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The Clinton rules are at the heart of the New York Times's botched Hillary story

Democratic presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to guests gathered for a campaign event at Iowa State University on July 26, 2015, in Ames, Iowa.
Democratic presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to guests gathered for a campaign event at Iowa State University on July 26, 2015, in Ames, Iowa.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

It's hard to foul up a major story as badly as the New York Times did with last week's big — and erroneous — scoop that two US inspectors general had asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into whether Hillary Clinton mishandled sensitive or classified information in using a personal account to email with State Department officials and friends.

As it turned out, most of the important points in the story were wrong — really wrong. The Times changed its reporting online and, too slowly, issued two corrections. But as the Times's public editor, Margaret Sullivan, observed in a scathing autopsy of the article, "You can’t put stories like this back in the bottle — they ripple through the entire news system."

This episode is a particularly illustrative example of how an unspoken set of "Clinton rules" govern the media's treatment of Clinton and how that ends up distorting the public view of her.

The fallout has followed a familiar pattern: Republicans seize on an inaccurate report — often one they pushed into the media in the first place — and Democrats point to what's wrong in the story to undermine what's right with it. Pretty soon, the narrative emanates out from the original source of the reporting to conservative and liberal television pundits and radio talk-show hosts, ensuring that the details, and the truth, will be casualties of the never-ending political war over Clinton.

That is, at some point it no longer matters whether she did anything wrong or whether there's any malice or misjudgment behind her actions. Indeed, the cloud around many big Clinton stories is so thick and toxic that it's hard to get to the bottom of whether she's the perpetrator or victim of bad deeds.

No matter Clinton's level of culpability for any given sin — real or imagined — the Clinton rules are a drag on her political fortunes. If she's consistently the subject of negative stories, it can't help but hurt her standing with a public exhausted by a quarter-century of partisan Clinton wars. And she is constantly the subject of negative stories, some of which would be handled more judiciously if they were about another figure.

The Times's failure on this story is a triple whammy for Clinton: There's the hit of the original report itself, the echo effect of other reporters reinforcing the storyline by writing their own versions, and the reminder for fatigued voters that a Clinton presidency would be characterized by endless investigation and hypercharged political debate. Ultimately, the Times treated her unfairly. That happens. Journalists aren't perfect, and sometimes they get the story wrong. But the incentives to destroy Clinton are so strong that it happens to her a lot. The public suffers not just for that but for the liberty it grants Clinton and her allies to conflate erroneous reports with solid stories and argue that it's all bogus.

What really happened with the inspectors general

In order to understand the nuances of the Times's story, you have to look at the bigger picture of the fight over Clinton's email within the government.

The State Department has been ordered by a federal judge to make public the 55,000 pages of emails Clinton turned over to the agency. So the State Department has Freedom of Information Act experts sifting through the documents to make sure that no information will be released that is either classified or sensitive (meaning not technically classified but also not covering material that the government doesn't want in the public domain).

This has caused a bureaucratic turf war between the department and the intelligence community, which believes at least one email that's already been released contains classified information and that hundreds of others in the full set may also have material that's not ready for public consumption. For a couple of months, the inspectors general of the State Department and the combined intelligence community agencies have been battling Patrick Kennedy, the lead State Department official, over who has access to the documents and the authority to release or withhold them.

Now, according to the Times and other publications, the IG team is asking the Justice Department to get involved in reviewing whether State has mishandled the emails. If Clinton was sending information that was, or should have been, classified — and knew that it was, or should have been, classified — that's a problem. But no one has accused her of that so far. Given the anodyne nature of what she sent in the emails we've already seen, it's entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that any sensitive information was sent to Clinton, not by her (though it's not clear whether forwarding such emails would constitute a legal issue for her).

The intelligence community tends to have a pretty broad definition of what should be withheld from the public, and the fact that agencies are fighting over what State should release is prima facie evidence that the question of what should be classified doesn't have a cut-and-dried answer.

Government officials who deal with top-secret information have three computer systems. One is like everyone else's, one is for a low level of classification, and one is for the highest level of classification. You can't send from a higher-level system to a lower-level system. In order to do that, you would have to personally write classified material into an email on a less-secure system. It's an imperfect safeguard, but a pretty good one. Clinton had aides at State who produced physical copies of classified documents for her, so there was no need for her to deal with such material over email. If she did, that's a sign of poor judgment on her part. But that's not what this particular issue is focused on.

Ultimately — at least for now — this is a bureaucratic fight about how the State Department has handled the emails, not about Hillary Clinton. It's part of the story, but doesn't, as the Times first wrote, get to the guts of the question of whether Clinton acted improperly.

The turf war does raise one big red flag, though. The State Department official fighting with the inspectors general over Clinton's email is Undersecretary for Management Pat Kennedy, who is in charge of diplomatic security and would have every reason to watch Clinton's back. It's surprising that there hasn't been a public campaign for him to recuse himself.

How the Clinton rules drove the Times's reporting

In her postmortem reporting, Sullivan basically determined that the Times's reporting and editing staff were driven by a desire to land a huge political scoop as quickly as possible, without regard to the concern that they were being sold a bill of goods by their sources.

