Last year I explained how the “Clinton Rules” of reporting works after the New York Times, Washington Post and FAUX News announced an “exclusive” arrangement with right-wing author Peter Schweizer for his upcoming book on Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation, “Clinton Cash.” The feckless media falls back on old ways: The Clinton Rules.
This “exclusive” arrangement for opposition research (of dubious quality) has been the source of much bad reporting ever since. Think Progress adds some more background, A Tale Of Two Foundations: One of these things is not like the other:
Much of the controversy about the Clinton Foundation focuses on Hillary Clinton’s role as Secretary of State and whether she was complicit in “selling access” in return for donations to the foundation. These charges were elevated to prominence by Peter Schweizer, president of the Government Accountability Institute, in his book Clinton Cash.
The Government Accountability Institute is the non-profit arm of Breitbart.com, a notoriously pugilistic right-wing website. Trump recently hired Steve Bannon, who runs Breitbart, to be the CEO of his campaign.
Schweizer’s book failed to uncover any clear evidence of wrongdoing — and was rife with errors — but it did succeed in focusing mainstream media attention on the alleged issue.
You should also note that none of this background is ever disclosed in the reporting by the reporters writing these scandal mongering pieces based upon opposition research from Breitbart.com, which has been operating as the media arm of the Trump campaign from day one.
Just this week, for example, the New York Times published a story with a provocative headline. Emails raise new questions about Clinton Foundation ties to State Dept. The actual story, however, was far less sensational [as I posted about last week].
While the reporting on the Clinton Foundation focuses on these kind of “conflicts,” there has been no evidence of actual misconduct. Charity watchdog groups rate the Clinton Foundation highly.
Charity Watch gave the Clinton Foundation an A grade, while GuideStar gave it a platinum rating.
Daniel Borochoff of Charity Watch noted that in 2014, 87.2% of the foundation’s funding went to its programs, “which is really high.” The foundation, he said, does “really important, valuable work that saves lives of lots of people.”
“It’s unfortunate that it’s become this punching bag, this political punching bag,” Borochoff said. “There’s a lot of things that are said that are false. If Hillary Clinton wasn’t running for president, the Clinton Foundation would be seen as one of the great humanitarian charities of our generation.”
Meanwhile, on September 1, news broke that the Trump Foundation “violated tax laws by giving a political contribution to a campaign group connected to Florida’s attorney general.” It was required to pay a $2500 fine to the IRS.
The details of the case are even more unseemly. Florida’s Attorney General was considering opening an investigation into Trump University, which is accused of defrauding students. Bondi herself contacted Trump and asked for a political contribution. After a political committee associated with her campaign received the illegal $25,000 contribution, she decided not to pursue it.
The story has something that none of the Clinton Foundation stories have: Actual evidence of illegal conduct. In this case, not only is there concrete evidence that the Trump Foundation broke the law, but a formal finding of wrongdoing by the IRS.
And yet, coverage of the Trump Foundation, even in the few short days since the story of the IRS fine broke, has been scant. A search for coverage in the Nexis database, which contains almost all English language print and broadcast sources, found just 23 mentions of the “Trump Foundation” since September 1. That was vastly overshadowed by continual coverage of the Clinton Foundation, even though it was not the foundation linked to any illegal activity.
Media coverage did not improve over the long Labor Day weekend. Paul Waldman of the Washington Post picked up the story on Monday, Trump’s history of corruption is mind-boggling. So why is Clinton supposedly the corrupt one?
In the heat of a presidential campaign, you’d think that a story about one party’s nominee giving a large contribution to a state attorney general who promptly shut down an inquiry into that nominee’s scam “university” would be enormous news. But we continue to hear almost nothing about what happened between Donald Trump and Florida attorney general Pam Bondi.
