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Wall Street Journal Creating False Drama Between Hillary and Bernie

The conservative paper did some nifty work on its Bernie Sanders interview, and the Clinton campaign got suckered into responding.

As a liberal, I'm somewhat torn between being grateful for any attention that's being paid to the Democratic presidential race, and dismay at the form that attention is taking. On Thursday, Hillary Clinton's campaign took a hard shot back at Bernie Sanders over reports that he is "taking the gloves off" with regard to Hillary's email server, firing back with this statement:

“This has and will remain a campaign about issues for Hillary Clinton, and that’s what she’ll continue to talk about on the trail. It’s disappointing Senator Sanders and his campaign strategists have chosen to change direction and engage in the type of personal attacks that they previously said he wouldn’t do.”

Here's the problem: Bernie Sanders hasn't taken off any gloves, and didn't attack Hillary at all. Her campaign could be forgiven for thinking he did, though, based on the WSJ headline Bernie Sanders Takes Gloves Off Against Hillary Clinton in Interview, and the fact that the story was shopped to the Clinton camp by the WSJ, and by a reporter who made the mistake of believing that headline.

Of course, Greg Sargent can be forgiven for believing that headline, given the way the WSJ massaged that interview, and the way almost the entire political media fell for it.

You should always, however, be wary of an interview whose hottest news peg relies on a paraphrase. In this case, the notion that Sanders is changing his tune on the emails is entirely the creation of the reporters (emphasis mine):

In the Democratic debate last month, Mr. Sanders said voters were “sick and tired” of the focus on Mrs. Clinton’s “damn emails.” Afterward, many Democrats and political analysts said that he had appeared to dismiss her use of a private email account and server in her four years as secretary of state.

Mr. Sanders rejected that assessment on Wednesday. If her email practices foiled public-records requests or compromised classified information, those are “valid questions,” Mr. Sanders said.

...On the issue of Mrs. Clinton’s emails, Mr. Sanders didn’t say he regretted his debate remarks. “You get 12 seconds to say these things,” he said of the debate setting. “There’s an investigation going on right now. I did not say, ‘End the investigation.’ That’s silly.…Let the investigation proceed unimpeded.”

Until WSJ releases transcripts or audio of the interview, I can only surmise, but based on the extensive paraphrasing, I'd guess that Sanders was probably asked a narrow question about the FBI security audit, designed to elicit the slight "valid questions" quote. Then, they repackaged it as a rejection of the broader premise that the emails shouldn't be a huge political issue. The "12 seconds" quote, then, was in reference to the fact that he didn't address the narrower premise.

I surmise this because if Bernie really did say "I reject the premise that I let her off the hook, these are valid questions," then they would have printed that. I also surmise it because it's what Bernie has said all along, pretty much exactly. Kudos to CNN's Dan Merica for calling it out:

Sanders was asked in an interview with CNN immediately after the debate what motivated him to use the now-famous "damn emails" line.

"Well, what motivated that is that I think the American people want substantive discussions on substantive issues," Sanders said. "There is a process in place for the email situation that Hillary Clinton is dealing with. Let it play itself out. As a nation, let us start focusing on why it is that so few have so much and so many have so little."

Merica also points out that Bernie made this narrow point about the emails before the debate, too. In this August interview with Andrea Mitchell, Sanders sounded a similar note on the email issue:

Mitchell: While you haven't criticized Hillary Clinton because of the e-mail controversy, would you as president allow a cabinet secretary to use a private e-mail system?

Sanders: I think that's an issue that we've got to take a hard look at, and I think what's going on now is, I think, Secretary Clinton now realizes is not a good practice.

Mitchell: Well, do you think that she jeopardized national security?

Sanders: Well there is a process going on now. we will learn more about it.

Unfortunately, none of this has stopped the rest of the media from characterizing this in the same way that the Journal did, and now that Hillary's campaign has swung back, it's legitimately news, I guess. That was an unforced error by her spokesman, who should have thought twice about making news on a subject that the candidate had pretty clearly turned a page on, and for what? Maybe taking a chip out of a candidate whom Hillary is now beating by more than 30 points?

Cross-posted from Mediaite