Why the Media's Double Standard On Clinton’s Emails?

Scandals are most interesting when they involve the rich, powerful, and famous.
10/30/2016 03:58 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2016
Brian Snyder / Reuters

During the last two years, media of all stripes have regularly covered Hillary Clinton’s email practices. But widespread similar email practices by local government officials have been treated, at best, with a yawn; at worst, by sweeping them under the rug.

The Media’s Economic Calculus

Media economics helps explain this double standard, which unfairly harms Clinton because it treats local government officials with kid gloves.

Let’s start with the revenue side of the media’s economic calculus. Covering a presidential election has huge economies of scale, as the audience for a presidential election is the entire nation: some 325 million people. In contrast, there are 89,000 local governments in the United States. Thoroughly investigating an email scandal at the local and national levels may cost the same but the market for that information is much smaller locally.

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the ratio of reporters to employment in Washington, DC (3.7 per thousand jobs) is more than ten times the average of all states in the United States (.30 per thousand jobs). The 2,500 DC reporters primarily cover only the federal government (albeit a very large government) whereas the remaining 37,500 reporters primarily cover the 89,000 local governments. And the DC reporters also earn more than twice as much—an average salary of $77,870 (highest in the United States) versus $36,360 in other states.

Alas, public attention is skewed to national issues. Scandals are most interesting when they involve the rich, powerful, and famous. Virtually no one is interested in the email practices of tens of thousands of obscure bureaucrats such as assistant school superintendents and political appointees in towns and counties.

Now for the cost side. At the national but not local levels of government, the media have vigorous expert and well-funded independent entities subsidizing their fact finding. These include government entities such as the FBI, inspectors general, and the staffs of Congressional oversight committees. And they include nonprofits with the patience, money, and legal skills to bring effective court cases. These independent executive, legislative, and judicial branch entities all have special legal rights to fact find, such as subpoena power and the threat of bringing perjury charges for lying, that the press lacks.

Better media coverage at the national level, in turn, leads to a virtuous cycle, as it stimulates the independent entities to redouble their fact-finding efforts.

Illustrating this economic calculus, most local political communities don’t have any, let alone three (Fox, CNN, or MSBN), 24-hour cable TV news channels covering them.

The Court of Public Opinion vs The Court of Law

Media attention (”The Court of Public Opinion”) is critical to the enforcement of laws regarding government email practices because violating most such laws involves at most negligible legal penalties . Even Clinton, who was subject to much stricter email retention rules than most local government officials, has not been indicted (and is not expected to be indicted) either for using private email for government purposes or not being fully responsive to Freedom of Information Act requests for her official email correspondence. A caveat is that sending and receiving classified information on Clinton’s private email system could be subject to substantial legal penalties. But even here local government officials routinely keep legally mandated confidential information (e.g., personnel records) in their private email systems without any worries of legal punishment for doing so.

Clinton has been hurt politically in the email scandal less because of what she did than the perception that she covered up what she did. But at the local level of government very few officials have to worry about being caught lying red-handed about their email practices. For in order to be caught lying red-handed someone has to have not only the motivation but resources to seek the truth in an effective way. The result is a vicious cycle because without an effective mechanism to investigate the truth reporters aren’t going to ask questions in the first place.

The Politics of Fixing the Problem

I live in a state (Maryland) and county (Anne Arundel County) where Clinton-like email practices are rampant. Yet I have not seen a single mainstream local media outlet either investigate or condemn such practices. Last year a bill with seven co-sponsors was introduced into the Maryland General Assembly to prevent Clinton like email abuses in the executive branch of Maryland local government. It was introduced after I published an op-ed condemning such practices in the Baltimore Sun. Local government officials discreetly lobbied against it via their powerful trade association, the Maryland Association of Counties. The result was that in the House it couldn’t even get a committee vote. No press reported on the bill.

Clearly, we aren’t going to fix the problem of Hillary Clinton-like email practices unless the media shine a light on those practices. But preserving Clinton-like email practices may be as important politically for many high level local executive branch officials as preserving the right to gerrymander is for incumbent state legislators. Regardless of partisan affiliation, control over information is power, and high level local government officials want to keep that power by controlling who sees their official emails. If so, we can expect their continued behind-the-scenes opposition to effective steps to prevent Clinton like email practices.

Recommendations

There are many culprits that have been fingered for America’s dysfunctional democracy. Winner-take-all media economics, as illustrated in the Clinton email scandal, should surely be one of the top culprits. American media have become driven by high profit national investigative reporting at the expense of local investigative reporting.

Only by passing legislation to make it more cost-effective for media to cover local email abuses is there any realistic hope of media covering such abuses. The primary focus should be on incentivizing and empowering independent government watchdogs—local analogs to the FBI and inspectors general—to do the fact-finding on the media’s (and public’s) behalf.

Local media may not be able to afford investigating email abuses by local government officials. But they should at least cover and support legislative efforts that would enable them to cost-effectively cover such abuses in the future.

Illustrative national media coverage of the Hillary Clinton email scandal.
Source: Varney & Co. on Fox Business, September 6, 2016, available at http://www.foxbusiness.com/shows/varney-co.html.
Illustrative national media coverage of the Hillary Clinton email scandal.
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