I raised this issue last week, but it’s worth an update as well as some contextualization. The story re-emerged last week when The Post’s David A. Fahrenthold reported that Trump paid a penalty to the IRS after his foundation made an illegal contribution to Bondi’s PAC. While the Trump organization characterizes that as a bureaucratic oversight, the basic facts are that Bondi’s office had received multiple complaints from Floridians who said they were cheated by Trump University; while they were looking into it and considering whether to join a lawsuit over Trump University filed by the attorney general of New York State, Bondi called Trump and asked him for a $25,000 donation; shortly after getting the check, Bondi’s office dropped the inquiry.
At this point we should note that everything here may be completely innocent. Perhaps Bondi didn’t realize her office was looking into Trump University. Perhaps the fact that Trump’s foundation made the contribution (which, to repeat, is illegal) was just a mix-up. Perhaps when Trump reimbursed the foundation from his personal account, he didn’t realize that’s not how the law works (the foundation would have to get its money back from Bondi’s PAC; he could then make a personal donation if he wanted). Perhaps Bondi’s decision not to pursue the case against Trump was perfectly reasonable.
But here’s the thing: We don’t know the answers to those questions, because almost nobody seems to be pursuing them.
For instance, there was only one mention of this story on any of the five Sunday shows, when John Dickerson asked Chris Christie about it on “Face the Nation“ (Christie took great umbrage: “I can’t believe, John, that anyone would insult Pam Bondi that way”). And the comparison with stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails or the Clinton Foundation is extremely instructive. Whenever we get some new development in any of those Clinton stories, you see blanket coverage — every cable network, every network news program, every newspaper investigates it at length. And even when the new information serves to exonerate Clinton rather than implicate her in wrongdoing, the coverage still emphasizes that the whole thing just “raises questions” about her integrity.
The big difference is that there are an enormous number of reporters who get assigned to write stories about those issues regarding Clinton. The story of something like the Clinton Foundation gets stretched out over months and months with repeated tellings, always with the insistence that questions are being raised and the implication that shady things are going on, even if there isn’t any evidence at a particular moment to support that idea.
When it comes to Trump, on the other hand, we’ve seen a very different pattern. Here’s what happens: A story about some kind of corrupt dealing emerges, usually from the dogged efforts of one or a few journalists; it gets discussed for a couple of days; and then it disappears. Someone might mention it now and again, but the news organizations don’t assign a squad of reporters to look into every aspect of it, so no new facts are brought to light and no new stories get written.
The end result of this process is that because of all that repeated examination of Clinton’s affairs, people become convinced that she must be corrupt to the core. It’s not that there isn’t plenty of negative coverage of Trump, because of course there is, but it’s focused mostly on the crazy things he says on any given day.
But the truth is that you’d have to work incredibly hard to find a politician who has the kind of history of corruption, double-dealing, and fraud that Donald Trump has. The number of stories which could potentially deserve hundreds and hundreds of articles is absolutely staggering. Here’s a partial list:
- Trump’s casino bankruptcies, which left investors holding the bag while he skedaddled with their money.
- Trump’s habit of refusing to pay contractors who had done work for him, many of whom are struggling small businesses.
- Trump University, which includes not only the people who got scammed and the Florida investigation, but also a similar story from Texas where the investigation into Trump U was quashed.
- The Trump Institute, another get-rich-quick scheme in which Trump allowed a couple of grifters to use his name to bilk people out of their money.
- The Trump Network, a multi-level marketing venture (a.k.a. pyramid scheme) that involved customers mailing in a urine sample which would be analyzed to produce for them a specially formulated package of multivitamins.
- Trump Model Management, which reportedly had foreign models lie to customs officials and work in the U.S. illegally, and kept them in squalid conditions while they earned almost nothing for the work they did.
- Trump’s employment of foreign guest workers at his resorts, which involves a claim that he can’t find Americans to do the work.
- Trump’s use of hundreds of undocumented workers from Poland in the 1980s, who were paid a pittance for their illegal work
- Trump’s history of being charged with housing discrimination.
- Trump’s connections to mafia figures involved in New York construction.
