4 Reasons We Must Acknowledge James Comey -- And The Media -- Swung The 2016 Election

05/03/2017 03:01 pm ET Updated May 04, 2017

Whether Hillary Clinton, in implicating FBI Director James Comey’s now-infamous October letter as a reason for her election loss during an interview at the Women to Women conference this week, knew the implications of her statements is not clear; the Chappaqua woods are, after all, lovely, dark, and deeply isolated from the Twitterverse. But the debate has been swirling for months, particularly among the members of the press indignant at the issue’s mention. Like moths to light, reporters were quick to jump on her comments and dismiss any mention of the letter as a vestige of sore losing. With Comey testifying on Capitol Hill today, it is a prime time to examine the reasons why it is imperative for our political system to acknowledge his actions did tip the election to Donald Trump.

1. It’s just true.

The role of the news media in a functioning democracy is, most fundamentally, to inform the public of the reality of the world around them. In the age of fake news and alternative facts, this role has never been as crucial to liberal democracy - a fact not lost on the many journalists who have used it as fuel for, alternately, clicks, subscribers, and an elevated self-regard. The New York Times, for example, made waves with its glossy ad campaign in February declaring, among other things, “the truth is hard to find.” In this case, the truth could not be more easy. It is objectively, demonstrably true, both by the analysis of the time and multiple post-mortems done by polling experts, that Comey’s letter to Congress made a sizable dent in the Clinton coalition - both swinging Clinton voters to Trump and moving soft Democratic voters to third party candidates. And while many in the media are reticent to acknowledge it now, the fact is they tipped their hand in the fall. In late October, after the conventional wisdom had already solidified that Clinton was on her way to a decisive win, acknowledging a shift in polling after Comey’s letter did not necessitate a recognition it would tip the election. So in the wake of Comey’s announcement, multiple outlets found no problem acknowledging it took a toll on Clinton’s support. Bloomberg News said the letter resulted in her “losing some support.” Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball said “Clinton [lost] ground.” Politico reported the race was “tightening” because of the letter, and released a poll showing 42% of undecided voters were less likely to vote for Clinton as a result of it. All of this becomes most relevant given two factors. Firstly, the trio of states where Trump’s victory was most shocking - Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania - were decided by less than .75.% Secondly, had Clinton won those three states she would have emerged with 278 electoral votes and the presidency. Given this, it is self-evident that if Comey’s letter had the effect of costing Clinton even less than one percentage point it had the effect of costing her the election. Those in the media who roll their eyes whenever Comey is even mentioned are, therefore, in fundamental conflict with their own standards and analysis at the time of its release, when nearly every outlet estimated the letter shifted the polls several points Trump’s way. Additionally, multiple analyses after the election reveal Comey’s letter was, more than any other factor, key to Trump’s victory. Nate Silver, the high priest of data politics, has not only said Clinton “almost certainly” would have won if not for Comey, but that it is “painfully obvious” he tipped the election. As several experienced pollsters pointed out in January, Clinton replicated Obama’s turnout levels and demographic makeup in absentee and early voting - but her Election Day haul collapsed by thirteen points compared to his. This matches Silver’s numbers showing that late deciders broke decidedly for Trump, especially in Midwestern states and points to the inarguable fact that Comey’s announcement fundamentally changed the contours of the campaign’s final weeks. In short, every facet of available data and even the very words of those now histrionically protesting any mention of its relevance prove Comey’s letter cost Clinton the election.

2. It proves the Clinton campaign was not incompetent - and the Obama/Clinton coalition is a winning one.

Imagine a college student cramming to submit a paper minutes before a midnight deadline, only to watch his laptop spontaneously combust seconds before clicking submit. One could, fairly, blame the individual for being in the position to begin with. But doing so ignores the extraordinary, and eminently unpredictable nature of, the event that prevented him from crossing the finish line. The fact that Comey’s announcement could have such a catastrophic effect on Clinton’s campaign was inarguably a product of mistakes, both in her personal conduct and her campaign’s strategy. But no one with a semblance of knowledge of the political system could have, or should have, expected the nation’s top law enforcement official to insert himself into a presidential contest 11 days prior to Election Day. In short, unless one can honestly expect a presidential campaign to factor in the potential for a top federal official to act in defiance of his agency’s and department’s guidelines months after the close of an investigation, the Clinton campaign’s electoral strategy was fundamentally sound. Could it have done a better job? Certainly. Could it have devoted more attention to Midwestern states? Obviously. But the margin by which one wins an election is ultimately irrelevant. That Clinton was, per the evidence above, poised to win prior to Comey’s letter is significant as it proves that her campaign strategy, including the much-maligned reticence to commit more resources to the trifecta of Midwestern states, was sufficient. As in the case of the procrastinating college student, one could fairly blame the Clinton campaign, and Clinton herself, for the actions that allowed Comey’s letter to fell her. But it is also a willful disregarding of the fact that his action, particularly for someone who is a well-known observer of the political climate, was inappropriate, unethical, and downright unfair. Additionally - and perhaps even more importantly given so much of the post-election rumination has centered on the need for Democrats to pivot and dote more on the proverbial “white working class” - Comey’s action is a crucial piece of the dystopian mosaic from which progressives have been trying to derive their next steps. Put simply, Clinton’s loss belies an indisputable fact: barring an act of God, both the modern Democratic ideology, in all its alleged pluralistic urban decadence, and coalition - college graduates, young voters, and minorities - is a winning one.

