In his New York Times column yesterday, Paul Krugman did something that he made clear he regarded as quite brave: He defended the Democratic Party presidential nominee and likely next U.S. president from journalistic investigations. Complaining about media bias, Krugman claimed that journalists are driven by “the presumption that anything Hillary Clinton does must be corrupt, most spectacularly illustrated by the increasingly bizarre coverage of the Clinton Foundation.” While generously acknowledging that it was legitimate to take a look at the billions of dollars raised by the Clintons as Hillary pursued increasing levels of political power — vast sums often received from the very parties most vested in her decisions as a public official — it is now “very clear,” he proclaimed, that there was absolutely nothing improper about any of what she or her husband did.
Krugman’s column, chiding the media for its unfairly negative coverage of his beloved candidate, was, predictably, a big hit among Democrats — not just because of their agreement with its content but because of what they regarded as the remarkable courage required to publicly defend someone as marginalized and besieged as the former first lady, two-term New York senator, secretary of state, and current establishment-backed multimillionaire presidential front-runner. Krugman — in a tweet proclamation that has now been re-tweeted more than 10,000 times — heralded himself this way: “I was reluctant to write today’s column because I knew journos would hate it. But it felt like a moral duty.”
As my colleague Zaid Jilani remarked: “I can imagine Paul Krugman standing in front of the mirror saying, ‘This is *your Tahrir Square* big guy.’” Nate Silver, early yesterday morning, even suggested that Krugman’s Clinton-defending column was so edgy and threatening that the New York Times — which published the column — was effectively suppressing Krugman’s brave stance by refusing to promote it on Twitter (the NYT tweeted Krugman’s column a few hours later, early in the afternoon). Thankfully, it appears that Krugman — at least thus far — has suffered no governmental recriminations or legal threats, nor any career penalties, for his intrepid, highly risky defense of Hillary Clinton.
That’s because — in contrast to his actually brave, orthodoxy-defying work in 2002 as one of the few media voices opposed to the invasion of Iraq, for which he deserves eternal credit — Krugman here is doing little more than echoing conventional media wisdom. That prominent journalists are overwhelmingly opposed to Donald Trump is barely debatable; their collective contempt for him is essentially out in the open, which is where it should be. Contrary to Krugman’s purported expectation, countless Clinton-supporting journalists rushed to express praise for Krugman. Indeed, with very few exceptions, U.S. elites across the board — from both parties, spanning multiple ideologies — are aligned with unprecedented unity against Donald Trump. The last thing required to denounce him, or to defend Hillary Clinton, is bravery.
That wasn’t true at first: For a long time, journalists refused to take the dangers posed by Trump’s campaign seriously. In March 2016, I wrote a column denouncing the U.S. media for venerating feigned neutrality over its responsibility to sound the alarm about how extremist and menacing Trump’s candidacy really is. But in the last few months, Trump’s media portrayal has been overwhelmingly (and justifiably) negative; his shady business scams have been endlessly investigated and dissected (often on the front page of the NYT); he and his surrogates are subjected to remarkably (and fairly) harsh interviews; his pathological lying has been unequivocally chronicled by numerous media outlets; and few journalists have suppressed their horror at his most extremist policies. As BuzzFeed’s Tom Gara put it last month: “My Twitter timeline is now just a continuous rolling denunciation of Donald Trump.”
That American journalists have dispensed with muted tones and fake neutrality when reporting on Trump is a positive development. He and his rhetoric pose genuine threats, and the U.S. media would be irresponsible if it failed to make that clear. But aggressive investigative journalism against Trump is not enough for Democratic partisans whose voice is dominant in U.S. media discourse. They also want a cessation of any news coverage that reflects negatively on Hillary Clinton. Most, of course, won’t say this explicitly (though some do), but — as the wildly adored Krugman column from yesterday reflects — they will just reflexively dismiss any such coverage as illegitimate and invalid.
It should be the opposite of surprising, or revealing, that pundits loyally devoted to a particular candidate dislike all reporting that reflects negatively on that candidate. There is probably no more die-hard Clinton loyalist in the U.S. media than Paul Krugman. He has used his column for years to defend her and attack any of her critics. Indeed, in 2008, he was the first to observe that — in his words — “the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality,” comparing the adulation Clinton’s 2008 primary opponent was receiving to the swooning over George W. Bush’s flight suit. He spent the 2016 primary maligning Sanders supporters as unstable, unserious losers (the straight, white, male columnist also regularly referred to them — including female and LGBT Sanders supporters — as “bros”). And now he’s assigned himself the role as Arbiter of Proper Journalism, and — along with virtually all other Clinton-supporting pundits and journalists — has oh-so-surprisingly ruled that all journalism that reflects poorly on Hillary Clinton is unsubstantiated, biased, and deceitful.
The absolute last metric journalists should use for determining what to cover is the reaction of pundits who, like Krugman and plenty of others, are singularly devoted to the election of one of the candidates. Of course Hillary Clinton’s die-hard loyalists in the media will dislike, and find invalid, any suggestion that she engaged in any sort of questionable conduct. Their self-assigned role is to defend her from all criticisms. They view themselves more as campaign operatives than journalists: Their principal, overriding goal is to ensure that Clinton wins the election. They will obviously hate anything — particularly negative reporting about her — that conflicts with that goal. They will jettison even their core stated beliefs — such as the view that big-money donations corrupt politicians — in order to fulfill that goal.
