of her seeming rejection of her "proper place" as a woman. "When I went to take the law-school admission test," she told Henry Louis Gates, "we had to go in to Harvard to take the test, and we were in a huge room, and there were very few women there, and we sat at these desks waiting for the proctors or whoever to come and all the young men around us started to harass us. They started to say: 'What do you think you’re doing? If you get into law school, you’re going to take my position. You’ve got no right to do this. Why don’t you go home and get married?'" Later, in an interview with Humans of New York, Hillary included more detail about her response: "I couldn’t afford to get distracted because I didn’t want to mess up the test. So I just kept looking down, hoping that the proctor would walk in the room. I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional. But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem 'walled off.'"
This is the classic double bind for women, one with which Clinton has struggled all her political life. If a woman is seen as too emotional or vulnerable, she is likely be perceived as too weak or unstable to be a leader. But if she is seen as too controlled or self-contained, she is likely to be perceived as "cold" and "masculine" and therefore repellant. Golda Meir was called "the only man in the cabinet"; Angela Merkel "the iron frau"; Elizabeth I of England spent her entire reign trying to walk a tightrope balanced precariously between the need to show her subjects she had "the heart and stomach of a King" and the need to earn their love as the nurturing mother of England. As the ruling monarch, Elizabeth was able to exert some control over how she was represented to the public. Hillary, unfortunately, has largely been at the mercy of the media.
Hillary’s gender crimes may be as significant as partisan politics in the creation of the powerfully media version of who she is. These go back to her time as first lady, perhaps even before. She wanted an office in the West Wing! She tried to put through a plan for universal health care! She only had one child! She sneered (or so the public was led to believe) at those who stayed home to bake cookies and serve tea. She didn’t seem to care enough about fashion. Unlike her more feminine predecessors Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan, she didn’t know what to do with her hair. These transgressions made her "The Lady Macbeth of Arkansas" and "The Yuppie Wife from Hell"; a New York Post cartoon pictured Bill Clinton as a marionette, with a ferocious Hillary pulling the strings.
For a time during Bill Clinton’s presidency, her husband’s bad behavior won her some sympathy, and her productive but low-key (Carl Bernstein called it "deferential") performance as a senator earned her praise. But then she decided to run for the presidency, and the "hellish housewife" (as Leon Wieseltier called her) was reincarnated. Hillary was "Satan" (Don Imus), "Mommie Dearest", "the debate dominatrix" and "Mistress Hillary" (Maureen Dowd.) And it wasn’t just the right wing. Chris Matthews of MSNBC saw her as a creature from the bowels of hell: "witchy" and a "she-devil." When she lost to Barack Obama, the correct order of things was temporarily restored. Just prior to declaring her current run for the presidency she had a 66% approval rating, was virtually uniformly trusted by colleagues on both sides of the aisle and considered one of the most admired women in the world. In fact, when Hillary is actually serving our country — as senator, as secretary of state, and even as first lady (when she wasn’t making provocative comments about cookies and tea) — her approval ratings have been sky-high. It’s only when she has "leaned in," as Sheryl Sandberg put it — when she has sought to move beyond what many still believe is a woman’s "proper place" — that her numbers started to fall.
She used to be criticized for her virtue
But a double-bind is precisely that: you can’t win no matter which direction you choose. When Hillary tried to "rewrite" her cookie-baking remark by entering her home-baked cookies in a contest, I don't believe it was a cynical political ploy, but the recognition that to communicate effectively to a huge portion of her husband's constituency, she would have to tamp down the outward expressions of her feminism, ambition and independence. Earlier, after Bill lost to White, she had made concessions of this sort to the citizens of Arkansas, giving up the Rodham in her name, straightening her hair, abandoning her owlish glasses and wearing make-up. But each one of these make-overs, even as they resulted in a more acceptable first-lady persona, increased the perception that she was an ambitious politician who would craft her public self as required. It may come as a surprise to those more familiar only with the "untrustworthy," "corrupt" Hillary of the 2016 campaign, but earlier attacks on Hillary, besides those focused on her feminism and headbands, centered around what was seen as her ostentatious virtue and moral superiority. Rather than a tool of Wall Street, she was seen as overly zealous in her quest for moral justice and reform. Whether in a "masculine" or a "feminine" mode, whenever she "leaned in" too much, she paid a price.