- The time Trump paid the Federal Trade Commission $750,000 over charges that he violated anti-trust laws when trying to take over a rival casino company
- The fact that Trump is now being advised by Roger Ailes, who was forced out as Fox News chief when dozens of women came forward to charge him with sexual harassment. According to the allegations, Ailes’s behavior was positively monstrous; as just one indicator, his abusive and predatory actions toward women were so well-known and so loathsome that in 1968 the morally upstanding folks in the Nixon administration refused to allow him to work there despite his key role in getting Nixon elected.
[Update: Just today, Gretchen Carlson Settles Lawsuit with Fox News.]
To repeat, the point is not that these stories have never been covered, because they have. The point is that they get covered briefly, then everyone in the media moves on. If any of these kinds of stories involved Clinton, news organizations would rush to assign multiple reporters to them, those reporters would start asking questions, and we’d learn more about all of them.
That’s important, because we may have reached a point where the frames around the candidates are locked in: Trump is supposedly the crazy/bigoted one, and Clinton is supposedly the corrupt one. Once we decide that those are the appropriate lenses through which the two candidates are to be viewed, it shapes the decisions the media make every day about which stories are important to pursue.
And it means that to a great extent, for all the controversy he has caused and all the unflattering stories in the press about him, Trump is still being let off the hook.
Waldman’s colleague at the Post, Daniel Drezner comes to a similar conclusion. Why Hillary Clinton’s perceived corruption seems to echo louder than Donald Trump’s actual corruption.
All of these stories were reported by mainstream media outlets, so I don’t quite buy the notion that the press isn’t doing its job covering both candidates’ real and perceived scandals. I do buy the notion, however, that the Clinton stories have had a much bigger echo than the Trump stories. As Matthew Yglesias noted, the Clinton stories “bounce on cable” but the Trump stories don’t. Also, there’s this:
So what explains this disparity? I think there are two small things going on and one big one. A small thing is that Hillary Clinton has been ahead in the polls and more likely to be the next president of the United States. It’s therefore not too surprising that she faces the harsher media glare. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver noted the cycle of candidates leading in the polls facing more negative stories, which then narrows the gap with their opponent and switches the media glare to them. As Trump narrows the gap, I expect to see a greater focus on his corruption.
The second small reason is that at this point it’s just easier to report on the Clinton than on Trump. Clinton has made it easy for the press to cover these things as the emails have been released. Trump, on the other hand, is a model of opacity, requiring reporters like Fahrenthold to have to do real shoe-leather reporting to find anything. On their personal finances, Clinton has been transparent, and Trump has been the opposite of that. Paradoxically, Clinton’s relative transparency has made it easier to discover even the slightest possible appearance of impropriety.
I think there’s a bigger reason, however, and it’s not Clinton-specific. Josh Marshall got at it somewhat in this post when he wrote, “Many reporters and editors simply take it as a given that Trump’s a crook. So stories about Trump’s corruption amount to what journalists call dog bites man stories — not really news because it’s the norm and wholly expected.” Indeed, in the primaries Trump bragged about buying up politicians and promoted his tawdry brands in news conferences. So new reports about Trump ethical lapses and legal violations aren’t terribly surprising.
The reason the Clinton Foundation has earned more scrutiny is that the Clinton Foundation, like Hillary Clinton herself, ostensibly stands for something greater. The best version of Donald Trump is someone who nevertheless does everything to advance the greater glory of Donald Trump. Clinton, like most politicians, laudably professes to a higher ideal. Corruption and conflict of interest are more eye-grabbing when they come from someone committed to a life of public service. The possibility of ethical lapses involving a philanthropy exposes hypocrisy in a way that no Trump scandal possibly could.
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We are in a moment when small hypocrisies seem worse than blatant corruption. And in that moment, Clinton pays a greater price for her perceived indiscretions than Donald Trump does for his actual indiscretions. It’s not fair; it’s just the way it is.