I'm lucky. I've never been in a war zone, as a journalist or a civilian. I've never stood at the drapes of a darkened hotel window and watched bombs exploding in the near distance. They say it's an eerie sensation -- since lights travels much faster than sound waves, the bright flash of incineration comes a horrifying several seconds before the deafening boom.
I did get a pale imitation watching the metaphorical front lines of American politics this weekend. Maybe it was militarized language -- the "bombshell" that FBI Director James Comey dropped on Friday when he suggested in a ready-to-leak letter to key members of Congress that there was something* more to the Hillary Clinton email boondoggle. It was a blinding white light obliterating all sorts of other news like the Bridgegate trial, more rioting by the police at the Dakota Access pipeline... even threatening to sop the joy right out of the once-in-a-lifetime appearance by the Chicago Cubs.
But the ground never shook. and the air remains chillingly silent. Maybe it was the unbearable lightness of Comey's actual words, that emails on the laptop belong to the pervy husband of Clinton's close aide Huma Abedin -- which Comey apparently hasn't seen and hadn't even yet been the subject of an FBI warrant -- might possibly shed some new light on some remote corner of an already exhaustive probe of the candidate's private email server. But I'm thinking the reality is that we will feel tremendous shockwaves -- not until we wake up on Nov. 9. That's when we will discover that Comey and the breathless TV news anchors were trying to tell us something very important that had next to nothing to do with Hillary's emails.
That the bright flash was the implosion of American democracy itself.
Over the last few days, I've watched the best journalistic minds of my generation devolve into madness, frothing at the mouth over a story that neither they nor the voters they're successfully mis-educating seem to understand. But it's even worse than that. The frenzied reaction to Comey's nothingburger announcement proved that the American way of democracy can be knocked over like a child's blow-up clown, by manipulative political elites with shadowy motives like the director of the FBI, or by the Russians who -- mounting evidence suggests -- have stolen computer info to wreak untold havoc on our election runup, or by candidates like Donald Trump who get away with claiming that a pseudo-scandal is "worse than Watergate."
I'm not going to waste more than a paragraph on the actual news of Comey's Friday letter because even that's more than we really know yet about any actual import. FBI agents probing the former congressman Anthony Weiner's possible "sexting" with a 15-year-old girl seized Weiner's laptop and found a new trove of Abedin's emails. Agents -- who finally did obtain a warrant today -- want to see if any of Abedin's emails relate to their apparently never-ending pasta bowl of an investigation of Clinton's private email server and whether she improperly stored classified information. Currently, nearly 100 hours into wall-to-wall coverage, we don't even know if the laptop has any such relevant emails. Stop me right here if you see anything in here that should change your vote for the next president. I'm just not feeling it.
That's not a defense of Hillary's bone-headed move to set up the private email server, a huge mistake that every voter has known about for more than a year. I've always thought concerns over mishandling classified info -- which the U.S. government has way too much of -- were overblown, but the server clearly aimed to hide what should have been open and public communications. The move reinforced the image of Hillary and her ex-president husband as too secretive and living on the ethical edge.
The majority of voters have factored this into whether they'll vote for her or for her opponent -- who belittles and has allegedly assaulted women, has run a campaign based on toxic xenophobia against Mexicans and Muslims, appealed to racist and to violent undercurrents in American society, and has threatened to attack a free press and jail the losing candidate, much as is done in backwater banana republics.
But the media could not restrain itself. The ink wasn't dry on Comey's (to paraphrase Dylan) something-is-happening-but-I-don't know-what-it-is letter when the around-the-clock-coverage commenced, flavored with suggestions that the letter could radically alter the election outcome, words which instantly became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Several award-winning national news organizations bannered the fact that the Clinton email probe has been "re-opened" when no such thing had occurred. The New York Times -- whose executive editor Dean Baquet just last week lashed out at CNN and Fox News for entertainment-flavored boosting of Trump that he called "in the long run, bad for democracy" -- went all moon landing on the email story, devoting the entire "above the fold" of the front page to the murky and manipulative story.
This is nothing new. There was a shocking-yet-not-shocking finding this week that since the start of 2016, the nightly network TV newscasts have devoted some 100 minutes of coverage to Hillary's email issues, but only 32 minutes to coverage of any substantive issues in the presidential race. That means crammed somewhere into those 32 minutes was all of the coverage of what Trump, Clinton, or any others will do about climate change in a year in which the planet is practically on fire, all of the coverage about how the next president might make health care affordable for all Americans, or what she or he will do about crushing student debt, or lead in the walls of dilapidated urban apartments and aging water pipes. Or a dozen other issues you can name off the top of your head...Hillary's damned emails got more than THREE TIMES as much airtime. That's exceptional, America.
And there's a high correlation point between lazy uninformed journalism and locked-in, low information voters. I'd venture to guess that "worse than Watergate" Trump and his legion of supporters who think the Comey letter is a game changer have never bothered to read the thousands of Clinton emails that have already been released, or have any thoughts or insights to the nature or significance of any classified emails that might have bounced off her server, or even know, ballpark, where Benghazi is located (and I mean that about Trump personally, not just his supporters.)
Over the last two weeks, the American people have learned a lot of new information about the Republican nominee that -- a lifetime ago -- might have disqualified a would-be president. The list includes new allegations of groping or inappropriate behavior toward women, a shockingly uncharitable attitude toward philanthropy including taking credit at events and donating little or no actual money, continuing to stiff his contractors, and so on. During this run of damning disclosures, Donald Trump has risen steadily in the polls. In the key state of Florida, Trump has gone in recent weeks from a one-point deficit in the polls to a four point lead -- similar to gains in other states. Is it the misogyny or the fact-free bluster? I've stopped trying to guess.
U.S. elections may not be rigged but they're easily messed with -- remember the Supreme Court's pretzel logic and the media's sophomoric mocking of Al Gore in 2000, or the bizarro election weekend appearance of Osama bin Laden in 2004? I have no idea who's going to win in eight days -- a scary thought for this Halloween. But I reckon that in nine days you'll be able to hear the laughter -- maybe from the secret salons of Washington, maybe from Moscow -- at how easy it was to game our weak, reality-show-addled and possibly dying political system in 2016.