The school of literary criticism known as reception theory holds that a text should be studied in light of its effect on its contemporaries, that a reader should be aware of the “horizon of expectations” in which a text is produced. I was reminded of this the other day as I observed, in amusement, fascination, and occasional pity, the reaction of the so-called mainstream media to Alana Goodman’s lengthy and rock-solid report on “The Hillary Papers.” This trove of previously unexamined transcriptions of conversations between Hillary Clinton and her best friend Diane Blair had been collecting dust at the University of Arkansas Fayetteville for years. Not anymore.
As far as Bill and Hillary Clinton are concerned, the media’s horizon of expectations is stunningly narrow. It encompasses on the one hand the belief that the “secretary of explaining stuff” is a national treasure beyond reproach, and on the other hand the expectation that the former secretary of state will be our next president. Stories that fall outside of this horizon are problematized, scrutinized, ascribed to partisanship, and read with the sort of incredulity reporters are supposed to apply to public figures such as the Clintons.
When the Free Beacon published “The Hillary Papers” last Sunday night, we knew the story would have to cross a high bar. The piece was scrupulously fact-checked. All of the documents we cited were loaded onto the Internet. Every effort was made to present as straightforwardly as possible the contents of the papers, which show Hillary Clinton as hardheaded, calculating, and, yes, ruthless. (Re-read the part where she axes a Supreme Court appointment out of spite.)
What I did not expect was that the media would undergo such a tortured and dramatic breakdown, would struggle so laboriously to acknowledge the scoop while schizophrenically downplaying its importance. That a conservative online newspaper could have understood the significance of the archive, and actually examined its public contents, seemed too much an embarrassment for the staffs of the major newspapers and networks and magazines to bear. By being the first to report on the papers, the Free Beacon exposed the inanity and irrelevance of the mainstream media. We beat them. And they are sore losers.
The very fact that the story appeared on the Free Beacon prompted journalists to append elaborate, silly, and inaccurate qualifiers to their reporting on our findings. In various outlets the WFB was called “relatively obscure,” “conservative,” “ultra-conservative,” and an “anti-Clinton website,” in order to make it easier for liberals to dismiss the story altogether. The case of CNN is demonstrative. The network wrote that a “conservative website”—guilty as charged—was “claiming” to have found documents shedding new light on Hillary Clinton’s years as first lady. “Claim” was an unusual choice of words, since the documents in the story were all on FreeBeacon.com. Then CNN reduced the fascinating and novelistic details contained in our 3,408-word article to a slug-line: Clinton once called Monica Lewinsky a “narcissistic loony toon.” Later CNN “authenticated” the WFB story, giving it, one assumes, a stamp of approval—which CNN is free to have back.
One of CNN’s contributors, New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza, prefaced a discussion of the Hillary papers by saying of the Free Beacon, “Let’s be honest, their approach to journalism generally is sort of opposition research.” Still, he went on, “kudos to them for finding this.” Thank you, Ryan, for the kudos, but your condescension is completely unwarranted, as is your air of professional and moral superiority. All investigative journalism can be construed as "opposition research," as any reader of Jane Mayer’s attacks on Republicans in the New Yorker, or any journalist who praised David Corn’s “47 percent” scoop in 2012, or any viewer of MSNBC’s nonstop coverage of a lane closure in New Jersey, would know.
A weird arrogance and disdain, a slapdash ascription of motive, characterized most discussions of the “Hillary Papers.” While spokesmen for the Clintons had no official comment, one could discern from the mumblings of journalists the line adopted off the record by servants of the once and future first family: The Free Beacon report was a political hash job, meant to give bad publicity by dredging up the ugly past, maybe even coordinated with the Republican National Committee and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who in recent weeks has been attacking Bill Clinton’s sexual habits. It was a report to be dismissed, downplayed, debunked. Jay Newton-Small, a writer for Time magazine, wrote, “Despite some early interpretations to the contrary, the papers represent a collection of thoughtful reflections and evolving positions on Clinton’s part, rather than a smoking gun of anything damning, or anything surprising.”
