New York Times columnist Paul Krugman contends my theory—that the media’s trade-like mentality explains a great deal of what troubles liberals about this season’s election coverage—doesn’t do enough work.
It doesn’t explain why the Clinton emails were a never-ending story but the disappearance of millions of George W. Bush emails wasn’t, or for that matter Jeb Bush’s deletion of records; the revelation that Colin Powell did, indeed, offer HRC advice on how to have private email the way he did hasn’t even been reported by some major news organizations.
Obviously the shortcomings of any large enterprise are multivariate. It would be reductive to claim that media self-interest, or any other single incentive, explains anything as vast and diffuse as political media by itself, and I noted as much in the article. But I think Krugman’s examples actually support my argument more than they undermine it.
The Clinton email saga is the product of a perfect synergy between typical conservative scandal-mongering and the media’s indignation that information they were entitled to, if otherwise uninterested in, had been concealed. The lost Bush administration emails were a pretty big story at the time (slightly lost perhaps in myriad other scandals and a big election), and would have been a huge story had Bush not been a failed second-term president who was on his way out of office. Similarly, Colin Powell never ran for the presidency, so there was less attendant media interest in seeing his records. The fact that he circumvented public systems is, in my view, important context for evaluating Clinton’s tenure as a cabinet secretary, but the fact that the media is less interested in her relative performance in office than in the availability of her records is 100 percent consistent with my analysis.
I also think Trump’s tax returns are at least on a par, public interest-wise, with Clinton’s emails—and sure enough, the political media hounds the Trump campaign about his failure to disclose these records much more than they do about his historically poor grasp of federal policy or his authoritarianism or even his racism, which is generally treated as something he can “pivot” from, rather than a disqualifying character indictment.
My point isn’t that if the media took a broader view of democratic accountability, its coverage of the election would be flawless or unobjectionable to liberals. But I do believe it’s the single best way to explain the mutual incomprehension between liberals, who worry that Trump poses a threat to U.S. democracy in very broad ways, and news outlets, which see themselves first and foremost as defenders of one particular pillar of liberal society.