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Vague Email Controversy Brings Out the Worst in TV News Media (Analysis)

If you have stood within earshot of a television, peeked at a social media stream, or scanned the front page of a newspaper, you may have noticed that emails are once again the subject of commentator frenzy. And yet there is little consensus on what, in fact, the news actually is.

Yesterday, in an alarmingly vague letter to Congress, FBI director James Comey wrote that the investigation into whether or not Democratic nominee Clinton had endangered national security by using a private email server was once again, possibly, relevant. Reporting since then has indicated that the FBI investigation into disgraced politician Anthony Weiner, who may have sexted a 15-year-old, surfaced emails that were stored on the server — probably because Weiner’s now-estranged wife, Huma Abedin, is a top Clinton aide, and the two shared devices.

Even in Comey’s initial letter, the possible involvement of Hillary Clinton is either tangential or speculative — the emails may have been on this controversial private server, but they may also have already been in the possession of the FBI, albeit on a different device. They may implicate Clinton or Weiner; they may also do no such thing. It is explicitly unknown, and Comey confirmed that in a leaked internal memo.

That has not stopped media organizations, in the full flush of pre-election coverage, to make this some kind of “October surprise” for the Clinton campaign, seizing on it as a turning point in the narrative of election 2016. And due to the confluence of Comey’s inept attempt at transparency and the media’s appetite for inflated controversy, Comey’s letter has had the effect of lighter fluid on the finally cooling embers of a house fire.

It’s frustrating, too, that this revelation was announced on a Friday. The last business day of the week is frequently one to drop news you hope the media will ignore. In the closing weeks of an election cycle, perhaps it matters less — but Comey still dropped a bomb the day before the weekend, when federal offices are closed, sources are at home with their families, and reporting, for overworked journalists, is especially hard to do. (And in perhaps the most ironic twist, the candidate herself was reportedly on a plane when the news broke — without wifi.)

In lieu of actual reportage, cable news — which always needs material to fill its 24-hour mandate — has had to fall back on hours on end of pure speculation. Comey said, in his internal memo, that he was trying to be careful in how he disseminated this information on the eve of an acrimonious election. But he does not seem to have understood that in this era of constant news he created a perfect storm for confusion, misinformation, and — in some sectors — unhinged conspiracy. There is an appalling disconnect on cable news between what has actually been said and what is being implied or perceived, and it is doubling back on itself and expanding. As CNN airs an entire Trump rally in which he conflates Clinton’s corruption, Weiner’s sexting, and aide Huma Abedin’s religion as part of the same web of purported lies — adding, wildly, that he hopes Abedin was not promised immunity — MSNBC features panicked comments from DNC chair Donna Brazile and handwringing speculation over how the campaign is coping. It’s difficult to even isolate individual instances from the major networks that are indicative of how distorted cable news’ perspective is, because it is as much about tone and coverage time as it is about content. How many multi-head panels can the major networks field, most of whom are circling the same two or three questions of trustworthiness and judgment, before it begins to feel like freaking out has become the primary pastime of the news media?

It is not quite fair to fully blame the media, or even Comey — who is months into an unprecedented public-facing approach to the Clinton investigation. This is an especially draining election, where knowing what is right to do has become more difficult than ever. Racial, gender, and class divides have riven the electorate, and every new revelation in this campaign seems to strike another one of these fraught boundaries. But 10 days away from the resolution of this election, one way or another, the news media is demonstrating serious weakness with reporting uncertainty and ambiguity. At the risk of sounding too naïve about the role of truth in journalism, it would be appreciated if clarity were prized over controversy. But then again, this election has been defined by the breakdown of our best intentions in the Byzantine political-media complex, where time must be filled, takes must be filed, and we as a nation have struggled to wholly apprehend what we have become.

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