The Times’ passive-voice innuendos about Hillary Clinton

insinuationsIf you opened your New York Times on Friday, you got the impression that the Justice department was opening a criminal investigation into Hillary Clinton. Actually, it isn’t. After the newspaper recognized its errors, it papered over the original article and headline with passive voice. You’d expect this sort of innuendo from outlets with a conservative bias, but in this case, it’s just the Times covering its ass.

Whether you are a Hillary Clinton supporter or opponent (and for the record, I am neither), there is a legitimate story regarding her email and her trustworthiness. I am glad the New York Times is looking into it, but I wish they’d report it straight rather than just implying wrongdoing.

Here’s the opening of the original article as archived on newsdiff.org:

Criminal Inquiry Sought in Clinton’s Use of Email

Two inspectors general have asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into whether Hillary Rodham Clinton mishandled sensitive government information on a private email account she used as secretary of state, senior government officials said Thursday.

This sounds pretty bad. But it’s wrong. As you can read in this very clear Newsweek analysis, here’s what actually happened: The Justice Department is not accusing Hillary Clinton of emailing classified documents from her account. The inspectors general are instead checking whether the State Department should have classified some of those emails later, long after Clinton left office, rather than release them in response to the the Freedom of Information Act. As Clinton’s spokesperson said, “Any released emails deemed classified by the administration have been done so after the fact, and not at the time they were transmitted.” According to the Times‘ own correction, the investigation is not targeting Hillary Clinton, and it’s not criminal.

How did the Times fix the issue? Well, here’s how the story reads now (passive voice highlighted):

Inquiry Sought in Hillary Clinton’s Use of Email

Two inspectors general have asked the Justice Department to open an investigation into whether sensitive government information was mishandled in connection with the personal email account Hillary Rodham Clinton used as secretary of state, senior government officials said Thursday.

The passive headline is misleading, since the only person it mentions is Hillary Clinton, who is not the target of the investigation. And “was mishandled in connection with” misdirects the reader, since the investigation isn’t about Clinton.

The article uses equivocation and passive innuendo throughout to make itself sound more important, even though the actual content is quite vague (highlighted below).

It is not clear if any of the information in the emails was marked as classified by the State Department when Mrs. Clinton sent or received them. [Translation: we have no idea if this actually concerns Clinton or not.]

The revelations about how Mrs. Clinton handled her email have been an embarrassment for the State Department, which has been repeatedly criticized over its handling of documents related to Mrs. Clinton and her advisers. [Translation: people are pissed at Clinton over this, but since the article is not about them, we won’t say who.]

The State Department has sought to delay the hearing [on Benghazi], citing continuing efforts to brief members of Congress on the details of the nuclear accord with Iran. It is not clear why the State Department has struggled with the classification issues and document production. Republicans have said the department is trying to use those processes to protect Mrs. Clinton. [Translation: We don’t know who’s stonewalling at the State Department, but it sure sounds fishy to us.]

Can we call a moratorium on “it is not clear” in news stories? Why report what you don’t know as if your lack of knowledge is news?

As for passive voice, news organizations, just like businesspeople, use it to protect themselves from identifying responsible parties. It’s not usually so obvious, but when a story changes like this, you get a peek into how articles suggest things when they can’t come right out and state them as facts.

Before you come to a judgment on this (and comment about it), ask yourself: Am I answering because of my opinion about Hillary Clinton, or because of my opinion about how media reports the news? Only one of those will encourage dialogue.

Followup: The New York Times explains how it screwed up, and the apology is in passive voice.

Thanks to Scott Monty for the tip.

Photo: The New York Times.

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