Sinking Hillary Through Bait and Switch

By Peter Daou and Tom Watson

We launched #HillaryMen in large measure to provide a counter-balance to what we anticipated would be deeply flawed, insidious and destructive media coverage and pundit commentary about Hillary's 2016 campaign. We expected a deluge of conservative narratives and frames, carefully crafted and poll-tested, to flood the national discourse.

Unfortunately we've been proven right: our national media and commentariat have disgraced themselves by constantly echoing and magnifying the worst anti-Hillary tropes concocted in Rove-funded think tanks. They have gone so far as to fabricate stories and cook up bad poll numbers. They utilize dishonest tactics to turn strengths into perceived weaknesses, victory into an impression of defeat.

The overhyped issue of Hillary's emails is a quintessential example of what we're describing. As we've observed:

Lost in the months of hype about Hillary Clinton's State Department emails is this simple fact:

There isn't a SINGLE line in her thousands of released emails that is indicative of nefarious motives or behavior.

Not one.

Think about this: Hillary's emails have been microscopically analyzed by every rightwing activist with a laptop and every reporter with an agenda, in a massive crowd-sourced investigation tapping the online database. And they've come away with .... nothing. Not a single allegation that Hillary said anything untoward or unethical. Not the faintest whisper.

The entire "controversy" revolves around questions of (retroactive) classification and convenience. 

The distinction between substance and specification has been lost in the endless media hype, the non-stop coverage, the vicious attacks and the breathless pronouncements. But the fact remains: NOTHING Hillary actually said in her emails reflects poorly on her character. Quite the reverse. 

Is there really any wonder that a portion of the electorate has negative impressions of Hillary when they are exposed to a steady stream of invective and deception, much of it the result of a corrupt alliance between Hillary's detractors on the right and the supposedly neutral mainstream media?

The proliferation of social media platforms has not changed the fact that the establishment media determine the course of America's national debate. Most leading opinion makers have perches atop corporate media outlets, from the New York Times to the Washington Post, CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, and so on.

When we describe Hillary as the anti-establishment candidate, we are not being facetious. The open hostility toward her candidacy from the establishment has shaped the 2016 race and bolstered the gender barrier blocking a woman from the White House.

Today we have a perfect example of the convoluted psychology that informs and infects Hillary coverage and commentary. Once again the culprit is the New York Times. The reporter, Amy Chozick, writes a debate curtain-raiser titled In Debate, Hillary Clinton Will Display Skills Honed Over a Lifetime.

Any person with a basic command of the English language and fourth grade reasoning would assume the story is positive for Hillary.

That person would be dead wrong.

You can read the full article for yourself – we've extracted a series of words and phrases that perfectly illustrate the media's art of bait and switch, their masterful method of damning Hillary with faint praise:

Dutiful, does not possess the retail political skills of her husband, nor can she easily rouse a crowd with a lyrical speech like President Obama, policies that have been largely overshadowed, her use of private email, social media gambit, known to unleash tirades, equal parts venting and joking, take out all her frustration, nods assiduously, times when she can hardly veil her sarcasm and disdain, fleeting and poignant moments when she allows herself to be vulnerable, her eyes welled up and her lips tightened, cannot always rely on her paid political consultants to help her tap into that softer side, being human is overrated, nursed hot tea, tendency to rely on politically safe platitudes and her lawyerlike manner, vague, cautious, she’s like a palm tree, blowing this way and that depending on what is politically expedient, wavered on her position, often points a finger in the air and allows her voice to crescendo, stumbled, audience members cringed.

How can so much negative framing, so many loaded terms be packed into a single article, especially when the policy positions of Hillary's opponents for the Democratic nomination are usually taken at face value? Consider this straightforward (even admiring) pre-debate piece on Martin O'Malley, or this incredibly positive scene-setter by Jason Horowitz on Bernie Sanders. 

We don't entirely blame the beat reporters. They're working inside a system with a clear institutional bias against one candidate. Still, the bait and switch is unfair to Hillary and manipulative of readers. The Chozick story is hardly the first time we've written about this troubling tactic at the New York Times. Back in July, we detailed how it works:

In recent days, #HillaryMen joined the Clinton campaign and Democrats who excoriated the New York Times for its irresponsible and patently false story about Hillary’s emails. However, there is another Times article that, taken with countless similarly framed pieces in other major publications, constitutes a much graver risk to Hillary’s candidacy. Here are selected snippets of the story, which is about Hillary’s newly introduced climate plan:

Hillary Rodham Clinton seized on an issue Monday that increasingly resonates with Democratic voters…

Mrs. Clinton’s strategists see climate change as a winning issue for 2016. They believe it is a cause she can advance to win over deep pocketed donors and liberal activists in the nominating campaign…

It is also one that can be a weapon against Republicans in a general election. Polls show that a majority of voters support candidates who pledge policy action on the warming climate…

The Clinton campaign emphasized that her targets cleared a bar set last week by the billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer…

Although Mrs. Clinton has emphasized fighting global warming as a priority in earlier speeches, the role of a single large donor, Mr. Steyer, in apparently influencing the details of her proposal was suggested by her press secretary, Brian Fallon…

Democratic strategists say they now see climate change as a resonant campaign issue. A January poll conducted by The New York Times, Stanford University and Resources for the Future found that two thirds of Americans said they were more likely to vote for political candidates who campaign on fighting climate change…

This issue now polls better than any other issue for Democrats,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former top climate change official in the Clinton administration. “It’s in Clinton’s interest to talk about the issue, both for primary voters and to highlight Republican vulnerabilities in the general election.”

To the casual reader, it may not be entirely obvious how damaging this type of reporting is for Hillary's candidacy. But in aggregate, articles like this that appear regularly in major media outlets paint a portrait of a scheming, unprincipled politician. That portrait is often reflected back in polls and interviews – and ultimately at the ballot box. 

Nowhere does the Times piece suggest Hillary actually believes in tackling climate change. Nowhere does it mention that she says she is doing this for her daughter and granddaughter. Nowhere does it grant her a shred of humanity or leadership on one of the existential challenges facing the world.

The message is brutally clear: Hillary is a brazen opportunist, “seizing” on the climate issue to please a “billionaire” because it “polls better” and “strategists say they now see it as a resonant campaign issue.”

In industry parlance, this is a "process" story, highlighting not the facts or the specifics of the policy but the behind-the-scenes details of how the candidate arrived at it. It is meant to showcase the reporter’s access to insider information, revealing the strategic decision-making process behind a campaign.

Process stories – and the potent anti-Hillary frames they deliver – were one of the single most effective weapons against Hillary in 2008, painting a nefarious image that she was unable to alter or escape. Although Hillary is subjected to the most vitriolic language imaginable, the majority of negative coverage she endures comes in this form: a seemingly innocuous news article, editorial or blog post that manages, paragraph after paragraph, to deliver character-destroying frames.

Multiply this by thousands of similar stories, editorials and news segments and it is astonishing that Hillary still leads the Democratic field. 

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Peter Daou and Tom Watson founded #HillaryMen to provide actionable analysis of the 2016 campaign focusing on the gender barrier in U.S. politics. Peter is a former senior digital adviser to Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative. He is a veteran of two presidential campaigns (Kerry '04 and Clinton '08). Tom is an author and Columbia University lecturer who advises companies and non-profits on social activism.