Most of the time, it’s hard to say for certain how partisan attacks and the politics of destruction effect the visual news. In the case of malignant rumors about Hillary Clinton’s health, however, recent events have proved the exception.
The conservative right has been working this territory for almost two years now, looking for even the slightest yawn, scratch or slip on a stair as evidence that Clinton is ailing and unfit for office. And last week, with the campaign entering the Labor Day home stretch and the candidates picking up the pace, Hillary’s intermittent cough proved irresistible. Not that a cough or a sneeze is or was anything to merit the attention of a campaign photographer or the newswire agencies. With the echo chamber in overdrive, though, and her opponent supercharged by the tabloids and any perception of weakness, well … that drives a market.
Between their more right-leaning clients and a much larger customer base looking for clicks from whatever campaign ephemera is deemed buzz-worthy, “the cough” became an irresistible sales item last week for several of the major newswires agencies.
Head scratching on any other day, the Getty caption on the photo offered for sale atop this post read:
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton coughs during a Labor Day rally September 5, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. Hillary Clinton launched the home stretch of her US presidential bid aiming to solidify her advantages over rival Donald Trump, with both candidates converging on working-class Ohio as ground zero of their 2016 campaign battle.
Another troubling effect of the suspect supply chain is that, once a deleterious item gets some attention by one traditional media outlet, it suddenly becomes fair game for other organizations to treat that attention as newsworthy, or at least, a curiosity. That’s what seemed to legitimize the New York Times jumping on the bandwagon, publishing their own visual of “the drink of water” to extinguish “the cough” at Cleveland’s Luke Easter Park.
Compounding the negative attention and it’s petty legitimacy, the now requisite response and witty rejoinder from the candidate (I must be allergic to Trump!) made it publishing-worthy to The Times, as well.
Looking at this screenshot of the ensuing Times story and video, you need only consider the toxicity of the language. What was nothing but a (right wing) virus was now legitimized as a “controversy.” The term “coughing attack” is now framed as a medical condition, as opposed to a political act. And the medical condition (right out of the attack playbook) is now somehow oblique and mysterious enough to invite outside theories.
Like many others, I’ve been writing and lecturing about the public’s deep disaffection for the presidential campaign and the state of our politics. In the case of these photos, what they demonstrate is the media’s own weak resistance to outside infection. The machination of “the cough” take on even greater significance after Hilary’s early departure from the 9/11 memorial yesterday morning, especially after several columnists and news sites (1, 2) started jumping to conclusions after Clinton went wobbly getting into her van.
Given the pneumonia diagnosis confirmed in the afternoon, Clinton’s health, same as Trump’s, is a legitimate issue. That being the case, Clinton’s doctor provided a clear explanation of yesterday’s symptoms (and more), which included a coherent explanation for “the cough.” If anything, though, the pneumonia might have proved “the gateway symptom” for traditional media to legitimize what they’ve now dubbed “the healthers,” bringing their trolling and visual subversion and into the general campaign narrative.
Writing about the curbside video at the 9/11 Memorial, an AP article this morning with it’s own fueling title (“Pneumonia diagnosis fuels questions about Clinton’s health”), notice how the fringe has been mainstreamed:
No longer can Trump’s questions about Clinton’s physical stamina be summarily dismissed. The episode was also sure to fuel a vocal group of online conspiracy theorists, deemed “healthers” by some Clinton supporters, who point to videos and photos of Clinton as evidence of her poor health.
Obviously, there is a huge gap between fact, on the one hand, and innuendo and slander, on the other. The danger comes when media becomes that enamored with the sputum of the haters that it ends up propagating the shade. The fixation on “the cough,” and the susceptibility of the media to either amplify, overemphasize or pander to the fringe raises serious concerns about how much we can trust the reporting and the visualization of the campaign.
(Photos 1: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images. Caption: Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton coughs during a Labor Day rally September 5, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. Hillary Clinton launched the home stretch of her US presidential bid aiming to solidify her advantages over rival Donald Trump, with both candidates converging on working-class Ohio as ground zero of their 2016 campaign battle. Photo 2: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images caption: Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pauses to take a drink of water to help soothe a cough during a campaign rally at Luke Easter Park on September 5, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. Clinton is kicking off a Labor Day campaign swing to Ohio and Iowa on a new campaign plane large enough to accommodate her traveling press corp. Photo 3: Andrew Harnik/AP. caption: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton stops her speech to cough at the 11th Congressional District Labor Day festival at Luke Easter Park in Cleveland, Ohio, Monday, Sept. 5, 2016. Photo 4: Andrew Harnik/AP caption: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton pauses to drink water after coughing as she speaks at the 11th Congressional District Labor Day festival at Luke Easter Park in Cleveland, Ohio, Monday, Sept. 5, 2016.