The cruelest, most ironic cuts have come from younger feminists, for whom Hillary’s attempts to become politically viable made her seem less like a progressive warrior and more like a clubwoman of an older, more "conventional" generation. In the 2008 book, "Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary," Amy Wilentz writes: "Most of the time, she looks like a Republican. She gives off something between a country-club, golf-playing, hedge-funding vibe, with a whiff of bingo games, Sunday church-going, supermarket aisles and coffee klatches. Her target is obviously some well-imagined political center." "I miss the direct, brilliant, ball-busting Hillary who it was once possible to imagine existed," Ariel Levy writes in the same book."In her current presidential campaign, Hillary’s speeches have become as cloying and generic as that frigging Celine Dion song she chose by committee," Levy goes on. "I have yet to meet a woman who likes Hillary Clinton," contributes Katie Roiphe, "She is trying too hard, and the spectacle of all this trying is uncomfortable, embarrassing. One could feel in a palpable way the smart woman’s impersonation of the pretty woman, the career woman’s impersonation of the stay-at-home mom; one could feel a lack of grace."
The book, which includes reflections on Hillary Clinton from 30 female writers, was published in 2008. There was as yet no email scandal, no Clinton Foundation flap, no Benghazi, no Wall Street speeches, no controversial trade deals and no revelations of earlier comments about "super predators." There was no particular policy reason for feminists to find Hillary so cringe-worthy. It seemed, rather, that she had begun to remind them of their mothers. As I discovered when I looked up the ages of these writers, Hillary could well have been the mother of Roiphe or Levy, born in 1968 and 1974 respectively. (Wilentz in 1959.) Strikingly, the most sympathetic pieces in the volume come from Katha Pollitt and Deborah Tannen, both born in the 1940s. Pollitt and Tannen undoubtedly had been faced with similar dilemmas to those that faced Hillary; I know I have. When I was about to go on the market for my first job, I was advised how to style my hair so it would look less counter-cultural. When I was interviewed for graduate school, the chair of the department asked if I considered myself an "aggressive woman." At tenure time, the fact that I wore a tattered, Flashdance-style skirt was actually raised as an argument against my promotion. A bit later, I lost a prestigious job because, as I was told by a confidante, I "waved my hands around too much" and was too intense when I gave my job talk. Over time, I learned that to get my most important priorities successfully launched, I had to contain some impulses of my more spontaneous, "authentic" self. When I was politicking to get our Gender and Women’s Studies program departmental status, I shmoozed with the old guys and respectfully considered their totally ridiculous objections.
Hillary's public and private opinions
With my own experiences in mind, I find it incredible that Clinton was so berated for the notion that one's public position often must diverge from one's private ideas. Evidence of duplicity? What? If all of us, all the time, publicly expressed what we are privately thinking, there would be few friends or colleagues left standing. And little progress would be made on anything we care about. Clinton points to Abraham Lincoln’s careful strategizing for the 13th amendment, but all of us, even in much less formidable positions, often find ourselves in situations where saying exactly what we think would sacrifice the goals we are fighting for. In fact, I think this is the correct way to understand any shmoozy or complimentary comments she made to Wall Street in her speeches. That is the end of that particular "controversy," as far as I’m concerned. Why did no commentator make this argument?
The 2008 animus of Levy, Wilentz, and Roiphe suggest, however, that when it comes to Hillary-hatred, it’s never just about policy. And I’ve come to realize that many younger feminists just don’t see the same Hillary that I do. I had a big brain click when I asked one of my graduate students how so-called "millennial" feminists saw Hillary and she said "a white lady." She wasn’t referring to the color of Hillary’s skin, or even her racial politics (which have been badly misrepresented, mostly by white people — older African-Americans being most loyal to Hillary) but what is perceived as her membership in the "dominant class," all cleaned up and normalized, aligned with establishment power rather than the forces of resistance, and stylistically coded (her tightly coiffed hair, her neat, boring pantsuits, her circumspection) with her membership in that class.
