Who Got the Comey Headline Right?

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Here’s a question for you all to ponder. Last night I took snapshots of four newspapers after FBI director James Comey announced that the emails they had reviewed on Anthony Wiener’s computer didn’t show anything new. Here are the four headlines:

At the top left, the LA Times says the FBI has “cleared” Hillary Clinton. On the bottom left, the New York Times declines to say Clinton has been cleared, only that the new emails “don’t warrant action” against Clinton. Finally, on the right, we have the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. They use pretty loaded language, saying there are no grounds for “charges” against Clinton.

Who got it right? My take is that the word “charge” is inherently negative. It leaves readers with the impression that Clinton might be guilty after all, but has somehow managed to skate by. Given what we now know—that Clinton was careless but did nothing seriously wrong—it strikes me as putting a big thumb on the scale. If you’re going to use legalistic language, why not follow the lead of the LA Times and say that Clinton has been “cleared”? That’s what happened, after all, and it better gets the point across that this was basically good news for Clinton.

The New York Times is somewhere in between. Perhaps someone less partisan than me would find it the best compromise. For my part, I think the LA Times got it right, while the Journal and the Post screwed up. There’s nothing technically wrong with their headlines, but they leave a groundlessly sordid impression.

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