“But her emails!” is both a played-out rallying cry around a failed presidential candidate, and a succinct, stinging indictment of the inadequacy of our major media. To understand why, you must first understand how we can arrive at a juncture where a Democratic presidential candidate using a private e-mail is worthy of 24/7 coverage, but many, many, many members of the current Republican administration using a private e-mail is framed as nowhere near as important. It’s simple: the brain disease permeating the NYC-D.C. corridor known as bothsidesism.
Bothsidesism is the natural consequence of having a capitalistic media business and a country with only two political parties (most countries have more than two, and in a normal world, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders would be in different political parties). Because profit is the main goal of these businesses, their customers, not journalism, become the primary consideration for the major decision-makers at the top of these businesses. To maximize profitability, coverage must be evenly divided along both partisan lines—which is how we arrived at a moment where Hillary Clinton’s freaking e-mails were portrayed as just as big of a story as Trump’s dalliances with Russia and general racism, corruption and incompetency.
American media rarely allows itself to say that one political faction is objectively better or worse than the other on any subject—even if the facts of their reporters’ work drives them to that conclusion—and the end result is a wildly corrupt Republican Party that exploits a media environment which plays up Democratic scandals in order to:
A. Make the Democrats look as bad as Republicans.
B. Protect the business’s brand by using A to demonstrate how supposedly unbiased their journalism is.
Which brings us to today’s Washington Post article on Elizabeth Warren that has good reporting on valuable topics, yet is framed along lines that clearly were drawn by the rich white dudebro bias that dominates our media coverage. Here is the real meat of the report, beginning five paragraphs into the piece:
In a separate review, The Washington Post found that a wave of Warren’s legal work came in the early 2000s as manufacturing companies whose products contained asbestos were forced into bankruptcy by waves of personal injury claims.
A nationally recognized expert in bankruptcy law, Warren consulted for more than a dozen committees representing claimants and creditors in these cases, often in partnership with the law firm Caplin & Drysdale, for an hourly rate of $675.
Warren also worked for a number of corporate clients; she disclosed some of them in 2012. In 1987, she advised the former directors of Getty Oil during Texaco’s bankruptcy. In 2003, she served as an expert witness for the Fuller-Austin Insulation Co. in a case against insurers. In 2005, she provided testimony that bolstered the case of private equity firm Platinum Equity in a contractual dispute.
And here is the title (writers rarely write their own titles):
While teaching, Elizabeth Warren worked on more than 50 legal matters, charging as much as $675 an hour
It is quite telling that the focus of the title is on Warren’s hourly rate, and not her corporate clients. The subtext of the piece is that Warren may be a hypocrite, given her work for the corporate titans whose monopolies she now plans to smash. This echoes a familiar BS tope in media: leftists with money are hypocrites. It’s supposedly only possible to be a socialist if you’re poor. That’s how we arrived at an entire news cycle about Bernie’s freaking coat. At best, major decision-makers at major media institutions largely do not understand the relative importance of things in politics—and at worst, they are actively pushing a corporatist agenda against any resistance from the left wing, like Elizabeth Warren’s platform.
You can tell this is a split between reporter and major decision-makers because the actual text of the piece is mostly substantive and informative, and does not place a focus on her hourly rate like the title and introduction do. The report should have noted that “Liz was a diehard conservative” until 1996 when she changed her party affiliation and began her shift left, as that would go a long way to explain her work for sketchy outfits like Dow Chemical in the 1990s. The WaPo piece does bring up the helpful fact that Warren advised “a variety of clients, from people with asbestos disease to a corporation facing possible liability over ruptured breast implants,” and yet, this complexity is buried farther down in the report while Warren’s maximum hourly rate is repeated three times between the title and the sixth paragraph.
This is an important report because any affiliation between a presidential candidate and our corporate titans should be disclosed given how much influence our oligarchy has in our politics, but it’s also a mostly bunk report due to how it was framed—and its acknowledgement that Warren disclosed much of this in 2012 when she ran for Senate. There is no attempt to explain why Warren may have worked for these companies, nor is there even an acknowledgement that lawyers have a duty to provide representation to their clients. There is also absolutely no connection made between this work in the past to present day—the closest this timeline gets to today is 2005. The article simply lays out some potentially compelling facts with no explanation as to why these facts may be compelling, and then the introduction is framed around her $675 maximum hourly rate.
The New York Times had more influence on electing Trump than Russia did. They led the charge on Hillary’s e-mail story, and cable news followed suit. By elevating a mildly important story to Trumpian levels in order to avoid charges of bias, the Times and all other media outlets who pushed that story hard in 2016 helped run interference for Trump (it was a story worth pursuing given that Hillary kept lying about it, which is basically the bat signal for reporters to start digging, but the degree to which it was presented as a scandal was totally out of whack with reality).
The concern brought up by this WaPo piece is that 2016 is going to happen again. There may be a real story here with Warren, or maybe it’s just part of her evolution from “diehard conservative” to slayer of monopolies—we don’t know—because WaPo didn’t even bother to try to tell us. They just really wanted us to know that she charged $675 per hour. Given that this hit piece has echoes of the “but her e-mails” mess, one cannot help but wonder if bothsidesism is so irrevocably tied to these publications’ bottom lines that we are doomed to continually repeat the failures of 2016 until the oceans swallow us whole.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.