It’s important to recognize, too, that although younger generations of feminists hardly share the politics of the right-wingers — who have called Hillary a witch, a devil, a consorter with Satan, worthy of being jailed or burned at the stake — they have nonetheless, as Savannah Barker points out, come to know Hillary Clinton, to form their ideas of who she is, in the shadow of 20 years of relentless personal and political attacks. Unfortunately, although they are daily bombarded by the results of those attacks, few of them are aware of the "living history" (to borrow Hillary’s phrase) that produced them. When "millennials look at Hillary Clinton," Barker writes, "we don’t see her years of being beaten down by an unfair press serving a misogynistic public, but rather we see a polished politician without the people-pleasing charisma or the energizing fervor of Bernie Sanders."
The right-wing conspiracy
These young women weren’t around when the GOP, appalled that "liberals" like the Clintons had somehow grabbed political power, began a series of witch-hunts that have never ended. Hillary was correct: It has been a "vast right-wing conspiracy," from Kenneth Starr’s relentless digging into the Clinton’s personal life, to Mitch McConnell’s plotting with other Republicans on the night of Obama’s election to block every program of his, to Trump’s "birtherism." They hadn’t experienced a decade of "culture wars" in which feminists and other "politically correct" types were seen as "closing the American mind" (Alan Bloom) and destroying higher education (Dinesh D’Souza, who has continued his campaign in the fantasy-ridden "Hillary’s America".) They don’t know the history of the 1994 crime bill (inherited from Ronald Reagan) or the "super-predator" label (not coined by Hillary and not referring to black youth but to powerful, older dealers.)
What is "living history" for younger people is neither the "radical feminist" Hillary, who had women of my generation cheering, or the reasons why she tamed her unruly hair and unfiltered speech and became more cautious, but a fictional Hillary. That Hillary is unrecognizable to those of us who grew up actually witnessing the process of her creation. But those who only know the headlines may believe that Hillary to be the real deal.
Women should make coffee and keep quiet
It was especially painful for me when — way back in February when the primaries were just heating up — a crowd of young Bernie Sanders supporters booed Hillary Clinton when she described herself as a "progressive." By then, the word had become not very useful descriptively — because of course, one can be progressive in some ways and not so progressive in others, and no politician that I know has ever struck every "progressive" chord. Rather, it had become more of a badge of honor, a signal that you were the right sort. Which Clinton was being rudely told, by those "boos," that she was not. Those boos, not the support for Sanders, infuriated me. For weeks, I had listened to 19 year-olds and media pundits alike lavish praise on Bernie Sanders for his bold, revolutionary message and pour scorn on Hillary for being "establishment." He was described as "heart" and she as "head"—a bitter irony for those of us familiar with the long history of philosophical, religious, and medical diatribes disqualifying women from leadership positions on the basis of our supposedly less-disciplined emotions. He was seen as "authentic" in his progressivism while she was seen as having moved to the left out of political expediency — as though a lifetime of fighting for universal healthcare, for gender and racial equality and for children’s rights didn’t pass the litmus tests for "progressive" causes. He was the champion of the working class while her long-standing commitments to child care, paid sick leave, the repeal of the Hyde Amendment and narrowing the wage-gap between working men and women are apparently nullified by her having accepted highly-paid invitations to speak at Goldman Sachs.
As those of Clinton's and my generation know, the Sanders generation wasn’t the first mass-movement of young people filled with anti-establishment fervor. A lot of us were "socialist" (or some version of it) in those days. But some of us, too, were women. Women who were charged with making coffee while the male politicos speechified. Women who were shouted down and humiliated for daring to bring up the issue of gender inequality during rallies and leftist gatherings. Women whose protests were seen as trivial, hormonally inspired and "counter-revolutionary." Women who were told over and over that in the interests of progressive change, we had to subordinate our demands to "larger" causes. Some of us could see that those "larger" issues were thoroughly entangled with gender; we would ultimately develop ways of understanding the world that couldn’t be reduced to a single "message" but demanded complex analyses (and action) that looked at the intersections of race, gender and class. In those days, though — before the women’s movement — we often found ourselves simmering and stewing as our boyfriends and husbands defined what was revolutionary, what was worthy and what was "progressive."
