Media columnist David Zurawik discusses former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's new book and her take on the advantage of the right-wing media. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)
Normally, I hate it when politicians play media critics.
Whether it is Barack Obama talking about the press as a pack of fools distracted by the "bright, shiny object" or Donald Trump calling anyone who disagrees with him a purveyor of "fake news," such critiques are often misinformed and almost always self-serving.
As I wrote during the 2016 election, I thought Hillary Clinton was terrible as a media candidate. But in her new book, "What Happened," which was published Tuesday, she proves to be a very good media critic in analyzing one important realm of the information ecosystem: conservative platforms like Fox News, the Breitbart News Network and the Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcast Group serving as political tools. That media development, she says, is leaving liberal politicians at a rapidly mounting political disadvantage. And that, she says, is a danger to democracy.
"For example," she writes in reference to a YouTube video that surfaced six weeks before the election, "a prominent Trump supporter and evangelical bishop, Aubrey Shines, produced an online video attacking me because Democrats 'gave this country slavery, the KKK and Jim Crow laws.' "
The video, which was posted under the headline, "Black Pastors Do Not Support Hillary Clinton," was accompanied by type saying, "Contrary to the story the media would like you to believe, there is a strong base of minority and Christian voters who do not support Hillary Clinton. … It is time for voters to get off of the plantation and read and think for themselves."
To date, the video has only been seen by 20,117 viewers, but it received much wider distribution during the election through what Clinton characterized as a messaging weapon.
"The charge was largely amplified by the conservative media company Sinclair Broadcast Group," Clinton writes, "which distributed it to all 173 of its local television stations across the country, along with other right-wing propaganda. Sinclair is now poised to grow to 223 stations. It would reach an estimated 72 percent of American households."
After pointing out how such attacks were posted also across Facebook and other social media sites, Clinton writes, "Put all this together, and you've got multifaceted information warfare."
Fact-check: Through its Circa online news service, Sinclair distributed a roughly two-minute segment about Shines' video on Oct. 5, 2016. In addition to Shines' attacks on her and the Democratic Party, the Circa video also included John T. Bullock, a Towson University professor who is now on the Baltimore City Council, offering 30 seconds of context on how the Democratic Party has "shifted" in the last 150 years.
In a statement emailed to The Sun, Sinclair vice president of news Scott Livingston noted that the company offered air time to both the Clinton and Trump campaigns.
"The Clinton campaign, despite our repeated, documented attempts to arrange such interviews, participated at a much lower level, never once providing the candidate herself for an appearance on a Sinclair station," he wrote.
In interviews promoting the book, Clinton has been doubling down on the theme of conservative platforms putting partisan politics ahead of anything traditionally thought of as journalism.
On Tuesday's Pod Save America, a podcast hosted by former members of Barack Obama's presidential staff, Clinton said, "The other side has dedicated propaganda channels. That's what I call Fox News. It has outlets like Breitbart and crazy Infowars and things like that. … Fox doesn't even pretend anymore. They don't even cover stuff that is not going to promote the Trump agenda."
Clinton added Sinclair to the list of political propaganda channels, calling it "the new threat," and characterizing it as "72 percent-plus of the homes in America being given a steady diet of right-wing Republican politics."
Clinton's most compelling media claim is that whereas right-wing politicians like Trump have the unconditional support of conservative platforms, there are almost no comparable outlets offering such support to left-wing candidates. Mainstream media outlets that adhere to what she calls "traditional values" are as likely to report negative information or criticism of a liberal candidate as to support her or him based on the journalistic, rather than political, lens they use.
Cases in point: the hard-nosed stories The New York Times ran on Clinton's use of a private email server during the campaign and NBC "Today" show host Matt Lauer asking her tough questions about the server during a "Commander in Chief" forum on the network last September.
"I don't understand why people who share our views aren't more willing to invest in media that can be competitive," she said in the podcast. "Because what you've got is right-wing advocacy propaganda, and you've got a kind of mainstream media that engages in false equivalency. And it's tough if you are Democrat trying to navigate through that to get the coverage that is really going to reflect the reality that you're facing out there in the campaign."
I don't agree with Clinton's solution to the rising political power of conservative media outlets: more left-wing, partisan, ideologically driven platforms to complete. She's a politician, and that's a political solution. I'm a journalist, and I'd like to find a journalistic one. More ideological warfare is the last thing the news media or American culture needs. And I applaud The Times, Lauer and every other media platform that dug into the email story.
But I do agree with Clinton's analysis of the danger to democracy in the growing right-wing media that sees themselves first and foremost as a political tool to help Trump and the right achieve its goals — especially with a Trump pick, Ajit Pai, as chair of the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that regulates broadcasters.
I know her critique has definite echoes of the "vast right-wing conspiracy" claim she made on the "Today" show in 1998 as an explanation for the scandals surrounding her husband, Bill Clinton, who was then president. (One of those scandals involved the president's sexual relationship with an intern and his lies about it. I consider Bill Clinton's actions and Hillary Clinton's subsequent attempt to shame the victim reprehensible.) So, I hear the echoes, too.
And her analysis does allow Clinton to blame the media to some extent for her spectacular loss to Trump. Besides the media, Clinton also blames Sen. Bernie Sanders and former FBI Director James Comey, among others. I think she is still in deep denial about the extent of her own failings as a candidate in 2016.
But none of that vitiates the correctness of her larger critique of what's happening on the right-wing media landscape and how that is affecting national politics. If anything, Clinton understates the potential power of right-wing, politically driven media with Trump in the White House and what she termed "billions and billions of dollars" from rich conservative donors funding the movement.
Those donors include the Mercer family — which is backing Breitbart and its executive chairman, Steve Bannon — as well as Charles G. and David H. Koch, who have spent tens of millions of dollars in a campaign to move American politics to the right by winning races at the state level.
The success of that strategy can be seen in places like Wisconsin, where Scott Walker was elected governor in 2010. But to sustain and expand that model, you need a media infrastructure that is centralized in its messaging while being local in its delivery — like the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is awaiting FCC approval to add 42 more stations through the purchase of Tribune Media.
Over the summer, I watched the pieces of the conservative media machine lining up — from "Fox & Friends" in the morning, to Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity at night on Fox News.
The blueprint became more discernible as Sinclair added former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn as chief political analyst and then in July ordered all stations to carry nine of his commentaries a week. Those commentaries regularly echo White House talking points.
The notion of media platforms as right-wing political tools came into sharper focus when Bannon left the White House in August and returned to Breitbart saying, "I've got my hands back on my weapons."
Despite criticizing some decisions made by the White House, the mercurial Bannon has used Breitbart and other platforms to overwhelmingly support Trump since. Last Sunday on "60 Minutes," he blasted Republican leaders in Congress for not loyally backing the president. He is widely reported to be organizing primary re-election challenges against GOP politicians like Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona who have been at odds with the president's agenda.
Using a platform that calls itself news as a political tool is one thing. Using it as weapon as Bannon boasts of doing at the Breitbart News Network takes it to a new level.
Like Bannon, Clinton is a political warrior. Maybe that is why she sees the power and danger of this right-wing messaging machine more clearly than many media critics. She not only saw it close-up, she felt the force of the havoc it could create on an election in 2016 — a year when selecting the American president became more about media than politics.