James comey had an outsize effect on media coverage right before the 2016 election – the washington post database logo

Supporters of Hillary Clinton have a three-word shorthand that summarizes their frustration with the tribulations that have accompanied President Trump’s tenure in office and, more specifically, with the steady flow of news about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

It’s meant to replicate the media’s treatment of Clinton over the course of that campaign. A news story about Trump challenging the parents of a soldier killed in Iraq, say, followed by an effort at evenhandedness: a look at the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver addressed the subject on Twitter on Thursday, arguing that “the media’s obsession with Clinton’s emails stemmed from its obsession with fending off accusations of liberal bias.


Trump had… LOTS of issues…. so there was tremendous weight put on this one Clinton issue to preserve ‘balance’. ”

There’s certainly truth to that. But this isn’t simply an academic exercise. The closeness of the result of that election — 78,000 votes in three states gave Trump the victory — means that small things could have swung the result. So, too, could big things, such as former FBI director James B. Comey’s late-campaign revelation that the bureau had found new emails that might be relevant to the server investigation. They weren’t, but the announcement resuscitated the subject right as voters were about to head to the polls.

Silver’s tweet was itself responding to a resuscitation of the subject, spurred by the release of a report from the Justice Department’s inspector general, who found that Comey’s handling of the email investigation raised significant questions. It also revealed that Comey, ironically, had used his own private email for official business.

However, the inspector general’s report reinforces an unimportant point about this response to the 2016 election. “But her emails” is largely a carry-over from the drumbeat of stories beginning in spring 2015, first about the existence of her server and, then, about the slow release of the emails that Clinton had turned over to the State Department. Each new batch of messages prompted a new set of stories, dipping into subtle, often unimportant details.

By July, that story seemed to be wrapped up, as Comey offered a public statement suggesting that no charges were likely. (This was a central consideration in the inspector general’s report.) There was probably less “but her emails”-ism as a result, though that’s hard to quantify.

The Internet Archive’s database of closed captioning from TV news broadcasts shows how dominant Comey was in the last week or so of the campaign. The WikiLeaks releases of emails stolen from Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta got a lot of mentions — a tangent to the “Clinton emails” discussion that was often treated erroneously as a subset of it — but nothing matched Comey on sheer volume over the last few days of the campaign. Not the “Access Hollywood” tape. Not Russia, in the context of Trump. Comey.

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