The Clinton Foundation returned to the headlines this week and once again the topic was promoted with lots of media hand-wringing. The problem is, it's not always clear journalists understand what the foundation does. At least it's not clear based on the media coverage.
The news this week came from a Wall Street Journal article reporting that once Hillary Clinton left her job as secretary of state, the Clinton Foundation lifted its ban on donations from foreign governments. The ban was reportedly first put in place at the request of the Obama administration, which wanted to alleviate any possible conflicts of interest with its new secretary of state. When Clinton became a private citizen again in 2013, the foundation once again accepted money from foreign governments.
“A spokesman for the Clinton Foundation said the charity has a need to raise money for its many projects,” the Journal reported.
The Journal article stressed that some ethics experts thought it was bad form for the foundation to accept foreign donations because Hillary Clinton is expected to run for president. The following day, Republican partisans piled on, insisting Hillary herself had accepted “truckloads of cash from other countries.” (She had not; the foundation had.) The Beltway press largely echoed the Republican spin and lampooned the foundation's move.
Did the original Journal article raise an interesting question? It did. If and when Hillary formally announces her candidacy, will the foundation have to revisit its position on accepting foreign government donations? It likely will. But the only way the story really worked as advertised this week was to casually conflate the Clinton Foundation, a remarkably successful global charity organization, with Hillary's looming campaign coffers, and to suggest everyone who's giving to the foundation is really giving to her presidential campaign.
In order to make that allegation stick, Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post simply suggested there's no difference between a global charity and “a PAC or campaign entity.” (That kind of changes everything.)
The only way the story gained traction, and this has been true of Clinton foundation coverage for years, was for journalists to pretend the foundation isn't actually a ground-breaking charity, in order to make vague suggestions that it's one big Clinton slush fund where money gets "funneled." ( “Money, Money, Money, Money, MONEY!” was the headline for Maureen Dowd's scathing New York Times attack column about the foundation in 2013.)
Which brings us to Ron Fournier. The news of the donation policy shift at the foundation this week infuriated the National Journal columnist who slammed the move as “sleazy and stupid.” But again, I'm not sure he understands the Foundation's purpose, because in his column Fournier argued that the acceptance of foreign donations “is stupid because it plays into a decades-old knock on the Clintons: They'll cut any corner for campaign cash.” Huh? Obviously, charitable donations to the Clinton Foundation aren't synonymous with “campaign cash” for Hillary. (If they are and Fournier has proof, he's sitting on a Pulitzer-winning scoop.)
Fournier also stressed that the foundation had “secretly lifted” its ban on accepting money from foreign governments. But it turns out the maneuver was so “secret” that Wall Street Journal reporters uncovered the foreign donations in plain sight on the Clinton Foundation's online database, where they had been posted for anyone to see. ( “In posting its donor data, the foundation goes beyond legal requirements, and experts say its transparency level exceeds that of most philanthropies,” the Washington Post reported.)
Still, the skewed view persists. Note that in a Fox News report yesterday regarding the foundation's “fundraising misstep,” John Roberts never once explained that the foundation is, in fact, a charity. It's easier to cast aspersions on the organization if you leave out the fact it helps AIDS/HIV suffers around the world get cheaper, better medicine. Or that the foundation battles global health, economic inequality, childhood obesity, climate change, or health and wellness. All of that gets flushed down the memory hole.
I've noted in the past the disconnect between the foundation's goals and deeds, and how it's portrayed in the press:
The foundation isn't a greedy $400-an-hour law firm. It's not a shady real estate conglomerate or a me-first hedge fund. It's a hugely successful charity that sponsors good deeds around the world. Yet within the Beltway press, the charity is now often depicted as some sort of Death Star -- or black ops -- operation; a web of ethical conflicts around which all kinds of nefarious deals unfold and hush money is transferred.
I certainly can't think of another charity with a long track record of helping poor people that's been portrayed as a political target of suspicion the way the Clinton Foundation has by the Beltway press over the years. And as a news consumer, I rarely see coverage of the foundation except when it's covered through the prism of Clinton politics.
Why does the disconnect persist? Because journalists sense the Clintons are cutting dirty deals behind the scenes. Though Fournier writes he is willing to give Clinton the “benefit of the doubt,” he nonetheless asks, “What do these foreign countries expect in exchange for their donations? What pressure would Clinton face as president to return financial favors?”
Back in late 2008, a Slate writer actually suggested the thriving Clinton Foundation “close shop” in order to placate the conflict-of-interest media police who populate the Beltway. Forget the hunger work the foundation does, the AIDS/HIV work, the climate work, or the drug access for the poor. For many in the D.C. press, what really matters about the Clinton Foundation isn't the good work it provides, it's that journalists be comfortable with Foundation's optics as they relate to (often petty) domestic politics.