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Why is everyone picking on Hillary Clinton -- they didn’t mind when President George W. Bush’s White House also used private email, pundit Juan Williams asked on Fox News Sunday.
The show’s March 15, 2015, pundit panel debated the importance of the ongoing controversy regarding Clinton’s decision to exclusively use a private email account, rather than a .gov account, during her time as secretary of state. In doing so, experts say she was able to circumvent transparency and records preservation standards.
Williams turned to his fellow commentator, Republican strategist and former Bush adviser Karl Rove, arguing that the email scandal during the Bush administration didn’t garner the same level of media criticism. Thus, the attention on Clinton is unwarranted.
"When Karl was in trouble back in ‘07, (there was) no press coverage, just about zero press coverage of this issue," Williams said, noting that he found just one Washington Post editorial criticizing the private email use.
"Juan, you are in a different reality, and I wish that I was there with you," Rove said.
We decided to look back and see what press coverage of the Bush administration email controversy looked like at the time and how it compares to coverage of Clinton.
The Bush email story
First, a quick refresher about what happened in the Bush administration. In March 2007, eyes were on then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales after the administration unexpectedly fired eight U.S. attorneys. Congress (recently taken over by Democrats) investigated the firings, alleging that the administration had dropped the prosecutors for political reasons.
Over the course of the investigation, it came out that some White House officials had conducted White House business over private email accounts set up on a server through the Republican National Committee. The White House later admitted that some internal White House emails conducted on the RNC server might have been lost.
Democrats in Congress accused the administration of purposefully circumventing recordkeeping processes, while the White House said staffers were supposed to use the RNC emails solely for political affairs, not official business. Comparing the Bush and Clinton email scandals is not exactly apples to apples, but there are some similarities.
We looked back at media coverage at the time, and Williams has a point that it didn’t cause the same level of hubbub as the Clinton email scandal. Though to say there was "zero press coverage" is an exaggeration -- even allowing for a bit of hyperbole.
Comparing the coverage
We did a search through Lexis-Nexis, a research service that tracks news articles and transcripts, between March and May 2007. We found more than 125 transcripts from the major cable networks and National Public Radio that include "Republican National Committee" and "email" within 10 words of each other.
The Lexis-Nexis search also yielded more than 200 related newspaper articles across the country within the same time frame.
Let’s compare that to coverage of the Clinton controversy.
Since the story broke March 3, 2015 -- two weeks ago -- we found 204 cable and public radio transcripts that include "Clinton" and "email." We also found 1,700 newspaper articles across the country.
That’s several times as many articles and transcripts about Clinton than there were about the Bush email controversy in a quarter of the time. It’s a rough measurement, but clearly there has been more media attention on Clinton’s use of private email than that of the White House staffers.
What about Williams’ reference to the singular Washington Post editorial criticizing the private email use among White House staffers? We found the one editorial, as well as a couple opinion columns. In comparison, the Washington Post has so far written two editorials regarding Clinton’s private email use.
Not the same
Williams’ argument is that Republicans are stoking the media fire of the Clinton email scandal because they’re worried about Clinton’s 2016 potential, compared to Republican candidates. There’s some nuances and contextual factors that might explain the difference in media coverage.
First of all, there’s the difference in who’s at the receiving end of the criticisms. In 2007, it was a group of higher-up White House staffers and advisers (notably Rove) who occasionally used private email accounts for official business. As far as we can tell, though, Bush himself was not suspected as being part of this group. Today, the target is a former secretary of state, who only used private email when conducting official government business.
What’s more is that Clinton is in all likelihood running for president in 2016, so she has a lot of media attention on her to begin with. At the time of their email controversy, the Bush administration was past their 2004 second-term election and the 2006 midterms.
Additionally, the White House email controversy was on the periphery of a much larger scandal -- the firings of the eight U.S. attorneys. We searched Lexis-Nexis for articles about Attorney General Gonzales in the same time frame that we used to explore coverage of the White House email controversy. The search came up with more than 6,000 combined newspaper articles and transcripts. (Compared to the more than 325 about the emails).
As one Washington Post article put it: "The controversy over the outside e-mail accounts is a byproduct of the ongoing showdown over the prosecutor firings."
Williams said there was "just about zero press coverage" of the 2007 Bush White House email controversy. We emailed Williams and did not hear back.
Saying there was "zero press coverage" is an exaggeration -- even allowing for a bit of hyperbole. We found hundreds of articles and television transcripts referencing the issue. Still, Williams has something of a point that compared to the extensive recent coverage of Clinton’s use of private email, media coverage of the 2007 Bush White House email controversy was thin.
Williams’ statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.
Fox News Sunday, transcript, March 15, 2015
Search of the Lexis-Nexis archive, accessed March 15, 2015
White House, Press Briefing archives, accessed March 15, 2015
Salon, "The George W. Bush email scandal the media has conveniently forgotten," March 12, 2015
Washington Post archives, accessed March 15, 2015
New York Times archives, accessed March 15, 2015
Washington Post, "White House E-Mail Lost in Private Accounts," April 12, 2015
Washington Post, "Gonzales: 'Mistakes Were Made,'" March 14, 2007
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