Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT
As denunciations of the Associated Press continue to mount, and the wire service tries to defend its wildly misleading report about the Clinton Foundation donors Hillary Clinton met with or talked to while serving as secretary of state, keep in mind the AP now joins a long list of news outlets that have been burned chasing Clinton-related 'scandal' stories in recent years.
Out to prove that Clinton was granting special access to foundation supporters, and that “possible ethics challenges” loomed if she were elected president, the AP announced on Twitter that “half” the people she met with while running the State Department had donated to her family charity. The claim set off a media firestorm, but it was completely false.
Unfortunately, there’s a long tradition of media players practicing tunnel vision in pursuit of hollow Clinton gotcha stories; stories that instantly portray her, sometimes alongside President Obama, as being villainous or deceitful, but turn out to be flat wrong.
Remember in 2015 when The New York Times accused Clinton of having possibly "violated federal requirements" for document retention with her use of personal email for official government business? It turned out that hint of criminality was invented by the Times, as several news outlets subsequently confirmed.
In 2013, ABC News’ Jonathan Karl got duped by a (likely Republican) source regarding the contents of White House emails discussing the formulation of talking points in the wake of the Benghazi terror attack. Going off bad intel, the ABC exclusive accused the administration of having "scrubbed" vital information from the talking points, which sparked a media frenzy. (Karl later expressed “regret” for the flaws in the report.)
That same year, CBS’ Lara Logan presented a bogus Benghazi investigation on 60 Minutes that relied on a supposed eyewitness to the terror attack; an eyewitness who previously told the FBI he had been nowhere near the U.S. diplomatic compound on the night of the killings. (The “witness” also told Logan he had scaled a twelve-foot high wall during the attack in order to bash a terrorist in the face.)
Now the AP joins that list.
I will note that unlike the New York Times, ABC News and CBS News examples cited above, the AP’s donor story this week did not revolve around false information. Instead, the AP chose to present information in a demonstrably misleading and unfair way, generating a firestorm of media coverage and dishonest campaign attack lines from Donald Trump.
Caveat: In its “BREAKING” tweet promoting the story, the AP did push categorically false information about Clinton and foundation donors. The AP tweet announced, “More than half those who met Clinton as Cabinet secretary gave money to Clinton Foundation.” But the AP’s own article contradicted that claim: The “half” represents a minor subset of people who met with or talked to Clinton. The brazenly false tweet, designed to generate controversy, still hasn’t been corrected or deleted by the AP.
Overall, the AP misfire seemed to be fueled by a newsroom desire to document Clinton malfeasance where none exists, or to ring the optics warning bell. “That is basically what most every drummed up ‘scandal’ against Hillary Clinton comes down to: from the perspective of the people judging her – it looks bad,” wrote Nancy LeTourneau at Washington Monthly in the wake of the APs’ failed donor story. “The AP blew their story,” she added.
LeTourneau wasn’t alone in coming to that conclusion.
The nut fact that the AP uses to lead its coverage is wrong, and [Stephen] Braun and [Eileen] Sullivan’s reporting reveals absolutely no unethical conduct … There’s just nothing here. That’s the story. Braun and Sullivan looked into it, and as best they can tell, [Clinton’s] clean.
Its entire premise was built on the kind of tendentious data-shaping that is the bread and butter of opposition researchers, not news outlets.
And Inside Philanthropy [emphasis added]:
Look, I get that the media doesn’t yet grasp how enmeshed our “charitable” sector has become in politics and public policy, since it's complicated and opaque stuff. But reporters like Stephen Braun and Eileen Sullivan should do their homework before writing about places where these two paths meet, like the Clinton Foundation, in order to provide more context. Otherwise, they’re just being irresponsible.
That last critique hit upon the glaring fact that the AP provided virtually no context for its Clinton hit piece. Rather than showing how Clinton’s contact with donors was “extraordinary,” the AP simply stated that as fact. That, along with plenty of innuendo, was supposed to convince readers that there was something very wrong with Clinton meeting with or speaking to 85 foundation donors over her days as secretary of state.
Here’s the key: The AP’s face-plant this week wasn’t a one-off instance of a newsroom temporarily losing its way and editors inexplicably okaying for publication an investigation that stridently tried to skew the facts. This is what happens all the time with Clinton coverage. The press is absolutely locked into a GOP-friendly mindset.
As Matthew Yglesias suggested at Vox, AP reporters and editors, using the exact same information they uncovered about Clinton’s visitors, could have written a factually accurate article about how, despite what her critics loudly claim, there’s no proof Clinton sold access, let alone favors, to foundation donors. Instead, the AP, adhering closely to accepted Beltway storylines, used the same information to depict Clinton as being ethically challenged, even though the AP’s own donor reporting didn’t support that conclusion.
Note that the AP’s blunder has been part of a renewed media frenzy about the foundation and its supposedly crooked ways. The press has defended its hyper-attention under the guise of conflict-of-interest concerns about the Clinton charity and Hillary Clinton’s possible presidency. But if the press suddenly can’t sleep at night knowing conflicts of interest might be lurking, why has almost nobody in the media asked if the Trump Foundation is going to be “shut down” if Donald Trump is elected president? Why has the Beltway press been virtually silent about the obvious conflicts looming if Trump hands over his sprawling business enterprise to his sons while he serves as president?
Why is there always a separate, higher standard the Clintons have to meet? And why do news outlets like the Associated Press, and The New York Times, and ABC and CBS, routinely engage in dishonest endeavors in the name of chasing so-called Clinton scandals?
As Dylan Byers announced last year at Politico, the D.C. press seems “primed to take down Hillary Clinton.” The AP did nothing this week to disrupt that claim.