Emailgate: How media mistakes created Hillary Clinton's fake, fake identity

The media creates mythology. David Gewirtz looks at how the AP created a new, completely false Hillary Clinton myth about a fake identity, how it's sticking, and where it all went wrong.

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There is more to the Hillary Clinton personal email story than just Hillary Clinton and her personal email use.

It's also a story about a trusted news establishment that broke a story in the morning about the leading presumptive presidential candidate using a fake identity, let it run through an entire day's news cycle, and then changed that story in the same article later that evening -- without ever releasing an update or correction.

What I'm about to describe is how the media can create its own misinformation, resulting in an entirely new (and incorrect) mythology. The result: leaving an already overly partisan citizenry with an impression of an odd Clinton misdeed that is, in fact, wholly false.

UPDATE 3/10/2015: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed email concerns in a statement followed by a question and answer segment with the press. We have the full video, plus analysis of her comments. Read Hillary Clinton: Yes, I did operate a private server.

The sticky story of a fake identity

It started with an Associated Press report claiming that Mrs. Clinton (or, presumably, a staffer) "ran her own computer system for her official emails" out of her family's home in Chappaqua, New York.

At 8:09 AM ET, AP ran a story headlined "CLINTON RAN OWN COMPUTER SYSTEM FOR HER OFFICIAL EMAILS." In it, AP not only asserted that Clinton ran a server, but also that she used a fake identity, one "Eric Hoteham" to register the domain name.

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Later, AP changed the story quite a bit. When my editor and I went back to the same AP URL later in the day to do a proof edit of my Hillary Clinton email coverage, the AP story was quite different. Now the headline was "HOUSE COMMITTEE SUBPOENAS CLINTON EMAILS IN BENGHAZI PROBE."

Eric Hoteham was no longer a sock puppet, but instead a typo. Even so, the damage was done.

We all update stories. I've done it relatively often myself. When I do, I mark where in the article I've changed the story, and indicate that the story was updated. Where AP went wrong is it didn't mention the story had been updated and just let this new fake identity narrative take hold.

All over the web "Eric Hoteham" became a meme, and when AP found out that he's really a Clinton staffer named "Eric Hothem," it updated the article (now with a 5:52 PM time stamp), but absolutely no mention that it had changed much of the content of the article.

In fact, AP actually changed the article headline once before I even got to it. At 3:15 AM, the headline was "CLINTON RAN HOMEBREW COMPUTER SYSTEM FOR OFFICIAL EMAILS."

If you want to compare, here's an Evernote screen capture of the 3:05 AM original story, a second capture of the 8:09 AM variation and a third, this time of the 5:52 PM highly revised story. By the way, AP tags its stories as "This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed." But now that their changing story has become integral to the overall narrative, you need to be able to see the evidence of the change.

I actually started to question my own observations of this, even though I'd captured all three articles. But if you examine the following URL you can see the footprints of the original story in the slug about the homebrew computer system:

www.apnewsarchive.com/2015/Hillary-Clinton-ran-homebrew-computer-system-for-official-emails-tracing-back-to-NY-estate/id-b78ba433af3a45209668f745158d994c

If you browse to that URL now, it takes you to the Benghazi-focused version of the article. It's the same article. AP just changed it (a lot).

In an even more ironic twist, the later version of the story obliquely referenced the fuss that the story itself had created by stating, "A parody Twitter account for Hoteham appeared Wednesday after AP cited the records, sending satirical tweets supporting Clinton's campaign."

There are potentially huge implications to what these changes mean in terms of the public discussion of Hillary Clinton. I'll discuss those next.

In the first version of this story, AP described Hoteham (the misspelling) as "a mysterious identity, Eric Hoteham." In the second version of the story, AP introduced him as a Clinton supporter who has provided technical advice in the past.

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AP then goes on to state, "The Hoteham personality also is associated with a separate email server, presidentclinton.com, and a non-functioning website, wjcoffice.com, all linked to the same residential Internet account as Mrs. Clinton's email server." In the second version of the story, AP changed "The Hoteham personality" to "The Hoteham registration."

Even though the article was substantially changed 14 1/2 hours after it originally ran, a full day's news cycle had pretty much completed, pillorying Clinton not only for her personal email address, but for running a server out of her home and creating a fake identity to hide it all.

How big an impact will this make on the Clinton narrative? That's hard to say. But a Google search of "mysterious," previously unknown "Eric Hoteham" on the night the story broke resulted in 27,800 results and the next day, after AP changed its story (but didn't tell anyone), "Eric Hoteham" (the version that implies the fake identity) was up to 46,400 results.

That's not counting Facebook and Twitter shares. Press stories have an impact on the narrative and the idea that Mrs. Clinton created a fake identity and homebrew servers to hide her email messages will now live on in the public consciousness.

The original assertion by AP that a former Secretary of State might have used a fake name for the probably equally incorrect premise that she has been hiding official email on a "homebrew" server in her house has been resolved, but not before AP let the story run for almost 15 hours, creating a new "Hillary Clinton is evil because..." myth. Then AP didn't bother to print a retraction -- it simply edited the piece and hoped we'd all forget.

But if the Clintons are anything beyond political animals, they're news-cycle survivors.

What worries me is what this sort of drive-by journalism means for the future of news as a source of well-researched, vetted, and transparent reporting.

AP's behavior with this story was a disappointment. It syndicates stories to a great many outlets, and I've always considered it to have the highest journalistic integrity. Now? I'll just chalk this one up to a bad editing mistake; but in the future, if it doesn't clarify substantive and important changes like it made to their Clinton article, we may have to question their credibility in other reporting.

Jonathan Mayer, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate who I cited in the Clinton email analysis story had probably the most accurate, disturbing thought on this whole issue: "Non-expert sensational spin won the day."

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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