Did you notice how quickly the media turned Hillary Clinton’s health problem into Hillary Clinton’s supposed transparency problem?
Perhaps sensing that a “candidate is sick” storyline doesn’t have enough drama to propel it forward for days, or to justify the overexcited coverage, the press shifted its focus to condemning Clinton for not disclosing her diagnosis sooner, suggesting it was that lack of candor and “transparency” that created the campaign “mess.”
“Hillary Clinton Is Set Back by Decision to Keep Illness Secret,” read The New York Times front page headline. See, she wasn’t “set back” because of the pneumonia infection. She was “set back” because she tried to keep it a “secret.”
Over and over we’ve seen this narrative embraced and echoed by the Beltway press: The pneumonia story is really about the “famous Clinton secrecy” and her stubborn refusal to disclose information to voters. And if she’d just be more willing to give out more information, these stories wouldn’t be a problem for her.
But is that true? Would additional disclosures have prevented this campaign headache? Are disclosures a cure-all that Clinton simply refuses to embrace because she’s so secretive?
No, not really.
“Usually you would think that the truth sets you free, but in the experiences that Hillary Clinton has lived through, that’s not necessarily accurate,” New York Democratic Party leader Jay Jacobs told the Times in its front page article on the pneumonia story.
He’s right, and this fact gets lost in the debate over candidate transparency and disclosures, and specifically over the stated-as-fact assertion that Clinton is dramatically more “secretive” than her political contemporaries: Time and again the Clintons not only haven’t received credit for making wide-ranging disclosures to the press and the public, they’ve been penalized for it. And not because reporters found damning information within the disclosures, but because the press was already committed to a particular Clinton Scandal storyline.
That means reporters often work too hard to twist mundane facts into something controversial, or to simply ignore facts that exonerate the Clintons. That’s been the norm for two decades.
Quick history lesson: The initial Whitewater investigation in The New York Times from 1992, which sparked the years-long investigation, was based entirely on the glaring omissions of exculpatory information. (See Gene Lyons’ Fools For Scandal: How The Media Invented Whitewater.)
That pattern still holds true today. For instance, the Clinton Foundation is under no obligation to make public the names of its donors or the amount of money they give. But in the name of transparency, the foundation announced it would post that information online. Many foundations connected with politicians, and with ex-presidents, don’t do that. “Experts told us the Clinton Foundation is among the most transparent in this group of charities, which, for the most part, are foundations associated with presidential libraries,” PolitiFact recently reported.
Does the press cheer that transparency? No. She’s still dubbed as being overly secretive while journalists use the disclosures to peddle hollow claims about Clinton Foundation wrongdoing. Meanwhile, I’m not aware of any out-of-the-ordinary disclosures made by the Trump Foundation, which appears to operate as a fraudulent entity.
Here’s another example: Hillary Clinton, in the name of transparency, and following “a 40 –year bipartisan tradition of transparency expected of presidential nominees,” has released decades of tax returns.
Last month, the Clintons’ 2015 release showed they gave more than $1 million to charity. Looking for a gotcha angle, lots of journalists erroneously claimed most of that $1 million went to the Clinton Foundation, suggesting that was a bad thing. (Why?) But the claim itself was completely false. The money was given to the Clinton Family Foundation, which is a separate group that distributes money to various nonprofit and charitable organizations.
By contrast, Trump has refused to release any tax information, while constantly lying about why he supposedly cannot. And for most of 2016, Trump has paid a very small price in the press.
What would the roiling news cycles look like if Trump equaled Clinton’s transparency, released his tax returns, and voters discovered the GOP nominee has exaggerated his wealth, or that he’s lied about his charitable giving, or that he hasn’t paid federal income taxes in years, or that he’s beholden to business interests in Moscow?
But those bad-news-for Trump headlines don’t exist because he refuses to adhere to even the most minimal standards of transparency -- and the press lets him.
The other part of the media’s disclosure trap is that for the Clintons, disclosures are never enough. It seems there’s nothing they can do that will satisfy media demands.
For instance, CNNMoney recently suggested that Clinton (and Trump) have failed to meet the “McCain standard” in terms of releasing medical information. What’s the McCain standard? In 2008, facing questions about his health, McCain’s campaign allowed a group of reporters into a room where they were allowed for three hours to review McCain’s medical documents. They were not allowed to make copies of the documents.
Sounds like a good plan, right? But I guarantee you that if tomorrow Clinton adopted that exact same “McCain standard,” the dominant themes of the media coverage would be, ‘Why is Clinton being so restrictive? Why are reporters only given three hours to review documents? Why can’t copies be made? Why won’t she release the 1,700 pages to the public?’ And ‘Which reporters is the campaign refusing to give access to the documents?’
So how does Clinton win? When she embraces extra transparency, as with the Clinton Foundation, her political opponents seize upon non-damning information and turn it into so-called scandals. And if she follows disclosure protocol, as with her taxes, reporters also comb through the data in search of phony gotcha stories. And yet either way she’s tagged as secretive.
All the while her political opponent this year categorically ignores virtually all disclosure requests and pays little or no price in the press.
But again, the press has decided Clinton’s pneumonia problem story was really about press access. “The frenzy and uncertainty Sunday over Hillary Clinton's health could have easily been avoided had Clinton and her campaign disclosed that she had pneumonia,” according to NBC News.
Does anyone actually believe that if on Saturday Clinton announced she had pneumonia and then the next day suffered a public health episode at the 9/11 Memorial that was captured on video, the subsequent media coverage would not have been equally hysterical? That CNN’s Wolf Blitzer would not have “spent minutes breaking down a few seconds of Clinton dragging her feet like it was the new Zapruder film,” as Politico Magazine noted? (Turning on CNN Sunday afternoon you’d would have thought Clinton had been hospitalized.)
Meanwhile, the press kept emphasizing that on Sunday Clinton had slipped away from reporters who didn’t know her whereabouts; she had tried to “ditch” her press pool that followers her around each day. She’s not transparent!
Mostly left unmentioned was that Trump was also at the 9/11 Memorial on Sunday but there were no reporters closely monitoring his every move. “Trump has no such pool, a break with past candidates,” The Washington Post noted over the weekend. “He had no reporters with him Sunday, when he appeared unannounced at the same memorial ceremony Clinton attended.”
So Trump doesn’t have a press pool, but the press attacked Clinton for not being responsive to her press pool.
Also, we didn’t hear endless media complaints last month when Trump flew to Mexico to meet with the country’s president and left campaign reporters stranded in Phoenix. There weren’t front-pages articles, endless panel TV discussions or columns hitting Trump for his trademark “secrecy.”
Different rules for him, I guess.