Hillary Clinton’s “coal gaffe” is a microcosm of her twisted treatment by the media

Hillary Clinton’s “coal gaffe” is a microcosm of her twisted treatment by the media

She navigated a hall of mirrors.

Back in March 2016, at a Democratic town hall in Ohio, Hillary Clinton made what was probably the best-known “gaffe” of her campaign. As part of an answer on energy policy, she said, “We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” This was immediately taken as a sign of her hostility to the working class and a confirmation of Democrats’ “war on coal.”

She now calls it the comment she regrets most, devoting an entire chapter to it in her new book What Happened. “The point I had wanted to make,” she writes, “was the exact opposite of how it came out.” She “felt absolutely sick about the whole thing.” (Ken Ward Jr. has some good excerpts from the chapter on his blog.)

It was only one episode in a long and bizarre campaign, but it’s worth dwelling on it for a moment, because it contains, in miniature, the whole of the Kafkaesque information environment Clinton faced. The release of her book has given her critics yet another opportunity to scold and deride her, but if you climb inside this coal gaffe for a while, and really interrogate it a bit, you start to see just how impossible a situation she was in.

There are several questions one might ask about the incident. Did she mean what her critics said she meant? If she didn’t, should she have avoided saying it? Did she bungle the response to the media coverage?

Let’s walk through them one at a time.

What did Clinton mean?

Clinton was asked what she would do to support working-class voters who typically vote Republican. Here, for the record, is her full answer:

Instead of dividing people the way Donald Trump does, let’s reunite around politics that will bring jobs and opportunities to all these under-served poor communities. So, for example, I’m the only candidate who has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right, Tim? [Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) was in the audience.]

And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce energy that we relied on.

If all you knew about Hillary Clinton was these two paragraphs, there might be some legitimate doubt about what she meant in the offending sentence.

But Clinton already had a record on energy policy and coal communities. Putting together a detailed proposal for a $30 billion aid package to ailing coal communities was one of the very first moves her campaign made on policy.

Hillary Clinton touts $30 billion coal plan in Ashland https://t.co/izJCCpLzXk pic.twitter.com/13ny3pQGbN

— Bluegrass Politics (@BGPolitics) May 2, 2016

This is what she says about the answer in her book:

If you listened to the full answer and not just that one garbled sentence pulled out of it, my meaning comes through reasonably well. Coal employment had been going down in Appalachia for decades, stemming from changes in mining technology, competition from lower-sulfur Wyoming coal, and cheaper and cleaner natural gas and renewable energy, and a drop in the global demand for coal.

I was intensely concerned about the impact on families and communities that had depended on coal jobs for generations. That’s why I proposed a comprehensive $30 billion plan to help revitalize and diversify the region’s economy. But most people never heard that. They heard a snippet that gave the impression that I was looking forward to hurting miners and their families.

The account Clinton gives here of the decline of Appalachian coal is 100 percent accurate. The forces killing those coal jobs are market-based. President Obama’s regulations, the ones Clinton would have maintained, had very little to do with it.

What Clinton was obviously fumbling around trying to say is that lots of coal miners and coal companies are going to be put out of business by these market forces. By “we,” she just meant America — “we” are transitioning to cheaper, cleaner energy, and in the process, “we” are going to eliminate some dirty-energy jobs and companies.

Coal communities are going to continue hurting, whether or not the Environmental Protection Agency regulates anything. That’s why Clinton wanted to help them.

Interpreted with even an iota of charity, in light of her record and commitments, even in light of the comments immediately preceding and following, Clinton was clearly trying to express concern for coal communities. To believe otherwise, you’d have to believe not only that she delights in putting Americans out of work but that she would boast about it publicly, like Dr. Evil, to the very people losing jobs. It’s ridiculous.

When her political opponents plucked that phrase out of context and spun it as hostile to coal communities, they were distorting her meaning. They were lying.

We really have to establish this point before moving on. It matters.

