Vox’s Matthew Yglesias used the example of former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s charitable organization to show that journalists need to properly contextualize their reporting on Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation because such scrutiny “can be misleading” in a media environment where Clinton is presumed to be corrupt and “every decision she makes and every relationship she has is cast in the most negative possible light,” while others who pursue similar actions are given “the presumption of innocence.”
Over the past few weeks, new information about Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation has been scandalized by the media, with coverage focused on “optics” when outlets find no evidence of wrongdoing, and misrepresenting stories that lack proper context. The sensationalist reporting on Clinton has sparked serious criticism of the media coverage, illustrating double standards and flawed reporting.
In an August 30 article, Yglesias argues that the media must properly contextualize stories about Hillary Clinton, because while “it’s natural to assume that where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” in the instance of the Clinton Foundation, “the smoke … is not a naturally occurring phenomenon” but rather “the result of … editorial decisions by the managers of major news organizations to dedicate resources to running down every possible Clinton email lead.” He criticizes the media for extending the “presumption of innocence” to politicians like Colin Powell, who turned his charity -- which accepted corporate donations -- over to his spouse while he served as secretary of state, while they depict Hillary Clinton as “a uniquely corrupt specimen operating with wildly unusual financial arrangements and substantive practices” because “people ‘know’ she is corrupt”:
The value of the presumption of innocence
Because Colin Powell did not have the reputation in the mid- to late ’90s of being a corrupt or shady character, his decision to launch a charity in 1997 was considered laudable. Nobody would deny that the purpose of the charity was, in part, to keep his name in the spotlight and keep his options open for future political office. Nor would anybody deny that this wasn’t exactly a case of Powell having super-relevant expertise. What he had to offer was basically celebrity and his good name. By supporting Powell’s charity, your company could participate in Powell’s halo.
But when the press thinks of you as a good guy, leveraging your good reputation in this way is considered a good thing to do. And since the charity was considered a good thing to do, keeping the charity going when Powell was in office as secretary of state was also considered a good thing to do. And since Powell was presumed to be innocent — and since Democrats did not make attacks on Powell part of their partisan strategy — his charity was never the subject of a lengthy investigation.
The perception that Clinton is corrupt is one of her most profound handicaps as a politician. And what’s particularly crippling about it is that evidence of her corruption is so widespread exactly because everyone knows she’s corrupt.
Because people “know” that she is corrupt, every decision she makes and every relationship she has is cast in the most negative possible light. When she doesn’t allow her policy decisions to be driven by donors, she’s greeted by headlines like “Hillary Blasts For-Profit Colleges, But Bill Took Millions From One.”
Hillary Clinton is running for president. Her opponent, Donald Trump, is unusually weak and will probably lose. Scrutinizing her, her activities, and her associations is appropriate, and it’s difficult for any responsible citizen to argue that the likely next most powerful person on the planet is under too much scrutiny.
But the mere fact of scrutiny can be misleading.
It’s natural to assume that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. But the smoke emanating from the Clinton Foundation is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. It is the result of a reasonably well-funded dedicated partisan opposition research campaign, and of editorial decisions by the managers of major news organizations to dedicate resources to running down every possible Clinton email lead in the universe.
Whatever one thinks of that decision, it’s at least appropriate to ask editors and writers to put their findings on these matters into some kind of context for readers’ benefit. To the extent that Clinton is an example of the routinized way in which economic elites exert disproportionate voice in the political process, that’s a story worth telling. But it’s a very different story from a one in which Clinton is a uniquely corrupt specimen operating with wildly unusual financial arrangements and substantive practices.
Much of what we’ve seen over the past 18 months is journalists doing reporting that supports the former story, and then writing leads and headlines that imply the latter. But people deserve to know what’s actually going on.