A new report from Politico suggesting former President Bill Clinton used federal money to subsidize the Clinton Foundation and possibly Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s email server illustrates media’s habit of scandalizing stories throughout Clinton’s presidential campaign that have not stood up when subjected to more scrutiny.
A September 1 report from Politico claimed that Bill Clinton “used a decades-old federal government program, originally created to keep former presidents out of the poorhouse, to subsidize his family’s foundation and an associated business, and to support his wife’s private email server.” The article was originally titled “Bill Clinton used tax dollars to subsidize foundation, private email server.” While the outlet acknowledged that its investigation did “not reveal anything illegal” (which some others in media also pointed out), it claimed to “offer fresh evidence of how the Clintons blurred the line between their non-profit foundation, Hillary Clinton’s State Department and the business dealings of Bill Clinton and the couple’s aides.”
The investigation specifically claimed that the Clintons used General Services Administration (GSA) funds to subsidize people who worked for the Clinton Foundation and for foundation email servers, including subsidizing an aide who helped set up Hillary Clinton’s server. However, the article does not show that federal funds actually went directly to these private activities as opposed to official work. The Clinton campaign pushed back, stating that private funds paid for Clinton’s server and that the GSA funds were not for servers and demanded a correction. The headline of the article has since been changed to “Bill Clinton aides used tax dollars to subsidize foundation, private email support.”
While Politico suggested that Clinton has been particularly greedy in requesting federal allocations, reporting that his requests since 2001 had been “more than any of the other living former presidents,” the piece ignored that such allocations have been larger for each successive president, with President George W. Bush receiving the most funds in fiscal year 2015.
Even though the article doesn’t show any legal wrongdoing, it still suggests that the behavior in question is sketchy -- which is the hallmark of what Vox’s former chief political correspondent Jonathan Allen called “the Clinton rules” in 2015. These “rules” have permeated media coverage of the Clintons during Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. According to Allen, many in media inherently “assume [Hillary Clinton] is acting in bad faith” and that “when the Clintons aren't forthcoming — and sometimes, even when they are — they're covering something up.”
This belief can be seen in the numerous recent pieces alleging nefarious behavior between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department under Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state. The New York Times pointed to emails from the conservative group Judicial Watch to claim that a Clinton Foundation official facilitated a meeting between a foundation donor and an ambassador. But that official sent an email on behalf of Bill Clinton, not as a foundation employee, and the donor didn’t seek any financial benefit from the meeting, which was never actually set up.
CNN suggested Clinton’s then-chief of staff Cheryl Mills violated government rules by simultaneously working for the State Department and volunteering for the Clinton Foundation, even though her foundation work was voluntary, she received no payment for it, and the State Department said it was allowed.
Multiple media outlets ran with a claim from Judicial Watch that Clinton aides tried to set up a meeting between Clinton and Crown Prince Salman of Bahrain, a foundation donor, even though the emails show that the meeting was proposed and arranged through “normal” and “official channels” and the crown prince has met with past secretaries of state and U.S. presidents.
Most prominently, The Associated Press alleged that more than half the people outside government who met Clinton when she was secretary of state were foundation donors, even while multiple media figures and the AP itself pointed out that there was no evidence of ethical breaches. The AP also sent out a tweet on the story, and CNN reported that there was “near unanimous agreement” among other journalists that the tweet was “false.” The AP defended its story in a statement seeming to imply that Clinton’s calendars were being covered up to hide potential wrongdoing. It also noted that the story was reported by the same team that discovered Clinton’s server, seeming to imply a connection in behavior between the two stories. When the AP’s executive editor was confronted over the incorrect tweet, she admitted the tweet was “sloppy” but refused to take it down.
In all of these foundation stories, media outlets have hyped the the charges, claiming they looked “unseemly” and made for bad “optics,” despite admitting that there was no evidence of any legal violation, “quid pro quo” or some kind of pay for play, thus illustrating the suspicion that Allen mentioned in Clinton coverage.
These “Clinton rules” also carried over into the media’s reporting on Clinton’s private email server. Between the server’s discovery in March 2015 and FBI Director James Comey’s July 2016 recommendation that no criminal charges be filed, multiple media outlets scandalized the issue, often resulting in errors that were sometimes corrected and sometimes not. Among the erroneously reported supposed suspicious behavior was the AP’s suggestion that a person with a “mysterious identity” registered the domain name for Clinton’s email account, when it was actually just a misspelled name of a Clinton aide; the AP’s claim that Clinton’s use of an iPad contradicted her claim that she set up a private email in order to carry a single device -- even though the iPad came out a year after the account was set up; and CNN’s implication that Clinton tried to “[make] it harder and more expensive for the federal government to quickly review her emails” for possible public release by giving them to the State Department in paper and not electronically, even though State Department rules require preserved emails to be printed out (CNN later issued a correction).
Most notoriously, The New York Times botched a report claiming that inspectors general were launching a criminal probe into Clinton’s emails, which the inspectors general and Justice Department subsequently announced was not true. The Times at first refused to admit any errors in its report; it subsequently had to issue two separate corrections to the article.
Some media figures have called out their colleagues for following these biased coverage “rules.” Journalist and Yale political science lecturer John Stoehr wrote that the foundation reporting showed “that there is no evidence to suggest #PayToPlay” and that media are not doing “the basic job of prioritizing evidence that casts doubts on political accusations” from groups like Judicial Watch. Echoing Allen’s mention of the “Clinton rules,” Vox’s Matthew Yglesias wrote that media coverage carries the “perception that Clinton is corrupt” and that “everyone knows she’s corrupt,” meaning “every decision she makes and every relationship she has is cast in the most negative possible light.” He compared that to treatment of other government figures whose family members had foundations, such as Colin Powell and George W. Bush. As Yglesias mentioned at the end of his piece:
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 ... 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.