Gender issues were ignored in the campaign
So it was like déjà vu for me to see a charismatic male politician once again telling women what issues are and aren’t "progressive." Ironically, the women’s movement, alongside the struggle for racial justice, is one of the true revolutions of the 20th century — a revolution, as the catastrophe of the general election showed, that is far from complete. Yet, until revelations of Donald Trump’s misogynistic groping emerged, press coverage of the 2016 campaigns had virtually nothing to say about gender. During the democratic primary, Bernie Sanders discussed the "working class" as a neutered (but implicitly male) category, as though neither black nor white women counted. (It was probably his biggest mistake, particularly among black women voters.) Among Republicans, Trump’s ugly comments about women’s bodies were largely ignored, and those who tried to warn about him were accused of "playing the woman card." And all the while, the mass media was seizing on Hillary Clinton’s emails and "trust problem" as the only "scandals" worth reporting.
Hillary’s "trust problem" is what Daniel Boorstin, back in the 1960s, called a "pseudo-event." A pseudo-event is something that acquires its reality not because it is accurate, but because the media has reported it, repeated it, exaggerated it, replayed it and made an indelible mantra of it. In the process, like a piece of trashy gossip that has made the rounds of the high school cafeteria, the pseudo-event becomes stamped in viewers' or readers' minds as true. 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.
High-voltage headlines, endlessly repeated
Lots of things operate in this way: family anecdotes, celebrity reputations and historical myths to name a few. Nearly every audience at my Anne Boleyn talks, when I ask what they know about Anne, shout out: "She had six fingers!" Well, no, actually she didn't. It’s a myth created by the Catholic propagandist Nicholas Sander, who never even saw Anne. But the myth has been repeated and recirculated for so long that it has achieved the status of "fact." If you took a poll about it, most people would simply spit back the mythology. It's really hard to dislodge or discredit a pseudo-event once people have become convinced of it.
Today, pseudo-events rule 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 provenance. Hillary Clinton’s "trust problem" falls into this category. The GOP may have originated it through their endless attacks, investigations and hearings, but it took the media's continual harping on Hillary's "trust issues" to turn them into the (pseudo) realities that they have become today. It's been so easy: present every charge of the GOP as "breaking news," report every new email find as a potential treasure trove of hidden secrets and remind viewers that "people don't trust her" every chance you get. By the time a pollster calls and asks, the "trust problem" shows up as a documented "fact."
James Comey's great mistake
Consider the media’s handling of FBI director James Comey’s report on the status of the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server. Comey’s report cleared Clinton of all criminal charges — which could and should have been the headline. But at the same time, venturing way beyond protocol, Comey also publicly criticized Clinton and the State Department for "extreme carelessness" in the handling of classified emails. This left the listening public with the impression of a mixed verdict (which it was not; Clinton was cleared) and gave the GOP a heap of red meat to throw into the media circus surrounding the election.
Comey also suggested that Clinton had lied, that — contrary to her statements to the public — she had received 110 classified emails (out of 30,000 the FBI had recovered.) As it later emerged through more rigorous questioning of Comey by Elijah Cummings and Matt Cartright, Clinton had not lied, as the emails in question had had no required "classified" headers when Clinton received them. Yet without allowing themselves a moment to examine Comey’s words with care or to question any contradictions or missteps the FBI director had made, commentators immediately began to weave his report into their favored narrative of Clintonian "untrustworthiness." "It’s a complete political indictment of her conduct," declared MSNBC journalist Kristen Welker. "A direct disputation of the stories she’s been telling," added political commentator Chris Cillizza. It demonstrates that "trust and honesty continue to dog the Clinton campaign" (Chuck Todd). By the time Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and Nicole Wallace got in on the act on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," it had predictably become 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 Comey’s "assessments." Guests who tried to caution against hurried conclusions, like Steve Rattner and Howard Dean, were interrupted and talked over. Nothing was allowed to interfere with the "untrustworthy Clinton" thread.
In fact, Clinton didn’t lie; Comey did (or, to be generous, sidestepped the truth.) In his earlier statements, Comey had dismissed the importance of the lack of headers, claiming that the emails contained "subject matter" that "any reasonable person should have known... had no place in an unclassified system." But in the Congressional hearing that followed his public announcement, Comey, under questioning by Congressman Matt Cartwright, was forced to admit that none of the emails she had sent or received had been properly marked as classified. Which was just as Clinton had said, and as Comey later admitted, was standard operating procedure according to the State Department Handbook.