Notice that Newton-Small did not link to any of these sensationalist “early interpretations,” probably because the “conservative blog” that broke the story never made sensationalist claims. Nor did the Free Beacon say we had uncovered a “smoking gun” that would doom Clinton. “Thoughtful reflections,” moreover, is a unique way to describe some of Clinton’s words as recorded by Blair, such as her psychiatric description of Lewinsky, and her complaint that no one in the White House was tough enough or mean enough. But Newton-Small must be one tough and mean journalist herself, or else an extremely well sourced one, if she was not surprised by Hillary Clinton’s onetime support for single-payer health care, influence over Supreme Court nominations, and private lobbying against intervention in Bosnia. Of course all this assumes Newton-Small actually read our article before brushing it off. Which is an assumption I am not prepared to make.
Among Clinton’s most loyal defenders there was a panicked rush for the exits, an eagerness to switch topics, to reach the next commercial break: Nothing to see here, time to move on, no one cares about Monica, Hillary is inevitable, etc., etc. This was the tone taken by our lady of the eye-roll, Andrea Mitchell, who said on Morning Joe that she had argued against NBC even mentioning the Free Beacon story, and who like many other pro-Clinton journalists said the story lacked “context.” What she meant was that our magazine-length article, heavily researched and polished, disclosed information to the public without having Mitchell there to explain why none of it mattered.
Mitchell was not alone: There were more than a few Democratic partisans who said publishing material related to the 1990s was an exercise in futility. Former Clinton employee Paul Begala tweeted, “The personal attacks on the Clintons will fail.” Columnist Margaret Carlson wrote that if it hadn’t been for Lewinsky, Hillary Clinton’s numbers “might not have risen enough for her to run for, and win, a Senate seat in New York.” Political commentator Craig Crawford told WTOP radio, “No one has ever defeated the Clintons with these kinds of charges.”
Is this really true? I seem to remember that the shadow of the Clinton scandals—described in the “Hillary Papers” as a “pattern of sleaze”—loomed over Al Gore’s candidacy in 2000; that George W. Bush made a vow during that campaign to restore “integrity” to the White House; that when Democratic mogul David Geffen threw his allegiance to Barack Obama in 2007, he told Maureen Dowd, “I don’t think anybody believes that in the last six years, all of a sudden Bill Clinton has become a different person.” The Clintons call to mind the old Faulkner line that “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” They carry their baggage like Marley carries his chains. It weighs them down.
And yet: Even as the Victorian gentlemen of the press debated the newsworthiness and propriety of the Free Beacon scoop, even as some of the most prominent correspondents in America publicly stated that the story was beneath contempt and unworthy of notice, reporters and producers were booking flights to Fayetteville to see what else they could find inside the Diane Blair archive. Suddenly CNN, NBC, The Wall Street Journal, ABC, and others were devoting manpower and work hours and financial resources to cover a story they had neglected for years, all in the hopes that the supposed partisanship of the Free Beacon had led us to overlook some crucial element of the narrative, some nugget that would reveal Hillary Clinton as the saintly and courageous Tiger Mother of liberal dreams. And what have these crack reporters found that wasn’t covered in Goodman’s original report? “The former first lady coped with severe back pain from wearing heels,” says CNN. Stop. The. Presses.
“I sort of liken it to an Easter egg hunt when you were a child,” said Timothy Nutt, head of special collections at the library where the Blair archive is stored. As Nutt was speaking to his local paper, reporters from New York and D.C. squabbled like children over the 16 boxes of Clinton materials, which the Free Beacon had spent a week analyzing. “Someone finds the golden egg,” Nutt said, “so all the other kids run over to the same place thinking they’re going to find the golden egg when, in fact, there’s only one golden egg, and it’s been found.”
There is a moment near the close of every episode of Punk’d, Ashton Kutcher’s prank show, when a certain expression crosses the face of the mark, when he becomes aware of his credulity, his gullibility, his ignorance, his willingness to suspend disbelief in the service of fantasy. It is at this moment when the eyes of the mark open wide, his brow furrows, and his mouth, opened briefly when his jaw went slack, contorts into a frown. Then the grimace quickly becomes a tight grin—obviously forced—as the mark attempts to convey, with mixed results, the impression that he had been in on the joke all along.
I like to imagine such an expression crossing the faces of all of the sophisticated, holier than thou, “objective” reporters inside the library at Fayetteville, as it dawned on them that a small conservative news outlet had them scooped. Mainstream media, you just got punk’d.