There is no reasonable debate on Clinton’s intent. Her disposition toward coal communities was clear to any fair-minded observer at the time; it was the theme of her answer; it was the focus of a major policy proposal.

Whatever you might think about this incident, or what it says about Clinton, what it doesn’t do is reveal that she secretly hated coal communities all along. It does not reveal anything new or substantive about her views or intentions. Insofar as this was a story, it was a story about appearances, not realities.


Hillary Clinton Addresses American Library Association Conference In Chicago
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
Clinton at the American Library Association conference in Chicago in June.

So, on to the next question.

Should Clinton have just not said that dumb thing?

If you read Clinton’s answer to the town hall question in full, it’s all pretty garbled and inarticulate. She was clearly not at the top of her game at that event. "You say millions of words in a campaign and you do your best to be clear and accurate,” she writes. “Sometimes it just comes out wrong.”

Of course, even at her best, Clinton was never adept at the poetry of campaigning. You could never imagine Obama fumbling words like this. Even in his alleged gaffes — like “they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion” — he said exactly what he meant. Even speaking spontaneously, he delivered complete sentences and paragraphs, with uncommon command over his tone.

Clinton lacks the kind of verbal dexterity her husband and Obama have, and their ability to connect to any crowd. She made up for it by studying, by knowing more, forging deeper relationships, having more detailed policies. But it was inevitable that during a long campaign, she would mix a few G.W. Bush-style word salads.

But garbled sentences, in and of themselves, are not significant. As discussed, Clinton’s actual intentions toward coal communities are clear. What does it matter, in the grand scheme of things, that she misspoke about it? Does it reveal anything about her character or her policies that is germane to what kind of president she’d be? “Occasionally misspeaks” has not typically been a barrier to higher office in the US, or else there’d be very few politicians.

There is one and only one reason to pluck out that sentence and make a story of it: to try to hurt Clinton politically by lying about her meaning and intentions.

I guess I’m just stating the obvious here, but this point is also worth belaboring: It was a political hit job. It wasn’t a revelation of relevant information; it was a distortion, a lie.

From the media’s perspective, “Clinton garbled a sentence” is true but not particularly newsworthy. “Clinton boasted about putting coal miners out of work” is false but definitely newsworthy (and damaging to Clinton) if it were true. In other words, there’s no honest reason to make this “gaffe” a story at all.

“But Dave,” you’re saying. “This got covered everywhere, including the MSM. Are you saying they were all lying in order to damage Clinton?”

No. That’s not how the game works. The game works like this:

Right-wing operatives and media figures watch Clinton intensely. Anything she says or does that can be plausibly (or implausibly) spun to appear maleficent, they spin. A vast echo chamber of blogs, “news” sites, radio stations, cable news shows, and Facebook groups takes each one of these mini faux scandals and amplifies the signal.

If one of the faux scandals catches on enough and dominates right-wing media long enough, then a kind of alchemy occurs. The question facing mainstream outlets is not, “Why aren’t you writing about what Clinton said?” That question is easy to answer: It’s a nothingburger. The question becomes, “Why aren’t you writing about the scandal over what Clinton said?”

Reputable mainstream journalists don’t have to pretend that Clinton meant the ridiculous thing right-wing media says she meant. They can just report that “some interpreted Clinton to mean [ridiculous thing],” and hey, that’s technically true. The fact that a bunch of right-wing political and media hacks feigned outrage becomes the story.

Hillary Clinton is over the Benghazi hearings.
(Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency via Getty)
“Oh, you say they’re outraged again?”

The coal gaffe followed that well-established trajectory. The second Clinton said the words, right-wing media yanked them out of context and spun them as cartoonishly evil. Then it’s, hey, CNN, why aren’t you covering the scandal over Clinton’s coal comments?

The groove is so well-worn that the whole cycle has compressed to hours now. Writers for purportedly nonpartisan outlets, desperate for clicks, eagerly hoover up the faux scandals, their journalistic sins washed away by the transformation of Thing to Scandal-About-the-Thing. The former does not need to have any significance, or even to be real, for the latter to flourish.

