The media obsesses over whether Clinton might have sent an email containing confidential information from her personal account while secretary of state, and also wonders about whether Trump tells lies, pays any taxes, bribes officials and assaults women. Anyone who reads these stories can see that there is no equivalence here. But anyone who just reads the headlines would be tempted to think otherwise. The very fact that commentators think a renewed focus on these emails is ‘bad for Clinton’ acknowledges that many people are indeed just reading the headlines. That context matters.
Glenn Greenwald suggests that when Paul Krugman and others make similar points, they are suggesting Clinton should have “a scrutiny-free march into the White House”. But I think this misunderstands Krugman’s point. Impressions matter, particularly just before an election. If the media spend as much time discussing possible Clinton misdemeanors as those of Trump the impression you give is that they are of equal importance. By balancing things that are very different, you create an equivalence that is completely misleading. Failure to take that into account still might have disastrous consequences.
I do not think this is just a problem with the media. Whenever I talk about the false accusation that Labour profligacy caused austerity, I get people commenting that it is not really false because Labour did overspend. This is true, and it was for this reason that I originally talked about a myth based on a half-truth. A half-truth is a statement that conveys only part of the truth, especially one used deliberately in order to mislead someone. But in political terms that concedes too much. If there hadn’t been a recession and the Coalition had had to undo Labour's fiscal excess, I doubt if anyone besides the IFS would have noticed and no one would not have called that correction austerity.
Yet even when I make this point, someone still objects that Labour bears some responsibility because they should have seen the recession coming, or that they were responsible for the lack of financial regulation that allowed the global financial crisis to have such a large impact on the UK. While those claims should be discussed in some contexts, they are beside the point when discussing Conservative charges against Labour. When Conservatives claim that Labour profligacy caused austerity, there is an implicit clause that says ‘and it would not have happened if we were in charge’. The context is who would be better at managing the economy. If the context was an article about the performance in absolute terms of the Labour government those caveats would be appropriate (although both can easily be challenged), but when the context is clearly about the relative competence of Labour and Conservatives they are not.
When a political party makes a claim, or for press coverage during an election period, everything is relative. In a sense it is a bit like voting. Anyone who says they cannot vote for X because X did or will do something do not understand the game they are in. Voting is about comparisons: not whether X is good in some absolute sense, but whether X is better or worse than Y. So to say, as Ed Miliband sometimes did in defending Labour against the profligacy charge, that Labour perhaps were at fault for not regulating enough, he did himself no favours because he was talking out of context. Compared to the Conservatives he has nothing to apologise for on that front.
We can see this clearly if we think about consequences. The consequence of the US media spending so much time on the relatively trivial issue of emails is that US voters think they can trust Donald Trump more than Hillary Clinton. The consequence of Ed Miliband apologising about not regulating finance enough when defending Labour against profligacy claims is to appear to concede that in some sense the Conservatives were more competent than Labour. Context matters, and ignoring it has consequences.
Postscript (4/11/16) Since writing this I have been surprised by how many on the left seem happy to parrot the idea that the email affair is potentially serious. Here is Matthew Yglesias with a comprehensive account. It has also become clear that the latest news from the FBI tells us more about the FBI than Clinton.