3. It perfectly encapsulates America’s attitude towards Hillary Clinton.

Comey’s letter, while unique in its impact and recklessness, was far from an isolated incident. In fact, it was but the final twist in America’s tawdry thirty-year-long psychosexual relationship with Hillary Clinton. The pattern stretches from Arkansas, where she was caricatured as a bra-burning, hairy-armpitted radical selfishly dedicated to her career, to the White House, where she was savaged for asserting herself in policy and even blamed for Bill’s infidelities, all the way to the 2016 campaign, in which, despite twice out-performing a man her senior in vote totals, her virility and popular appeal were frequently pilloried. For many years now, Hillary Clinton has functioned as a veritable Rorschach test, onto which Americans can project their pre-existing prejudices about women as a whole. In the 2016 campaign, she fully became America’s Mom: a seemingly super-human force who could be endlessly savaged, insulted, and degraded and still ride in to save us. Consider: despite the “Never Trump” movement receiving glowing media attention - and including, remarkably, the last two Republican presidents and presidential nominees - there was a total of one Republican member of Congress who endorsed Hillary Clinton (who, not coincidentally, had already announced his retirement). Even those who assailed Trump as an unqualified ethno-fascistic sexual predator not only refused to provide his opponent any assistance but continuously attacked and degraded her - while still expecting her to prevail. As contemporary reports have shown, this line of thinking, self-evidently and perniciously gendered, was one of the driving forces behind Comey’s letter. As the New York Times reported: “In the case of Mrs. Clinton, [Comey] rewrote the script, partly based on the F.B.I.’s expectation that she would win and fearing the bureau would be accused of helping her. In the case of Mr. Trump, he conducted the investigation by the book, with the F.B.I.’s traditional secrecy.” Throughout the FBI’s investigation into Clinton, Comey treated her, as so many others did, as a woman existing outside the realm of political gravity.

4. It directly implicates the media’s role in Trump’s election and the political chaos of the 21st century.

Make no mistake: Comey alone did not swing the election to Trump. He bears responsibility for repeatedly straying outside the bounds of normalcy for an FBI Director, particularly given his awareness of how it would be received. But the decision to hype the letter as a game-changer worthy of hours upon hours of saturated coverage was not his. It is here that the source of much of the media’s resistance to acknowledging the Comey letter’s impact becomes more clear. At its core, an acknowledgement the letter swung the election is a direct implication of the media’s role, both in electing Trump and inducing the chaos that has come to define American politics for years now. It is now well-established but bears repeating that, from the day it began, Trump’s campaign was littered with examples of journalists abandoning even a semblance of dignity or patriotism. Throughout 2015, cable networks regularly covered his rallies live - the only candidate who received such treatment. Weeks after he had won the New Hampshire primary, eliminating any lingering impression he was not a serious candidate, CBS Chairman Les Moonves even publicly gloated about the the fecklessness of the media, laughing that “campaign may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” He went on to brag, “the money’s rolling in and this is fun...this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.” But the best distillation of how far political media has drifted into the realm of absurdity came months later in the weekend following Labor Day, long the traditional kick-off of the Fall campaign season. That weekend was marked by two significant events. Firstly, The Washington Post published an article revealing that Trump had “retooled his charity to spend other people’s money.” Recently winning its author David Farenthold a Pulitzer Prize, the well-researched expose demonstrated Trump had committed at best a serious ethical breach and at worst a blatant violation of federal law. Secondly, Hillary Clinton, in the midst of a bout with pneumonia, fainted at a 9/11 memorial ceremony. In the days following that weekend, news networks devoted thirteen times as much coverage to Clinton’s health as Trump’s potential breaking of the law. The media’s evolution towards covering politics as a blood-sport, a grand drama studded with salacious twists and without regard for the most basic of facts, was the fuel for Trump’s campaign throughout the primary and general election. In the wake of Comey’s letter, the media, even those considered bastions of left-leaning journalism, went into an all-out frenzy, again casting aside any manner of objectivity or realism.

It cannot ever be forgotten that, in the final days of a campaign featuring a deranged, serially-lying, dictator-praising, war-crime advocating, white-nationalist allied sexual predator, the American media chose, en masse, to re-elevate a closed investigation on the opposing candidate’s bureaucratic e-mail practices. More than anything else, the episode surrounding Comey’s letter is a direct indictment of the present media culture and its repeated abdication of ethical, authentically balanced, and informative reporting. In its endeavor for clicks, cash, and a salacious story line, the most basic of the American media’s responsibilities - informing the populace, championing human dignity, and even preserving the fundamental pillars of liberal democracy itself - are secondary. Until and unless that changes, one can expect the 2016 campaign to be but the beginning of an accelerated decline of American democracy.

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