Hillary Clinton and the Crisis of Ethics in U.S. Media

By Tom Watson and Peter Daou

[UPDATE: The Clinton campaign's Communications Director, Jennifer Palmieri, has sent a powerful letter to Dean Baquet, Executive Editor of the New York Times. Read it here.]

Can organizational culture damage a newspaper’s reporting? In the wake of the disastrously inaccurate story about Hillary Clinton’s emails published and amended by the New York Times over the past two days, we’ve been asked this question in many ways by #HillaryMen followers.

As journalists and bloggers, we respect the work of individual Times reporters and editors to create an almost unmatched news source building on a long legacy of trust and respect. Every major news organization with the reach and ambition of the Times will, on occasion, stumble, sometimes badly. What matters on those occasions is whether that news organization steps up, admits its errors in a public and transparent way, and devises a plan to prevent those mistakes from ever happening again.

Make no mistake: this is one of those occasions for the New York Times. Erroneously reporting that the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination is the subject of a criminal inquiry and then ever so slowly walking it back in a series of revisions and non-corrections is one of the most troubling chapters in the paper’s recent history. Regardless of whether some portions of the story are correct, getting it wrong on a matter of criminality is unconscionable.

The Times has not – to date – taken responsibility in any way. The paper seems to be hiding behind a business as usual policy; there has been no admission of wrong-doing, no real public discussion on Eighth Avenue, no transparency. As Peter’s former Clinton campaign colleague Howard Wolfson asks:

This behavior from the Times matters to the race for the presidency and Hillary’s quest to break the ultimate gender barrier in American politics. It matters for the crisis of ethics in U.S. media, where one of the most accomplished, popular and powerful women in our history is regularly disparaged and disrespected by major publications. In fact, the terminology used to describe Hillary by the mainstream media often exceeds, in its virulence, the worst language of anonymous Clinton-hating trolls.

In a piece titled The Vile Language Hurled at Hillary Clinton on Social Media, Tracy Clark-Flory and Leigh Cuen analyze some of the sexist and misogynistic comments directed at Hillary online. Astonishingly and disturbingly, in many instances, the offensive language they write about is less imaginative, less insidious, and less destructive than the flowery and abrasive terms concocted by the mainstream media to disparage Hillary.

“Slithering, imperious, musty, petulant, paranoid, stale, scornful, regal, devious, deceitful, robotic, abnormal.” Each of these adjectives is from a mainstream news source compiled during a brief period since Hillary announced her candidacy. As we stated in a recent post:

There is a larger dynamic at play. The rise of social media has fostered a cauldron of misogyny, where psychological violence against women is commonplace. The verbal abuse directed at Hillary – and let's not pretend some of these attacks are anything other than abuse – is a permutation of that problem.

Jessica Valenti writes:

When I visit college campuses, young women always ask me how I deal with negativity online – and how they can. The students I speak to increasingly feel like they have to consider, before choosing a career path or posting an opinion in a public forum, whether they can cope with violently sexist responses and a never-ending barrage of misogynistic bullshit.

If anyone knows the answer to their questions, it’s Hillary Clinton. Her career has long epitomized how misogyny can haunt female politicians ... She has too often been the target of insults based on men’s fear about powerful women – an unenviable position that few can understand.

As one of our preeminent media institutions, the New York Times should be showing leadership on coverage of the first woman candidate with a viable shot at the White House. Instead, the reverse seems to be true. The Times fully understands that its silence on an inaccurate – and frankly, unethical – story in its own pages gives Hillary’s political opponents more leverage, more running room, and harsher talking points to advance a destructive political cause.

At this point, and until the paper deals in a forthright manner with the grossly unfair email story episode, the New York Times can fairly be seen as formally opposed to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. Supporters of Hillary and Democrats in general can – and should – read every Times dispatch through a lens of suspicion.

We say this not to denigrate the reporters out on the trail whose work we respect. It’s a hard slog, they get criticized from all sides, and they labor to bring us news from every corner of the country. Yet, we also believe that institutional culture matters and that the culture around journalism involving Hillary Clinton at the New York Times is poisoned.

Nothing better exemplifies that poisoned culture than having the institution look the other way – or worse, repeatedly reward and encourage – Maureen Dowd’s creepy, personal, and bizarre attacks against Hillary over two decades. Dowd’s Hillary-bashing is apparently perfectly fine with the New York Times. The signal that sends to the rest of the media is unmistakable.

Dowd has written more than 200 columns on Hillary, most of them negative. A detailed analysis by Oliver Willis and Hannah Groch-Begley published last summer found that “Dowd has repeatedly accused Clinton of being an enemy to or betraying feminism (35 columns, 18 percent of those studied), power-hungry (51 columns, 26 percent), unlikable (9 columns, 5 percent), or phony (34 columns, 17 percent). She's also attacked the Clintons as a couple in 43 columns (22 percent), many of which included Dowd's ham-handed attempts at psychoanalysis.”

The abuse continues. Just this past April, Dowd wrote that Hillary is a "granny" who "can't figure out how to campaign as a woman" after she "scrubbed out the femininity, vulnerability, and heart" required to do so during her 2008 presidential run. Claiming Hillary is now trying to shift her image after she "saw the foolishness of acting like a masculine woman," Dowd asserted that the candidate "always overcorrects," and is now "basking in estrogen." Dowd concluded, saying hopefully Hillary will "teach her Republican rivals...that bitch is still the new black" instead.

Dowd is a prime purveyor of the tropes and insults directed at Hillary which we’ve dubbed the “wall of words,” a concrete manifestation of the gender barrier in American politics. It is part of the bullying of women in public life. And sadly, it is also now part of the culture of the New York Times. Readers in our linked, shared, and mobile news world do not easily distinguish between the op-ed page and the news sections. They see the Times running column after sexist column slamming one of the most prominent female politicians in U.S. history and (imagine the surprise!) come to believe the paper itself opposes Hillary.

Editors and reporters at the Times also see those columns. Indeed, they often share them on social platforms. They see the permissiveness. They see the reward. And they know where their bread is buttered. Journalism is a very tough field. Jobs at a paper like the Times are fewer than they once were. Is it any wonder that many journalists pick up the paper’s condescending and dismissive attitude toward a prominent female politician?

There is a kind of intellectual rot pervading the Times where Hillary Clinton is concerned, a rot that comes from the head. Whether this is actively discussed in editorial planning meetings or just suffuses the news staff like a drifting smog of smugness and sloppy reporting is anyone’s guess. To be fair, that rot exists not just at the Times but at most other mainstream publications.

The Times’ mangling of the Hillary email story is a teachable moment for the U.S. media. As we turn our collective attention to the 2016 election, we are all compelled to face the 44-0 shutout in presidential politics. When coverage of Hillary among hateful anonymous Internet trolls is milder than that of mainstream publications, some serious soul-searching is in order.

Monday will bring us a column from the Times’ excellent public editor, Margaret Sullivan. We hope it's a promising start. 

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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.