You start with the assumption that Hillary Clinton is corrupt.
After all, there have been whispers and accusations and investigations and allegations and scandals with ominous names like WHITEWATER and BENGHAZI for years. Even if you can't describe exactly what she's done wrong, there must be something to all these stories, right?
And if she's corrupt, then we definitely need to investigate her. Virtually everything she does is suspect. Any mistake she makes can't simply be an accident or a lapse in judgment; there must be some criminal intent behind it. It doesn't matter how many millions of taxpayer dollars or thousands of man-hours it takes in FBI investigations and congressional hearings. No price is too high.
And when you investigate endlessly, you find evidence. Emails and documents and memos and call logs and testimony. It adds up to thousands of pages, millions of words, piles of binders that make the perfect dramatic prop in a hearing room.
And we know all those documents must be suspicious. After all, they appeared because there was an investigation into corruption, so they must be evidence of something. Plus, there are just so darn many of them.
And with all that suspicious evidence, the conclusion is clear: Hillary Clinton is corrupt. And if she's corrupt, we have to investigate her. And if we investigate her, we'll uncover evidence. And if we find evidence, it must be suspicious. So she must be corrupt. So we have to investigate her.
And on and on it goes. For decades.
When I fired up the New York Times app on my phone Saturday morning, I had to scroll through four full screens before I got to a headline that wasn't about FBI Director James Comey's letter to Congress that the bureau had discovered emails on Anthony Weiner's computer that possibly maybe perhaps might be related to its earlier investigation of Clinton’s private email server.
With zero information about what is in those emails, zero information about any connection to Clinton, zero new allegations of wrongdoing, the Times and much of the media treated this story with the kind of wall-to-wall coverage usually reserved for the first moon landing. Less than two weeks from Election Day, with early voting in full swing, cable news couldn't stop talking about how damaging this story was for Hillary Clinton, despite having literally no new information about anything Hillary Clinton has done.
See how the cycle works?
If you start with the assumption that Clinton is corrupt, then of course Comey's letter is the biggest story of the election. After all, even if the FBI hasn't reviewed the emails (the agency only just obtained a warrant to do so), there must be something in them: They're emails, and we know there's something wrong with Clinton's emails, because we keep hearing about how her emails are connected to some grave scandal. If nothing else, it raises questions. Certainly a shadow is looming over her campaign.
Donald Trump's campaign rallies are full of (deplorable) people shouting "lock her up," but none of them seem able to describe exactly what she's done to deserve a prison term, beyond conspiratorial nonsense. Clinton should be in jail because she's corrupt, and we know she's corrupt because we keep investigating her for corruption, the thinking goes.
Hillary Clinton is far from perfect. She never should have voted to go to war with Iraq, and that vote was a reflection of her hawkish impulses. Putting her email on a private server while she served as secretary of state was a stupid mistake (one she probably made, ironically, out of a fear of negative press attention). She and her husband have allowed sketchy actors into the Clintonland fold – people like Doug Band, David Brock and Lanny Davis – and rarely exile them out of misplaced loyalty. She can be calculated and cautious; a recent statement on the Dakota Access Pipeline protests provided a classic example.
But for all her faults, the image of Clinton sold by the fever swamps of the extreme right as some kind of supervillain desperate for naked power is utterly ridiculous. The implication that she is deeply corrupt, even evil, doesn't match the reality of her life. She's a policy-focused public servant. You might not like the policies she supports, but you'd have to be deranged to think she's a career criminal out only to enrich herself.
If only the conspiracy theories about Clinton's villainy were limited to the Breitbarts of the world and the disturbed people who believe them. Instead, it travels a well-worn path into the mainstream media, through Fox News, the Drudge Report and Republican surrogates, all of whom have the attention of more credible sources. That's how we end up with a CNN chyron Monday morning that read "FBI EMAILS PROBE DOMINATES LAST WEEK OF THE CAMPAIGN" – a self-fulfilling prophecy that proves the media has decided this story deserves immersive coverage, regardless of whether there's evidence of wrongdoing.
Of course Comey's letter deserved coverage. But the decision to treat it as a mortal blow to the Clinton campaign – to give it blaring headlines and the 24/7 talking-head treatment – has been ridiculous. But it isn't surprising. This is how the Clinton Outrage Cycle works: assumption follows intimation follows accusation, and then it starts all over again. If only the facts – the sometimes boring but very real facts – of these scandals got half as much attention.
Find out everything we know so far about the FBI's investigation of Hillary Clinton's new emails. Watch here.