This has always been especially true in the media’s treatment of the Clintons — the so-called Clinton rules. Any lie or outlandish theory that gets barfed up out of the fever swamps gets credulous coverage in the New York Times. Hell, for the 2016 race, the Times and the Washington Post both paid for a steady supply of this garbage in advance, from Peter Schweizer’s Clinton Cash, a discredited collection of conspiracy theories about the Clinton Foundation.

Remember when a guy emailed Huma Abedin at the Clinton Foundation asking for diplomatic passports to fly with Bill Clinton to help rescue journalists being held hostage in North Korea? And then didn’t get them? That “raised questions.”

As Matt Yglesias wrote, the prime directive of Clinton coverage in the mainstream media has always been: We know they’re guilty; now we just need to show it.

If you put these two together — an intensely hostile and dishonest conservative movement combing every word and act for anything that can be distorted, plus a mainstream press endlessly credulous toward each new faux scandal — and then add, in 2015, an intensely hostile and only moderately more informed Bernie Sanders coalition feeding in their own faux scandals from the left, you have, to put it mildly, a inclement information environment for Clinton.

So sure, it makes sense, in isolation, to say that she shouldn’t have bungled that sentence about coal workers. She shouldn’t have used that email server her husband had in the basement. She shouldn’t have given speeches to banks. All of that is true enough.

But note that when mainstream critics talk about these things, it’s never the things themselves that are the problem. It’s always the optics: “how it sounded” or “how it looked.” If you unpack that a little — “she should have known how it would look” — here’s what it means: She should have known that anything she does or says that can be spun to look bad will be spun to look bad, and the MSM will pass along the spin uncritically, so she shouldn’t have done or said anything that can be spun to look bad.

I just don’t think that’s a standard many human politicians could meet. Analysis of Clinton’s political performance is full of airy counterfactuals in which she said a different thing, or emphasized something else, or campaigned in this state rather than that one ... and thus avoided this or that faux scandal, or avoided being battered in the media.

But no critic has explained how she could have prospered over the course of a whole campaign in the face of a vast machine built to cycle and recycle negative stories about her. No one has explained how she could have talked and acted in such a way as to never be misinterpreted, never be subject to negative spin, never give her opponents ammunition.

She bungled a sentence. It was deliberately misinterpreted, spun, and disseminated. Other than by never bungling sentences, how could she have stopped that process?

@daveweigel: Safe to say that had Hillary not made the coal gaffe, we’d have finished KY an hour ago, right? #Coal pic.twitter.com/0YCgJiImeq

— Kentucky Coal (@KentuckyCoal) May 18, 2016

Did Clinton handle the faux scandal properly?

The mainstream media has another trick. Remember how a Thing that’s not worth covering becomes newsworthy once it’s a Scandal-About-the-Thing, thus indemnifying the media of any responsibility for covering a Thing that’s actually nothing?

That’s prospective indemnity. There’s also retrospective indemnity. Once it becomes clear that the Scandal-About-the-Thing is also a giant nothingburger unworthy of the intensive coverage it’s gotten, the media pivots again. The story is no longer the Scandal-About-the-Thing, it’s ... Clinton’s-Response-to-the-Scandal-About-the-Thing. The real scandal is her response to the fake scandal!

A crystalline example of this pivot was recently provided by Chris Cillizza of CNN. Watch closely:

To my mind, however, Clinton's greatest mistake in the race wasn't setting up the email server. It was her total inability to recognize — and recognize quickly — the reasons why the server story was so dangerous for her campaign.

Hmm. Why was the server story so dangerous to her campaign? It certainly wasn’t due to the substance. As my colleague Matt Yglesias has documented at great length, as a substantive matter, the email scandal was bullshit. He concluded:

Clinton wasn't even breaking with an informal precedent. The very worst you can say is that, faced with an annoying government IT policy, she used her stature to find a personal workaround rather than a systemic fix that would work for everyone. To spend so much time on such a trivial matter would be absurd in a city council race, much less a presidential election.

