Editors’ Note: Excerpted from Politico, October 21, 2019. Toobin’s admission is a cautionary tale to all news consumers to maintain a critical mindset as talking heads regale with their expertise. Readers must be careful to filter media communications through the prism of economics in the pursuit of ratings or advertising revenues. More subtle and worse is Toobin’s acknowledgment of his slide down the slippery slope of false or moral equivalencies. Such opens the door to accusations of fake news, further damaging public confidence.
By Michael Calderone
The New Yorker and CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin now say he devoted too much attention in 2016 to Hillary Clinton’s private email server, becoming the first big-name journalist to acknowledge having second thoughts about the story since a State Department probe cleared Clinton of serious breaches of rules on Friday.
Toobin told POLITICO he has been flooded with responses since his surprise admission Monday morning on CNN. The feedback has largely fallen into two categories, he said: “Thank you for saying this” and “You’re a jerk, you shouldn’t have done it in the first place.”
The conclusion on Friday of a nearly three-year State Department investigation into the Clinton email saga has reignited criticism among Democrats of the news media’s heavy coverage of the issue in the 2016 election. The claims that she had exposed classified secrets through her use of a private server dogged Clinton down to the final days of the campaign, when a surprise admission by then-FBI Director James Comey that the bureau was reopening its probe into the emails corresponded with a last-minute downturn in her polling numbers.
Nonetheless, the State Department found there “was no persuasive evidence of systemic, deliberate mishandling of classified information” by any officials while Clinton was serving as secretary of State, a conclusion that Democrats quickly seized upon to bemoan the campaign coverage.
“We spent an entire election on this inane story four years ago because a lot of otherwise intelligent people deemed it important,” Rolling Stone’s Jamil Smith tweeted. “Many of them still run media outlets today.”
I got into the trap of false equivalence during the 2016 campaign. Comparing Donald Trump’s record of ethical problems with Hillary’s emails lent a misleading impression.
Toobin didn’t mince words Monday in offering a mea culpa on CNN, where he serves as chief legal analyst. “I talked about the emails here at CNN, I wrote about it in The New Yorker,” he said. “And I think I paid too much attention to them and I regret that.”
Toobin said he doesn’t regret any specific thing he said about Clinton’s email use, but believes the volume of coverage he gave to the issue was disproportionate to its importance. Toobin said the experience shows you “can make mistakes in news coverage without making factual mistakes.”
“I think I got into the trap of false equivalence during the 2016 campaign,” Toobin said. “Comparing Donald Trump’s record of ethical problems with Hillary’s emails lent a misleading impression. And I have to say, I am determined not to do that again to the extent that I can. I am going to try to look at corruption and ethics issues each on their own rather than trying to create some sort of equivalence that isn’t there.”
More recently, Toobin said, he’s covered the Ukraine scandal “with the Hillary story in mind” given “that there is nothing comparable in magnitude between whatever Hunter Biden did and whatever Donald Trump did.”
Joe Biden’s campaign has aggressively pushed back on coverage of Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine in hopes of not becoming ”Hillary 2.0” and allow unfounded allegations of impropriety involving the former vice president and 2020 Democratic candidate linger to the extent that the email stories did for Clinton four years earlier.
Brian Fallon, who served as Clinton’s press secretary in 2016, said, “Toobin’s comments were refreshingly honest and admirable and it’s a level of introspection that I don’t think we’ve seen from another single journalist of his prominence.”
Fallon believes there should be an industry-wide reckoning over 2016 coverage and puts the onus on newsroom leaders, such as CNN chief Jeff Zucker and New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet, as well as those “making decisions on conference calls and in editorial meetings and changing headlines and deciding the placement of stories.”
FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver has written that the news media bears some responsibility for the result of the 2016 election given its handling of Comey’s letter about reopening the Clinton email investigation, which polls suggest may have tipped the election.
The Times, in particular, has faced scrutiny for its front-page treatment of Clinton email stories in the final months of the election, including after the Comey letter, and so it’s handling of the State Department having concluded its years-long investigation didn’t go unnoticed.
“For months, @nytimes put stories of Hillary Clinton’s email on its front pages,” Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione tweeted Saturday. “The final investigative report clearing all of wrongdoing? That is on page 16 today.”
The Times’ Amy Chozick, who covered Clinton in 2016, wrote last year how she “became an unwitting agent of Russian intelligence” in covering the hacked Democratic National Committee and John Podesta emails, though editors have largely defended covering those emails because they were released publicly and deemed newsworthy.
Toobin has spoken before about contributing to false equivalency and made clear his comments Monday were only about his own coverage, not that of the media writ large. But he suggested more broadly that journalists, who can be “the most thin-skinned people about criticism,” are well-served by self-reflection.
“We dish it out,” he said. “We should take it.”