When the New York Times commissioned a cover for the January 24, 2014 issue of its Sunday Magazine, the result was an eye popping departure from the norm. Readers accustomed to covers of political powerhouses like those of Barack Obama looking presidential, a thoughtful Newt Gingrich with his chin resting on intertwined fingers or Sarah Palin flashing her toothy smile, were assaulted with an unflattering rendering of the head of a hairless Hillary Clinton embedded in a planet orbiting amidst an interstellar array of objects variously identified as the Chelsea Quasar, Friends of Bill Black Hole, Katzenberg's Comet, and so on and so forth.
The cover by artist Jesse Lenz for an article by Amy Chozick titled "Planet Hillary" on Clinton’s influence on the people within her political universe, generated so much comment that Arem Duplessis, then the magazine's design editor, wrote a story about its genesis, including an acknowledgement that earlier versions that presented Clinton in a more humorous and less grotesque light were rejected. Many readers were merely bemused, but some defaulted to an oft-peddled line: The Times had it in for Hillary Clinton and yet again had gone out of its way to portray her in a negative light. Indeed, when Clinton's husband had last appeared on the magazine's cover, he was flatteringly photographed in a dark suit with a hot pink necktie and relaxed demeanor. Indeed, the title of the article was "The Mellowing of William Jefferson Clinton."
"This is a good study into how a merely bad idea turns into fullblown idiocy," wrote one indignant reader. "What woman ever wants to be portrayed as a huge, round, bald blob of head, capable of gobbling up whole galaxies?" asked another.
The Times pleaded that no harm was meant by the cover, but Clinton's defenders were back on the attack against The Gray Lady late last month after an extraordinary series of gaffes that began with an exclusive story published online and then in some print editions stating that the inspectors general for the State Department and intelligence agencies had sent a referral to the Justice Department requesting a "criminal investigation" into whether Clinton "mishandled sensitive government information" on a private email account when she was secretary of state. The account had become a controversy in its own right, the subject of Republican-led congressional investigations, relentlessly biased coverage on Fox News, and attacks by some of the Republicans who hope to face the presumptive Democratic nominee in the 2016 presidential election.
There followed a series of clarifications, changes and corrections that raised more questions -- about The Times coverage and motivation -- than they answered. Then came a tough column by Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan in which she took issue with the paper's seemingly laissez faire use of the "multiple high-level" confidential government sources who "confirmed" the investigation and faulted it for a lack of transparency, and finally an unsigned Editors' Note, certainly written by or at the behest of Dean Baquet, who as executive editor holds the highest ranking position in The Times' newsroom, that obliquely apologized for missteps "that may have left readers with a confused picture."
It turns out that the "criminal investigation" was merely a procedural step in a bureaucratic dance to determine whether sensitive government information was mishandled, rather than whether Clinton herself mishandled information, but the damage had been done and the impression further cemented that the most influential media outlet on the planet -- that is Planet Earth, not Planet Hillary -- had again gone out of its way to portray her in an unflattering light.
I reach a somewhat different conclusion about the email story and The Times' coverage of Clinton overall, although one not particularly more favorable to the paper. As a career journalist who sat through hundreds of story meetings, vetted dozens of potentially controversial political stories, and directed the campaign coverage of a major metropolitan newspaper for no fewer than four presidential elections while being involved in 12 presidential elections in all, I believe that The Times made two fundamental errors of judgment that resulted in what Public Editor Sullivan termed "was, to put it mildly, a mess":My review of The Times' last 50 Hillary Clinton stories betrays no particular bias, only a pretty damned good paper with a richness of resources that is devoting a fair number of them to covering a person who in great likelihood will be the next president. But as the most influential media outlet, The Times is going to be second guessed as well as be gamed by people with less than pure motives like Gowdy. The former comes with the territory; succumbing to the latter in unacceptable.
* Reporting a less sensational version of the story would have been smart. Waiting another day to publish the story would have been smarter, but that's not how the news business works in a hyper-competitive 24/7 world when fairness, accuracy and transparency take a back seat to being first.
* Lurking behind those shadowy confidential sources are people who want to embarrass Clinton, almost certainly including Representative Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House's so-called Benghazi Committee and previously the source of intentionally misleading leaks concerning Clinton.
IS HILLARY IN TROUBLE?
You'd think that Hillary Clinton was in trouble judging from recent polls showing that her unfavorable ratings are increasing, but the data behind the numbers show that her ratings have not changed drastically.
The Huffington Post Pollster average, for example, shows that Clinton's favorable/unfavorable ratings were averaging 47 percent favorable/45 percent unfavorable in January and were at 44 percent favorable/48 percent unfavorable in July, which is pretty much a statistical wash when you factor in all the negative private email and Clinton Foundation coverage.
Clinton could of course lose the election, but it's way too soon to be playing "Taps," according to Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth prof who used to be a political reporter for that mean old New York Times. He notes that Clinton's favorables were bound to go down as she returned to partisan politics, the state of the economy (which is predicted to remain pretty robust) will matter more, and betting markets, in which people have invested real money, put the Democrats' chances of retaining the presidency at about 60 percent.
AND GIVE THEY DID
All of that negative Clinton Foundation coverage has not slowed donations.
Foundation officials say there were 10,516 donors in the first six months of this year, compared with 8,801 during the same period last year. Among the new donors was golfing great (ex-great?) Tiger Woods, who gave between $25,001 and $50,000. The Clintons themselves gave between $5 million and $10 million, a reflection of a recently disclosed report showing they earned over $30 million from January 2014 through mid-May of this year, much of that from speaking fees.
The foundation has become the subject of controversy -- and rightly so -- because of questions about large donations from Middle Eastern countries known for violence against women at a time when Hillary Clinton was campaigning as an advocate for women, and from foreign donors with dodgy reputations who expect that a President Clinton would side with them when the international going got tough.
HOW MUD PIES ARE MADE
Karl Rove's American Crossroads super PAC is in the forefront of a concerted -- and very expensive -- effort to test and refine the most potent lines of attack against Clinton. In other words, to see what mud sticks the most.
Crossroads has been running a series of focus groups made up of 50 voters each who are paid $100 and plied with sandwiches and soft drinks to watch 30-second test television commercials. The focus is on raising unsettling questions about Clinton's character since Republican strategists have found that she and her husband have survived many controversies by dismissing them as partisan attacks.
The ads highlight Clinton’s deletion of some of those emails, try to tie her to President Obama, portray her as distant from middle-class Americans and seek to persuade women that they do not need to support her because of her gender.
"She's got an open wound, and part of our job is to pour salt in it," matter-of-factly says Glen Bolger, a co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, the Republican polling firm that is conducting the focus groups.
Politix Update is an irregular compendium written by veteran journalist Shaun Mullen, for whom the 2016 presidential campaign is his (gasp!) 12th since 1968. Click here for an index of previous Politix Updates.
IMAGE BY JESSE LENZ COPYRIGHT © 2014 THE NEW YORK TIMES