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White House Reporters Focusing On The Wrong Email Scandal

At this week's White House briefings, "email" was mentioned 231 times. Can you guess how many of those were about the racist Ferguson Police Department emails?
ferguson pd

As winter's last gasp blankets much of the country in snow, this week's news cycle continues to be dominated by a blizzard of news about former Secretary of State and future Madame President Hillary Clinton's email account. While the story is not nothing, closer examination of the details shows it to be less than the attention being paid to it would suggest.

While there are other ways to illustrate this, the White House reporter points to the 231 references to "email" in the last two White House daily briefings, versus the zero references in the prior week, at least. That means someone mentioned "email" an average of once per minute during the last two briefings. That collective feeding frenzy is perhaps best summed up by this absurd exchange between Press Secretary Josh Earnest and New York Times White House Correspondent Michael Shear, who, I swear to God, actually says "I won't belabor it" about halfway through his third set of nerd hypotheticals (also, if you watch until the end, Shear also does a hilariously inadvertent Jay-Z "dirt off your shoulder" gesture):

"One of your employees, one of the people in the lower press came to you and said, I love technology. I've got an old PC sitting at my apartment in Dupont and I'd like to run a mail server using Linux on it and plug it into my Cox or FiOS wireless, and I'd like to use that full-time instead of my who email address to conduct all of the business that I conduct with reporters and other people in the White House and the government, that would be okay with you. You would offer them guidance against it, but at the end of the day, if they wanted to do that, that would be okay?"

"...But let’s set that aside for a minute because the Federal Records Act is a question of preserving documents and that's relatively interesting -- maybe not interesting, but it's relevant. But there’s also security questions, right? There’s questions about -- regardless of whether or not something is kept for posterity, there’s questions of I'm sending you an email, you're sending me an email, I'm emailing Schultz, is somebody hacking? Is the contents of that information getting out? Maybe Schultz is emailing somebody inside the government that’s got a classified document or it’s got a secure document that should be secure. That has nothing to do with the Records Act. That has to do with security issues. And would it be okay for Schultz to have his little server on his Linux box?"

Maybe not interesting? In an MIT dorm after several hits off of a dusted joint, that's still definitely not interesting, but especially so in a White House briefing room where every other reporter has already wasted the better part of two hours drawing what little blood there is to be had from the stone that is this extremely disciplined press secretary.

All of this for a story that, as Bob Cesca has ablypointedout, will only matter to the degree it tarnishes the reputations of the reporters who have reported it so shoddily. Was Hillary Clinton unwise to handle her email this way? Definitely. Will any amount of dredging turn up anything consequential in those emails? Probably not. Is Hillary going to end up cellies with Bob McDonnell? Definitely not.

There was one reporter who not only bothered to ask about an email scandal that really does matter, but asked the right questions. His name is Major Garrett, and he followed up his ask for a reaction to the racist emails in the DOJ's report on the Ferguson Police Department by delving into the policy implications:

Major Garrett: Well, let’s try to drill down on that a little bit. Because in a couple of exit interviews, Attorney General Eric Holder has said he believes -- and I wonder if the President agrees -- that there needs to be an adjustment of federal law so the Justice Department can more actively prosecute cases either like Darren Wilson or George Zimmerman, or bring police departments that have a pattern of practice the Justice Department finds outside the boundaries of the Constitution into a criminal legal proceeding.

Attorney General Holder said, “If we adjust these standards, we can make the government a better backstop, make it more a part of the process in an appropriate way.” Does the President believe federal law needs to be changed to give the Justice Department more authority and strength in this particular area?

Josh Earnest: Well, there is an active conversation underway right now as it relates to, more broadly, criminal justice reform. And there has been bipartisan interest expressed in this area by members of Congress both in the House and the Senate. There aren’t too many areas like that, so this could be a potentially fruitful opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to work together on something in Congress and --

Major Garrett: But that's been generally confined to sentencing and prison populations and things like that. You would add this to that conversation?

Josh Earnest: Well, I think that there are some members of Congress -- I think they’re probably mostly Democrats -- who do believe that this should be added to the conversation.

Major Garrett: Does the President?

Josh Earnest: The President would certainly be willing to consider those kind of proposals.

Major Garrett: Does he think federal law is too weak in this category?

Josh Earnest: Well, I think the President would be willing to consider proposals that some people may have for making reforms to the law that relate to this.

Major Garrett: Has anyone here produced something that he can propose?

Josh Earnest: Not that I’m aware of off the top of my head. +But at some point, as the President continues to talk about some of these issues -- and he will -- he may either mention it proactively or one of you may have an opportunity to ask him about it.

Earnest's responses were hampered by the freshness of the report, but as Garrett pointed out, this has been on the stove for a long time. On Tuesday, I spent a good part of the day trying to get reactions to the leaked email from that report, and while White House officials would not comment for the record, it was obvious to me that when I read the quote out to them, it was the first time they'd heard it.

Garrett's questions, though, get to the heart of why this email scandal matters so much. The statistics and research in the DOJ report are bracing, but the emails demonstrate that they are a symptom of a much more stubborn malady than misguided policing policies, and that more is needed to fix it. The Justice Department turned over this particular rock because Michael Brown was killed, and here's just some of what they found Ferguson police and municipal court staff engaging in:

  • A November 2008 email stated that President Barack Obama would not be President for very long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.”

  • A March 2010 email mocked African Americans through speech and familial stereotypes, using a story involving child support. One line from the email read: “I be so glad that dis be my last child support payment! Month after month, year after year, all dose payments!”

  • An April 2011 email depicted President Barack Obama as a chimpanzee.

  • A May 2011 email stated: “An African-American woman in New Orleans was admitted into the hospital for a pregnancy termination. Two weeks later she received a check for $5,000. She phoned the hospital to ask who it was from. The hospital said, ‘Crimestoppers.’”

  • A June 2011 email described a man seeking to obtain “welfare” for his dogs because they are “mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can’t speak English and have no frigging clue who their Daddies are.”

  • An October 2011 email included a photo of a bare-chested group of dancing women, apparently in Africa, with the caption, “Michelle Obama’s High School Reunion.”

  • A December 2011 email included jokes that are based on offensive stereotypes about Muslims.

Our review of documents revealed many additional email communications that exhibited racial or ethnic bias, as well as other forms of bias. Our investigation has not revealed any indication that any officer or court clerk engaged in these communications was ever disciplined. Nor did we see a single instance in which a police or court recipient of such an email asked that the sender refrain from sending such emails, or any indication that these emails were reported as inappropriate. Instead, the emails were usually forwarded along to others.

All the best practices and policing strategies in the world aren't going to cure that, especially in places, like Ferguson, where there is little interest in changing the status quo from the top. As other parts of the report indicate, cops and courts can always get around reporting requirements, and can think of something else to call what they're doing, and eventually, even clean up their email communications by keeping the racist patter around the IRL watercooler. What the federal government needs to do is figure out a way to turn over every rock in this country, and immediately clear out what it finds underneath. No citizen deserves to live under armed occupation by people who don't even see them as human beings, let alone equals.