Media still don’t get ‘What Happened’ to Hillary Clinton in 2016 election

People at a New York City bookstore lined up to get a signed copy of Hillary Clinton’s book on the 2016 election.

Judging by the reactions and judgment of many (mostly white and male) members of the media about What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about the 2016 campaign, the former Democratic nominee is supposed to just fade into oblivion.

Instead, Clinton is showing the world what she’s always been: whip-smart, well-spoken, and able to distill politics to its core. And if anyone doesn’t like that, well, as she’s quick to point out, “Don’t buy the book.”

Of course, smart-and-effective Hillary Clinton is not the impression the media gave you of Clinton during the campaign, or since, or ever (i.e., “Clinton rules”). It was non-stop coverage of her emails and endless stories about how she just wasn’t “likable.” Descriptions of her nearly always contained adjectives such as “calculating” and “untrustworthy.” All that negativity became its own narrative, as her approval ratings kept dropping more quickly than Michael Flynn (now possibly facing indictment himself) could lead Donald Trump’s crowds in chants of “LOCK HER UP.” Even today, her approval is lower than Trump’s, a fact that the media seem almost gleeful to point out.

So even before the new book was released, as it jumped to the top of the Amazon best-seller list with pre-orders, an abundance of stories bemoaned the fact that Clinton was reliving and relitigating an election in which many journalists would rather ignore their culpability.

Many stories used almost identical headlines that Democrats were “dreading” the Clinton book release. And sure enough, those stories, such as this one by Politico, quoted several Democrats saying just that, even if some of them chose to remain anonymous.

Twitter lit up with hits against Clinton, only to have many of those shot down by Clinton backers, almost all of whom were female. One of the silliest hits was from Chris Cillizza of CNN: “It wasn’t the email story. It was how she handled the email story.” Among the many comebacks was a list of the 50-odd tweets and stories he himself had written critical of Clinton and her emails.

It’s almost as if there are different standards when it comes to coverage of men and women in politics. (Ya think?) Consider this tweet:

Media: Hillary Clinton needs to be quiet.

Also Media: Let’s hear what Steve Bannon has to say.

Hillary Clinton will sell a lot of books and make a lot of money in the process. If that’s what it takes for her and her supporters to come to terms with the 2016 election, so be it. Those who want to ignore the book can turn instead to The Art of the Deal on remainder tables.

“It is by now abundantly clear that Hillary Clinton no longer cares what the haters think,” wrote Philip Bump in The Washington Post. It’s almost as if the the phrase “zero fucks to give” was invented for the Clinton book tour.

Ezra Klein did an hour-long interview with Clinton about the book and the election for Vox; both the video and the transcript are online. It’s almost a wonk-to-wonk exchange of two knowledgeable people who know their stuff cold. The interview covers lots of ground, including her mistakes; her campaign’s mistakes; how to develop (and pay for) realistic policies; how legislation actually gets passed; sexism, racism, and white resentment; the James Comey letter’s effect; Russian involvement in the election; perceptions of successful women; and the election itself. And, invariably, how the media covered the election—or, in her case, didn’t bother to do the hard work of actually covering it.

“When you get 32 minutes in a whole year to cover all policy? [The reference was to a study concluding that broadcast TV spent only 32 minutes of coverage of the 2016 campaign on candidates’ policies, compared with three times as much airtime on Clinton emails.] How does that work? And you compare it even with ‘08 when we had 200 minutes on broadcast TV. Is it that people are really not interested, or is it that it’s just not as enticing to the press because the other guy’s running a reality TV show, which is hard to turn away from?”

The comprehensive study of the role of media in the 2016 campaign, from Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, reiterated what everyone already knew: Donald Trump got an inordinate amount of free air time and positive or neutral coverage, including complete coverage of speeches from campaign rallies, while Clinton got short shrift, and most coverage was negative in tone. All of this might seem like ancient history to political junkies and to the media, but journalists still refuse to own up to their role in Trump’s election. It’s a lot easier to criticize Clinton for daring to write a book than it is to issue a media mea culpa.

As columnist Heidi Stevens wrote in the Chicago Tribune:

The belief that Hillary Rodham Clinton should not have written “What Happened,” her account of the 2016 presidential election, is so patently absurd that I’m loath to even address it.

It’s also so widely held that I’m loath not to. …

The folks who are rolling their eyes, hard, at the notion of Hillary Clinton doing all the good she can, for all the people she can, will likely not read “What Happened.” That’s a shame. It’s a first-person, front-row account of arguably one of the most pivotal elections in American history.

But plenty of others will. And I would urge the pundits and the platform-holders to think twice before adding another voice to the “Go away, Hillary” choir.

Women, especially those who backed and worked for Clinton’s candidacy, understand this at a visceral level. After all, we’ve been there. We’ve been told to shut up (and also to SMILE!). We’ve seen others take credit for our ideas. We’ve been interrupted in meetings (see Pelosi, Nancy). We’ve been asked patronizing questions when we had more expertise than the questioner. We’ve seen men get promotions and salaries that we deserved. We’ve been criticized for being “bitchy,” “bossy,” and “overly aggressive” while men demonstrating the same characteristics are described as “assertive.”

The public is regularly subjected to stories about Trump voters who are “still with him” despite his many missteps, sometimes the exact same group of voters interviewed multiple times, often aired for five minutes at a time (yeah, I’m talking to YOU, NPR). How many interviews have you heard with Clinton voters, despite the fact that she received 3 million more votes than Trump? I’m guessing the answer is zero, until a few members of the media bothered to talk to people who camped out in line overnight to buy Clinton’s book and meet her.

More from Stevens:

“On Being a Woman in Politics” is a fascinating chapter examining the tightrope Clinton has walked during her life in public service. It’s a tightrope I suspect millions of women will recognize: Be ambitious but not too ambitious; tough but not too tough; motherly but not too motherly; devoted to your husband but not too devoted.

“I didn’t want people to see me as the ‘woman candidate,’ which I find limiting, but rather as the best candidate whose experience as a woman in a male-dominated culture made her sharper, tougher, and more competent,” she writes. “That’s a hard distinction to draw, and I wasn’t confident that I had the dexterity to pull it off.

“But the biggest reason I shied away from embracing this narrative is that storytelling requires a receptive audience, and I’ve never felt like the American electorate was receptive to this one,” she continues. “I wish so badly we were a country where a candidate who said, ‘My story is the story of a life shaped by and devoted to the movement for women’s liberation’ would be cheered, not jeered. But that’s not who we are. Not yet.”

Full disclosure: I haven’t had a chance to crack open What Happened yet, but I look forward to it. When I evaluate candidates, I like to listen to all of them and usually choose the one who’s the smartest in the room with the best ideas. She was certainly the smartest and had the most well-thought-out plans. No matter who you backed, that much is true. After all, during the primary debates, one of the most accurate things Clinton said was, “I am not a single-issue candidate, and I do not believe we live in a single-issue country.”

So why is MSNBC’s Chris Hayes shocked, shocked, that the book makes for good reading, as he showed in this tweet? “I’m reading the Clinton book and it’s…quite good! Compelling and candid and written with a pretty remarkable intimacy. It’s worth reading.”

As one of his commenters tweeted back: “I think you should spend some time reflecting on why this surprises you.”

Indeed, Clinton has been so good at her book interviews that … well, this tweet sums it up:

Please don’t point that out. It opens the wound all over again.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Sept. 17, 2017.

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