But it would be journalistic malpractice of the highest order if the billions of dollars received by the Clintons — both personally and though their various entities — were not rigorously scrutinized and exposed in detail by reporters. That’s exactly what they ought to be doing. The fact that quid pro quos cannot be definitively proven does not remotely negate the urgency of this journalism. That’s because quid pro quos by their nature elude such proof (can anyone prove that Republicans steadfastly support Israel and low taxes because of the millions they get from Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers, or that the Florida attorney general decided not to prosecute Trump because his foundation and his daughter donated to her?). Beyond quid quo pros, the Clintons’ constant, pioneering merger of massive private wealth and political power and influence is itself highly problematic. Nobody forced them to take millions of dollars from the Saudis and Goldman Sachs tycoons and corporations with vested interests in the State Department; having chosen to do so with great personal benefit, they are now confronting the consequences in how the public views such behavior.
That Donald Trump is an uber-nationalist, bigotry-exploiting demagogue and unstable extremist does not remotely entitle Hillary Clinton to waltz into the Oval Office free of aggressive journalistic scrutiny. Nor does Trump’s extremism constitute a defense to anything that she’s done. It is absolutely true that Trump has at least as many troublesome financial transactions and entangling relationships as the Clintons do: These donations to the Florida attorney general are among the most corrupt-appearing transactions yet documented. Even worse, Trump has shielded himself from much needed scrutiny by inexcusably refusing to release his tax returns, while much of the reporting about the Clintons is possible only because they have released theirs. All of that is important and should be highlighted.
But none of it suggests that anything other than a bright journalistic light is appropriate for examining the Clintons’ conduct. Yet there are prominent pundits and journalists who literally denounce every critical report about Clinton as unfair and deceitful, and band together to malign the reporters who scrutinize the Clintons’ financial transactions. Those prominent voices combine with the million-dollar online army that supreme sleaze merchant David Brock has assembled to attack Clinton critics; as the Los Angeles Times reported in May: “Clinton’s well-heeled backers have opened a new frontier in digital campaigning, one that seems to have been inspired by some of the internet’s worst instincts. Correct the Record, a Super PAC coordinating with Clinton’s campaign, is spending some $1 million to find and confront social media users who post unflattering messages about the Democratic front-runner.”
All of this means that any journalists reporting negatively on Clinton are instantly and widely bombarded with criticisms denouncing their work as illegitimate, as they’ve started noting:
Clinton backers' shaming of the press for reporting anything the Clinton campaign dislikes is rapidly approaching self-parody territory.— Kenneth P. Vogel (@kenvogel) September 4, 2016
Is there anyone whinier than Clinton supporters? Her unpopularity is always someone else's fault.— Josh Barro (@jbarro) August 31, 2016
No one in the media should do another story remotely questioning anything Hillary has done until the NYT accuses Trump of bribery on Page 1.— Jon Ralston (@RalstonReports) September 6, 2016
So little upset here at Clintons for decisions like taking $18 million from for-profit college. Only upset at press for daring to point out.— Alec MacGillis (@AlecMacGillis) September 6, 2016
Or just look at the outrage directed last night at New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman — who has written story after story investigating Donald Trump — for the crime of innocuously noting a Washington Post story about Bill Clinton’s multimillion-dollar payday for a largely no-show job from a for-profit college:
It’s very common for political factions to believe that they’re persecuted and victimized. Even with the overwhelming bulk of the national media so openly aligned against Trump — with an endless array of investigative stories showing Trump to be an unscrupulous con artist and pathological liar — Clinton supporters seem to genuinely believe that the media is actually biased against their candidate.
The reality is that large, pro-Clinton liberal media platforms — such as Vox, and the Huffington Post, and prime-time MSNBC programs, and the columnists and editorialists of the New York Times and the Washington Post, and most major New York-based weekly magazines — have been openly campaigning for Hillary Clinton. I don’t personally see anything wrong with that — I’m glad when journalists shed their faux objectivity; I believe the danger of Trump’s candidacy warrants that; and I hope this candor continues past the November election — but the everyone-is-against-us self-pity from Clinton partisans is just a joke. They are the dominant voices in elite media discourse, and it’s a big reason why Clinton is highly likely to win.
That’s all the more reason why journalists should be subjecting Clinton’s financial relationships, associations, and secret communications to as much scrutiny as Donald Trump’s. That certainly does not mean that journalists should treat their various sins and transgressions as equivalent: Nothing in the campaign compares to Trump’s deport-11-million-people or ban-all-Muslim policies, or his attacks on a judge for his Mexican ethnicity, etc. But this emerging narrative that Clinton should not only enjoy the support of a virtually united elite class but also a scrutiny-free march into the White House is itself quite dangerous. Clinton partisans in the media — including those who regard themselves as journalists — will continue to reflexively attack all reporting that reflects negatively on her, but that reporting should nonetheless continue with unrestrained aggression.