There was a fleeting moment several weeks ago when America finally seemed to get serious. Donald Trump had coasted through the early primary season with soft press coverage and insufficient scrutiny. Even as late as this summer, he was going on late-night shows and sitting for lollipop interviews, all of which had the effect of normalizing him, of inviting him into the national living room. But then things started to change. The major newspapers, especially the Washington Post and the New York Times, began examining his finances more extensively. Typically ovine cable news anchors, either embarrassed by their past coverage or fed up with Trump’s racism and misogyny, dared to challenge him. (He eventually just stopped appearing on their shows.) And the infamous Access Hollywood tape, followed by a depressing stream of women coming forward to say that Trump’s sexual assault boast was a rare and grotesque moment of honesty from him, caused even many Republicans to wince. It wasn’t long ago that GOP officeholders were intoning grave sentiments about what electing a man like Trump might mean for the country, its values, and its traditions.
And yet, here we are just eight days from the election and Donald Trump is not even the lead story. Instead, the media—every institution from the cable news networks to the New York Times—have gone mad obsessing over the latest news about Hillary Clinton’s emails. The disgrace of this is not merely that we have no idea what the latest revelation from FBI Director James Comey will or will not tell us about Clinton’s behavior. It is also that the entire press corps has shifted its focus to a relatively minor issue at a time when Donald Trump remains the primary threat to American democracy.
The blame for the latest scandal—and here I refer to the hyperventilating about the emails, rather than the emails themselves—can be assigned to any number of people. Hillary Clinton made the decision in the first place to use a private email server, which, however commonplace, is an affront to the Freedom of Information Act and record retention and all that boring good-government stuff that doesn’t seem to come up much in any of the hootin’ and hollerin’ over the emails. Clinton also spent much too long equivocating over how to respond. And on Friday, after Comey’s letter to Congress became public, her campaign decided that the best approach was to attack the FBI director, practically begging him to reveal more about his investigation. Maybe this was the right move, but the strategy certainly gave the story enough oxygen to last the weekend and perhaps the whole of this week. The press was already anxious for what we tiresomely insist on calling an October surprise, and the fact that large chunks of the Democratic Party decided to go to war with the FBI director only made the controversy a juicier one. Now it seems clear that the Justice Department itself is riven with internal disagreement over investigating Hillary Clinton, and these turf wars will of course play out in the press over the next few days, with volleys and return volleys of bitchcakes quotes from anonymous insiders.
There are important issues in play here. The evident problems at the Justice Department are not only significant, but another sign of the great enervation of our institutions at a moment when their very legitimacy is being called into question. ThinkProgress’ Judd Legum suggests Comey was overcorrecting in response to a monthslong assault by the GOP on the FBI’s authority. “Republicans worked the refs at the FBI,” Legum tweeted, “and it worked.” This is something like what happened to Clinton in the 1990s, when she responded to attacks of all kinds from the right by retreating into a garrison mentality, which itself became the subject of attacks of all kinds from the right (and which probably had something to do with her unfortunate decision to use a private email server).
All of these things are worth covering in some fashion. But enough is enough. Journalism is about choosing what to cover as much as it is deciding how to cover something. (Jerry Seinfeld has an old joke about how incredible it is that every day on Earth the amount of news that occurs—no more, no less—always fits precisely in the newspaper.) Donald Trump’s sins against every building block of good government—from hiring competent people to making any effort whatsoever at transparency to distinguishing one’s self-interest from the larger interest—render Clinton’s shortcomings minuscule and insignificant in comparison. We are extremely close to the most important American election since God knows when, an election whose reverberations are almost impossible to imagine, let alone measure. Let’s focus on that for a change.