That is why Clinton was slow to recognize the danger to her campaign, the same reason she has been slow to recognize so many political dangers before: She is a literalist. The email thing is trivial. Why give it airtime?

But it was a danger to her campaign. Why? Because the right wing worked overtime to make it one, and mainstream journalists were led along by the nose.

What Cillizza and other mainstream critics are really saying is that Clinton should have known that the media would seize on the server story and hype it beyond all reason. She should have preemptively treated it like a major scandal, knowing the media would inevitably make it one whether it deserved to be or not.

That is some f’d-up advice. What’s worse, it’s not even true. Clinton apologized for the stupid email server a good half-dozen times, taking sole responsibility, vowing to work with the State Department to bring more clarity to IT policies. She tried to put it behind her again and again. But media would not let it drop.

gallup 2016 word clouds

The same goes, on a smaller scale, for the coal gaffe. Though it was nothing but a garbled sentence — nothing worse than what Trump does a dozen times a day, nothing worse than what America’s beloved uncle Joe Biden does in every speech — she gamely treated it like it was a real scandal, like it meant something. She wrote to Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia to apologize. She flew to Mingo County, the heart of coal country, to apologize to coal miners directly.

Oh, and again, lest it be forgotten, she had that $30 billion aid plan.

But none of it had any effect. The media never stopped passing on the right-wing distortion, with some watery he-said she-said around it to establish, uh, objectivity. The coal gaffe will go down in history as a significant event in the campaign. Just like the email scandal, it went through the Thing, Scandal-About-the-Thing, Clinton’s-Reaction-to-the-Scandal-About-the-Thing cycle without ever having a shred of substantive merit.

The political press needs to (but never will) acknowledge its role in fake scandals

Clinton’s book is serving as yet another opportunity for everyone online to relitigate the primary and the election, which brings me all the pleasure of a root canal. I’m as sick of arguing about Clinton as anyone, and for that reason alone, I’m glad she’s done with politics.

Still. When Clinton points out the media dynamics I describe above, she’s “blaming the media.” When I do it, I’m a quisling, shilling for the neoliberal establishment or whatever. It’s not clear, under Clinton rules, just who is allowed to point it out.

But we are crazy if we let 2016, and Clinton’s political career, recede in the rearview mirror without acknowledging the horribly distorting role of the press and the insane hall of mirrors in which Clinton was forced to operate.

That the coal gaffe is “the coal gaffe” is not a natural, inevitable outcome of her saying the words. People with a political agenda made it into a gaffe and fed it to the mainstream media, which swallowed it uncritically. The scandal didn’t just happen; it was created.

It’s probably fair to say that the political press was (and is) uniquely susceptible to conspiratorial nonsense about the Clintons. But I don’t think the Clinton rules were (or are) entirely confined to the Clintons; they are a larger problem. The right has built a machine dedicated to mainstreaming nonsense, and the mainstream media has proven woefully inadequate as any kind of serious check or filter. (I wrote about this in a longer post on tribal epistemology.)

It’s absurd to tell politicians, “Don’t do anything that can be misinterpreted.” That standard is never applied fairly, but even if it were, it would crush the soul from politics. No politician could completely immunize herself. Clinton tried ... and was criticized for being secretive and programmed!

The point is, it is the responsibility of the free press not to aid and abet those who willfully misinterpret others for political advantage. It’s part of their job not to be used as weapons in baseless political attacks.

Mainstream news outlets should stop treating “how it looks” as though it’s some fact in the universe that they discover. They are the arbiters; they decide how it looks. They build and reinforce narratives. They seek out confirming evidence and ignore disconfirming evidence. They amplify some voices and not others. They direct attention, which is the coin of the realm in modern politics.

If they draw attention to a bullshit scandal, they are the ones ensuring that it damages the campaign. If they play along with the ludicrous notion that Clinton loves firing coal miners, they are sanctioning and disseminating misinformation. They are not doing their jobs.

That’s bad form — even if Clinton should have predicted it.