I really didn’t want to write about this topic. Mentally and physically, many of us in the media are exhausted from parsing the hack work of our colleagues. But as we experience day three of Pneumoniagate, the non-story extraordinaire, it seems I must belly up to the criticism bar once more.
There were no surprises regarding the non-stop Sunday coverage from cable news networks. Of course, the lead story throughout the day should have been the landmark 15-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with a smattering of reporting on the NFL’s first weekend games of the season. But when one of our two presidential candidates faints in public, we expect media hysteria. Those 24-hour news networks have a lot of airtime to fill and not much appetite for critical thinking or investigation.
However, this story more than any other has turned America’s mass market journalism upside down. Because I find myself fuming at three liberal, female media personalities who happen to be personal heroes. Meanwhile, I’m in complete agreement with Lanny Davis of Fox News. What a country.
Our own Justin Baragona covered the inconceivably terrible work of Cokie Roberts this week. He wrote that “the worst kind of bottom-feeding, rumor-mongering came from the unlikeliest source of all — NPR.” The suggestion that the Democratic Party might be looking to replace Hillary Clinton at this stage of the game due to her fainting spell – or almost any other reason currently making the rounds – is more than irresponsible. In service of titillating the already overstimulated viewer, she damaged her own 35–year brand of esteemed credibility.
I shook my head in sorrow as I read the Roberts headlines. But as Monday progressed to night and morphed into Tuesday morning, two other liberal beacons of solid reporting slunk into the mire.
Rachel Maddow devoted her entire Monday evening broadcast to Clinton’s pneumonia. The opening segment, covering a thorough history of presidential illnesses such as George H.W. Bush’s gastro pyrotechnics and loss of consciousness in 1992, seemed promising enough. One of Maddow’s greatest journalistic assets is her ability to tell a story by weaving precedence into a narrative that reflects on the American present. I figured Rachel was getting ready to lower the boom on hypocrites selling Clinton’s Sunday weakness as a legitimate campaign concern, conveniently ignoring that we’ve had paraplegic leaders (FDR), a president with Addison’s disease (Kennedy) and others with a whole host of ailments major and minor.
But no. Instead the respected liberal voice used historical context as a backdrop for the voting public’s supposed evolution on health disclosure expectations. She took the long road toward repeating the same old, tired media talking points. The Clinton campaign is secretive. This could really damage her chances in November. This is serious. Blah, blah, disappointing blah. I expected Maddow’s perspective to echo that of Chelsea Leu of Wired, who opined:
“If you’re a Clinton supporter, the bummer about this diagnosis is that it plays into the conspiracy narratives her opponents have been spinning about her overall health and, by extension, fitness to be president. It’s especially a bummer because catching pneumonia has nothing to do with physical ability to assume the presidency.”
I guess speculating on the non-event of Clinton’s antibiotic tour of duty, rather than shutting down irrelevant punditry, makes for better ratings. Boo and hiss on this one, Rachel.
The biggest shock related to coverage of Hillary’s battle with the vapors, however, was delivered by New York Times Op-Ed columnist, feminist historian and witty observer Gail Collins. It truly pains me to quote her from this morning’s edition of The Conversation, a debate series with conservative writer Arthur C. Brooks. In Who Will Make It Through the Homestretch?, Collins professes, “I’m pretty much with the media mainstream on this one. Once again we’re stuck asking why Hillary couldn’t just be open about what was going on.”
Et tu, Gail? You of all people know exactly why Team Clinton proceeded with caution. The Trump campaign and its surrogates have been deluging the public with claims that Hillary has one foot in the grave for weeks. The woman is damned either way. If she comes clean about her diagnosis, she buttresses alt right talking points about her physical fragility. If she powers through like the badass she is, it’s further evidence of career secretiveness. She gambled on the latter.
The plethora of double standard absurdity when it comes to Clinton and Trump knows no bounds. Salon writer Simon Maloy nailed it with his piece, Hillary Has Pneumonia, So Let’s Talk About Trump’s Awful Health Care Plan. He observed:
“Hillary Clinton has pneumonia. That’s unfortunate for her, and it’s also frustrating for me as a politics writer, given that the entire political world is now consumed with determining the broader significance of the fact that Hillary Clinton has a common lung infection. I just don’t have it in me to strain to connect a medical diagnosis to broader campaign narratives.”
Sadly for Maloy and the American people, plenty of armchair quarterbacking continues on the subject. And it’s doing everyone involved a huge disservice.
I began this column by declaring myself bizarrely in the camp of Lanny Davis. In his piece, Hillary Clinton and the Undisputed Media Bias Against Her, the Fox contributor opined:
“We can only shake our heads at this weekend’s obvious display of media bias. We hope undecided voters will see through it. My reaction was to remember the words of Adlai Stevenson when he lost the 1952 presidential election to Dwight Eisenhower: ‘I’m too old to cry, but it hurts too much to laugh.’”