At this point, Comey ought to have held a full-blown press conference apologizing for his inaccurate assessment of Clinton’s handling of classified material. Instead, he was silent, while the media incessantly hammered away at Clinton’s "carelessness" and "lies" about her emails. This was a recklessly disseminated narrative with no basis in fact. Yet at the time his mischaracterization was disclosed, Comey offered no public correction or retraction of his previous commentary, which was left to do its political dirty work, unchallenged by the facts. Thus for any viewers relying on TV "news" — MSNBC as well as Fox — these exonerating exchanges never happened. One has to wonder why Comey, 11 days before the election, felt it so vital to "update" the public about the recent discovery of "possibly pertinent" emails on Anthony Weiner’s computer, yet felt no obligation to correct the earlier, highly misleading impression he had created that Clinton had mishandled classified material. His testimony to Matt Cartwright ought to have been major news, but it slid right by.
Or consider Hillary’s "health scare." Hillary had pneumonia and, like many women, had carried on despite her doctor’s advice. Then, after she nearly fainted — something that has happened to others standing in the hot sun at long political events — she committed the unpardonable sin of disappearing from the media’s sight for 90 minutes, while she sought calm and cool — and water — in her daughter Chelsea’s apartment. Where was she? What was she hiding? When a video surfaced showing her unsteadily entering her van, supported by the secret service, and the news of her pneumonia was released, reporters were convinced she had been deliberately concealing her illness, revealing it only when she was "caught in the act" of fainting. Hillary’s explanation — which made a lot of sense to me — was that she didn’t announce her illness because she thought she could just push on through, no big deal. And as it turned out, John Kerry and others had also suffered pneumonia without announcing it to the world. But for Hillary, the "optics" were suspect. The media played and replayed the visual of her knees buckling over and over while the pundits claimed — disingenuously, as they often do — that she had "brought trust problems on herself" by "covering up" her illness.
How pseudo-events become truth
Is Hillary actually untrustworthy? The fact-checkers say, unequivocally, no. Indeed, she turned out to be the most truthful of all the candidates, her record for truth-telling slightly better than that of Bernie Sanders, someone whom the press has never trashed for lying, even when he clearly was — about the circumstances of his visit to Rome, for example. As for Trump, our president-elect: "If deception were a sport," writes Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, "Trump would be an Olympic gold medalist; Clinton would be an honorable mention at her local Y."
No, I don't think it's a conspiracy; I think the reporters are doing what they think is their "job." But the reporter’s notion of what their "job" is has changed. When Walter Cronkite was on for 20 minutes a night, focusing on unsubstantiated rumor was a luxury television news couldn’t afford. Now, the need to fill up space and keep audiences tuned in and ratings high has elevated speculation and spicy headlines to the status of "news" and television creates as much of it as it reports. The 2016 election, in particular, has turned the pseudo-event into a norm of reporting. Here are some of the worst abuses:
1. "Bad Optics" as a Crime. As in: "We have no evidence of any ‘pay for play’ Between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department, but the optics are troubling." When did the possible appearance of wrongdoing become an indictable offense?
2. False Equivalence Passing as "Objectivity." As in: "Clinton and Trump Trade Charges of Racism as the Discourse Becomes Uglier and Uglier" or "Yes, Trump is a raving lunatic, but what about Clinton’s emails?" "Objectivity" used to mean assessing evidence without bias; now it seems to mean making sure you never criticize one candidate without "balancing" it out with a criticism about the other.
3. (Selective) Hermeneutics of Constant Suspicion. As in: "One thing we need to recognize about Clinton’s speech on race is how it turned the conversation away from questions about the Clinton Foundation." Yes, MSNBC reporter Kasie Hunt really tried to make this the main topic of a panel about Clinton’s Las Vegas speech, in which she exposed Trump’s alt-right connections. Apparently, even if Clinton had delivered this generation’s Gettysburg Address, it would be reported as an attempt at "diversion" from the email "scandal."
