David Waldman at the American Prospect:
When an important news story breaks, Americans turn to journalists for answers. Answers to questions like: Does this story “play into a narrative”? And what are the “optics” of the story? Because that’s what really matters, right?
Or so you might have thought if you had been reading or watching the news for the past few days. Journalists and pundits were all in a tizzy because when Bill Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch crossed paths recently at an Arizona airport tarmac, Clinton jumped on Lynch’s plane to chat with her for a half hour, about such shocking topics as Clinton’s grandchildren and their mutual friend Janet Reno.
The ensuing controversy looks like a prime example of the “Clinton Rules,” under which the media treat even the most ludicrous allegations against Bill or Hillary Clinton as reasonable and worthy of extended examination, assuming all the while that their actions can be motivated only by the most sinister of intentions. And if the underlying substance of a story is indeed ludicrous—like the idea that Clinton hopped over to talk to Lynch because he wanted to urge her to put the kibosh on any possible indictment of his wife (in a semi-public setting with a bunch of other people standing around), and not because he’s Bill Clinton and he loves chatting with important people—then you can just fall back on judging the “optics” and noting sagely that the story “plays into a narrative.” Whatever you do, don’t mention that the “narrative” is one you yourself are in the process of creating and sustaining, and when you say that the “optics” are bad, what you’re really saying is, “It was a mistake because here I am on TV saying it was a mistake.”
Here’s a handy rule of thumb: The more people you see in the media talking about “narratives” and “optics,” the less substantively meaningful the controversy they’re talking about actually is. So: Is there a reason to condemn Clinton or Lynch for their tarmac chitchat that doesn’t rely on the idea that one or the other should have known how it would look? The closest thing you can argue is that if there’s an active FBI investigation of a matter that involves the wife of a former president, that former president should have no contact, private or public, with the attorney general. Even if that’s an informal rule more intended to safeguard against the appearance of impropriety than actual impropriety, it’s still a perfectly good idea. On the other hand, the fact that their talk took place with other people around makes any kind of undue influence vanishingly unlikely; you’d have far more reason to be concerned about something like a private phone call.
Here’s what was going to happen if Clinton and Lynch had never spoken: The FBI would complete its investigation, the career prosecutors at the Justice Department would or wouldn’t recommend an indictment, and Lynch, as the department’s chief, would or wouldn’t accept that recommendation. I doubt any serious person thinks the outcome of that process would be affected by the conversation Clinton and Lynch had. Yes, there are Republicans, including Donald Trump, who will say otherwise. But there are also lots of Republicans who think that the Clintons killed Vince Foster and that Barack Obama was born in Kenya; that doesn’t mean you have to treat those ideas as anything other than the lunacy they are. But in the end, Lynch recused herself from the final decision on an indictment anyway. Why? Optics, of course.
3 thoughts on “Enough with the ‘optics’”
The most predictable thing about this commentary is that if you reverse the party affiliation of all of the participants, you will reverse the analysis of the impropriety.
Actually, the analysis seems to have a lot more to do with one’s personal disdain of the subject.
Bullshit, the media would NEVER treat a Republican with such hostility. The nation seems to have forgotten the Bush Crime family firing federal prosecutors to block investigations.
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