It’s hard to imagine a much more significant political story at this moment, given that she is the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for president. ... There are at least two major journalistic problems here, in my view. Competitive pressure and the desire for a scoop led to too much speed and not enough caution. [Editor Matt] Purdy told me that the reporters, whom he described as excellent and experienced, were "sent back again and again" to seek confirmation of the key elements; but while no one would discuss the specifics of who the sources were, my sense is that final confirmation came from the same person more than once.

"We got it wrong because our very good sources had it wrong," Purdy told Sullivan.

I don't know who the Times's sources are, but I do know this: My reporting suggests that House Benghazi Committee Chair Trey Gowdy was fully aware of the request to the Justice Department at least a day before the Times broke the story. If he or his staff were sources, it should have been incumbent upon the Times to check every detail with multiple unconnected sources. Gowdy's team has been accused of leaking something untrue to a reporter before. Clearly, Sullivan thinks her colleagues didn't do a good enough job of vetting their sources.

Having used anonymous or unrevealed sourcing as recently as in the last paragraph, I wouldn't criticize the Times for agreeing not to identify the provenance of the story. But the reason that a big scoop on Clinton has such value to the Times — the political impact — is the very same reason that such a story needs to be bulletproof.

Here's what I wrote recently about the Clinton rules and the political power of erroneous leaks:

It's understandable, then, why the Clintons have a bunker mentality when it comes to transparency. But their paranoia leads them to be secretive, and their secrecy leads Republicans and the press to suspect wrongdoing. That spurs further investigation, which only makes the Clintons more secretive. The paranoia and persistent investigation feed each other in an endless cycle of probe and parry. Along the way, the political class and the public are forced to choose imperfect sides: the power couple that always seems to be hiding something, or a Washington investigation complex that is overly partisan and underwhelming in its ability to prove gross misconduct.

This is, for Republicans, a reasonable strategy. They know that if they keep investigating her, it will do two things: keep the media writing about scandals that might knock her out, and turn off voters who don't want a return to the bloodsport politics of the 1990s. They leak partial stories to reporters hungry for that one great scoop that will give them the biggest political scalp of them all. But they also err in jumping the gun in accusing her of wrongdoing, which allows Clinton to defend herself by pointing at the folly of her adversaries.

It seems like that's exactly what happened here.

The reaction to the story followed the classic Clinton rules model

One effect of the reporting mishap is to give the Clinton email story more life on national television and political websites. Joe Scarborough of MSNBC used it as the jumping-off point for a lengthy discussion of the broader email issue, saying it's "just the tip of the iceberg." The hyping of a perfectly reasonable turn-of-the-screw story into a major revelation about Clinton opened the door to a fusillade of fresh attacks.

This is why Clinton's political adversaries couldn't care less about whether they're leaking things that are true or false. They score political points against her either way. And that's why reporters have to be extra careful about sourcing — not just on stories about Clinton but on those that could affect any of the presidential candidates. It's fair to say purity of motivation isn't a highly valued trait in the political realm.

All that said, there's a pretty big silver lining for Clinton. She and her allies will use the Times's errors to portray the entire investigation into her email as a partisan witch hunt aided by journalists who are either against her or hapless.

Here's how Correct the Record, an outside political group formed to defend Clinton in the presidential election, handled it:

Correct the Record

The public is the biggest loser

The result of the Times story is the exact opposite of what journalists strive for — it has confused, rather than clarified, the issue at hand. If that can happen to the finest journalists in the world — and, make no mistake, that certainly applies to some of the folks who worked on this story — imagine how distorted the narrative can get with reporters who have lower standards, less training, and less of a dedication to objectivity.

Ultimately, readers and TV viewers have to determine for themselves who is right on the larger questions surrounding Benghazi and Clinton's email. That's because so much of the reporting on the topic has been colored by misinformation and political spin from both sides.

The Clinton rules — the rush to judge her harshly in print and the subsequent political free-for-all — distract from the two main conclusions that voters should draw about Clinton and her enemies:

  1. It's always worth stopping to note that the government is spinning its wheels on Clinton's email because Republicans in Congress want to use the 2012 Benghazi attack that killed four Americans to hamstring Clinton's presidential campaign. The "investigation" is a partisan political exercise designed only to damage Clinton, and it's beneath the dignity of Congress — which, sadly, has become a pretty low bar. They've long since given up on finding any wrongdoing on Clinton's part with regard to the attack itself. So they're focusing on her emails.
  2. Not all fruit from this toxic tree should be treated as poisoned. Knowing more about Clinton's unusual decision to keep full control of her work email while she was secretary of state is helpful in assessing the extent to which she would be transparent if she wins the presidency. Moreover, even some of her friends, like donor Steve Rattner, are calling on her to turn over the server that she wiped clean of emails she says were of a personal, not professional, nature. Those emails belong to the public because Clinton chose to put everything on her private server.

VIDEO: Hillary Clinton denies her emails broke the law

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