4. "Perception" Made into Reality. As in: "Clinton’s Continuing Problem with Trust." She’s committed no crimes and PolitiFact rates her the most honest of all the candidates, yet she has this "trust problem" with "the American People." Hmmm. I wonder where the "American People" got the idea that Clinton can’t be trusted? Could it be that the media’s continual reporting of Clinton’s "honesty problem" and the constant attention to her so-called "trust issues" (first generated by her political enemies) has had some influence over how people answer those poll questions? Maybe the "optics" of "trust" are like the duct tape under Richard Jewell’s bed, or the "massive looting" that took place during Hurricane Katrina. The "American People" viewed them as facts, too. And when they were disproved, the retractions didn’t make the headlines. Wonder why not?
5. "Narrative" Replaces Truth. Way back during the primary season, Chris Christie said he didn’t run for president in 2012 because he looked in the mirror and decided he "wasn’t ready." Sam Stein’s commentary: "That was a remarkably candid comment. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know." Arguably, it’s this kind of attitude toward "truth" that got Trump as far as he’s gotten. For months during the primary, all we heard was what a "straight-shooter" Trump is, how "authentic," how (unlike the circumspect, cautious Clinton) he "tells it like it is." This became the favored Trump "narrative" for so long that no-one bothered to worry whether anything he said was true or not. Well, we’ve seen where that infatuation with Trump’s apparent "candor" has gotten us.
When did journalism go so postmodern on us? Ah, but facts are so boring; "optics" and "narratives" are so much cooler. At least in literature class we learned to analyze and deconstruct the text. Journalists have adopted the sexy language without the critical tools — or inclination — to separate the fictional from the factual. But that's a "narrative," like the corrective to the Richard Jewell story, that we are unlikely to see announced in the headlines.
Bernie Sanders deserves some blame, too
All told, the media coverage of Hillary has been a massive heap of "optics," insinuations, "perceptions" taken as fact and pseudo-events. It’s no shocker, then, that if your memory goes back only as far as the last eight to 10 years (or less), your brain has probably been saturated with the notion that Hillary Clinton is a bald-faced liar, unworthy of the trust of the American people. We heard it virtually every day, not only from her political enemies, but from news commentators on every channel. We hear it in casual comments and jokes told by neighbors. We see its influence on her approval numbers in the polls.
Bernie Sanders deserves some blame, too. Although never calling Hillary a "liar," he failed to correct the growing perception among his supporters that being "establishment" was equivalent to being "bought" and "paid for" by Wall Street; it was a short step from there to cries of "corruption", "cover-up" and "criminal!" And then, too, "Hillary the liar" has kept alive everything the media needs to keep viewers watching: the sense that there is a genuine "horse race" to breathlessly follow, the possibility that more news about her deceptions could break at any time and an easily digestible, scandalous cast of characters — "the most unpopular, least trusted candidates in history" — to refer to in their ongoing soap opera/reality show version of the election. At the same time, "Lying Hillary" reassured them that they were offering "balanced" coverage between Trump and Clinton — a paradigm that was absurd and which contributed more to the destruction of Hillary’s campaign, I believe, than any other single factor.
When Bernie didn't get the nomination, Hillary supporters were constantly told by his surrogates to give his supporters "time to grieve." Well, many of us have been grieving since 2008 (and earlier) over everything Hillary has had to suffer and struggle through. Now, we are being told to "move forward" and to support a "peaceful transition" and "be open-minded."
Sorry, not so fast, and maybe never.
Over the past few days, I have often found myself muting the sound on my television. I cannot listen to the pundit's clichés about middle-American anger or Hillary's "inability to replicate the Obama coalition" or the craving for "change." None of them mention their own role: the endless scandals that came to nothing, the complaints about her voice, her lack of charisma, her penchant for privacy and her "inauthenticity." Michael Moore’s inexpressibly infuriating suggestion that if only she showed us more of her "real" self, she would have been more "likeable" and won the election.
History has a lot to teach us. After Anne Boleyn was executed, many who had judged her guilty began to fret and regret their decision, suspecting the charges were trumped up by Anne’s political enemies. But it was too late — her lifeless head and torso were already stuffed into a chest and spirited away. And the people? They were left with a fickle, narcissistic, unstable ruler whom no one felt safe with anymore.