A new report from The Wall Street Journal provides an excellent example of the media’s tendency to suggest malfeasance around events related to Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation, even when they have found no evidence to support that impression. Based on documents and spin from a right-wing organization, the story actually scandalizes Clinton’s attendance at her husband’s birthday party.
Publication bias -- the tendency to publish stories regardless of whether they prove the premise the reporters set out to investigate -- is one of the most pernicious aspects of press coverage of Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias has put it, “Journalists need to admit when we’ve struck out” in order to avoid providing readers “a distorted picture of reality simply because everyone is trying to be interesting.”
Here’s a sentence-by-sentence breakdown of how that played out in a September 6 Journal report headlined “Calendar Shows Hillary Clinton Meetings With Foundation Donors.”
Hillary Clinton as secretary of state attended high-profile events and functions where donors to her family’s charitable foundation were in attendance, calendar records show.
The story opens with an over-promise suggesting that it will contain a number of conflicts of interest regarding Clinton and her foundation. As we will see, that does not occur.
Records for a six-month stretch in 2011 show her attending a foundation plenary session in New York in September, when she was interviewed by her daughter, Chelsea.
This isn’t news -- the 2011 interview at the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting was covered at the time by ABC, NBC, CNN, and The Associated Press. None of those outlets suggested there was anything untoward about the appearance. You can watch video of the event here.
Three weeks later, she attended what was billed as a Clinton Foundation dinner in Los Angeles.
The dinner occurred at a concert that “doubled as Bill Clinton’s 65th birthday party,” according to a contemporaneous 2011 Los Angeles Times report.
The following day, she was scheduled to attend a brunch at the home of media billionaire Haim Saban, whose family foundation has given more than $10 million to the Clinton Foundation.
The calendar says she and her husband were to “mix and mingle with guests.”
The Journal’s analysis reduces Saban to nothing more than a Clinton Foundation donor; mentioning Clinton’s attendance at a brunch at Saban’s home makes sense in this article only under that frame. In reality, Saban has known and supported the Clintons since Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. Drawing a line from the Clinton Foundation donation to the brunch appearance is nonsensical.
The records were provided by Citizens United, a conservative group that obtained them through a public-records lawsuit against the State Department. David Bossie, president of Citizens United, said last week he would take a leave of absence to join the Trump campaign.
This is an acknowledgment that the contents of this article are based on documents provided by a right-wing organization that has been attacking the Clintons for decades. Journalists are less likely to continue to receive access to such documents if they report that the documents show nothing shady occurred (one might call that a bit of a journalistic quid pro quo).
Mrs. Clinton has faced questions about the family foundation and whether donors received access to her top deputies at the State Department. In an interview to air Tuesday on ABC, Mrs. Clinton said, “What I made a decision based on was what was good for the United States, what was good for our values, our interests, and our security.”
Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian and history professor at Rice University, said that “a lot of politics is perception” and that the Clinton Foundation’s “endless tangle of relationships” have amounted to a drag on her candidacy.
These paragraphs put the article’s supposed revelations in the context of “questions” Clinton has faced about purported play-to-play surrounding the foundation, notwithstanding the article’s failure to identify such a case.
The calendar shows that on Sept. 16, 2011, Mrs. Clinton convened a summit in San Francisco, where she gave a speech on empowering women. Before the speech, according to her calendar, Mrs. Clinton met with nine executives from Wal-Mart Stores Inc., for which she once served on the board.
A Wal-Mart spokesman declined to comment about the meeting, which included Doug McMillon, now the company’s CEO. The Clinton campaign said the meeting related to a company initiative aimed at boosting women-owned businesses.
In the spring of the next year, Wal-Mart pledged to help women in Latin America with a $1.5 million donation in grants to 55,000 women entrepreneurs through a public-private partnership Mrs. Clinton created at the State Department. Wal-Mart also gave $500,000 for Vital Voices, a charity she co-founded.
Later in 2012, Mrs. Clinton visited India and made an argument to loosen the nation’s restrictions on big-box retailers.
A Clinton representative has said she was advocating on behalf of American companies in general.
As secretary of state, Clinton promoted women-owned businesses abroad, including through public-private partnerships, and advocated for U.S. companies in foreign countries. In other words, she did her job. But the article scandalizes these typical job responsibilities by placing them in the context of “questions” raised about the foundation. Vital Voices is a nonprofit that grew out of a U.S. government program Clinton and then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright founded in 1997 to “promote the advancement of women as a U.S. foreign policy goal.”
“The idea that attending her husband’s birthday party, being interviewed by her daughter on live TV or meeting with a company announcing a major global initiative to help empower women economically—all of which was covered in the press at the time—is somehow now retroactively scandalous is absurd,” said Josh Schwerin, Clinton campaign spokesman.
The last paragraph of the article is a statement from a Clinton campaign spokesman explaining why the piece’s premise makes no sense and why it shouldn’t have been published.