Welcome to the funhouse mirror that is reporting on Clinton’s and Trump’s questionable activities

REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Donald Trump has bragged that he gave a lot to many politicians, especially when he needed favors from them, and he often got great results.

Welcome to the funhouse mirror that has become the reporting on the various questionable ethical practices and possible sins of the two leading presidential candidates.

There’s a lot going on, but every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Well, maybe all the opposite reactions aren’t quite equal, but that’s a matter of judgment and it’s hard to exercise good judgment when viewing all matters through the serial prisms of ideological bias and journalistic craft norms.

As you have probably heard by now, Donald Trump gave a large (and illegal) donation to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi just as Bondi was considering adding Florida’s weight and legal resources to the big lawsuit against Trump University. (It was illegal not because it was a bribe – although you are free to consider for yourself whether it was bribe – it was because he used funds from his “charitable foundation” which isn’t allowed to give to politicians. He also paid a fine for that.)

Bondi decides not to join suit against Trump

Bondi (who says the two actions are not related) decided not to join the lawsuit against Trump University.

That sounded like a crime or at least a scandal, and I’d say it at least stinks. The media dutifully reported Trump’s lame denial that the donation and the possible prosecution were in any way related. Trump, one might also note, has previously bragged that during this period in his life he gave a lot to many politicians, especially when he needed favors from them, and he often got great results. So there’s that.

And, by the way, that Bondi one just got worse. The latest is that In March 2014, after Bondi decided not to prosecute him, Trump “opened his 126-room Palm Beach resort, Mar-a-Lago, for a $3,000-per-person fundraiser for Bondi … who was facing a tough re-election campaign,” as the Huffington Post just reported.

Meanwhile, as you probably also noted, many reports have surfaced about possible improprieties involving the work of the Clinton Foundation while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. The big recent version of that was a story about Clinton, as secretary of state, taking meetings with people who had given money to the foundation and who had asked foundation officials for help in getting meetings with the secretary. A suspiciously large portion of those requests were honored.

It should be noted that no one has found any cases in which such a meeting led to any action by Clinton in her official capacity to help any of those with whom she connected by referral from the foundation. It should also be noted that, although Hillary Clinton said rather famously that she and her husband were “dead broke” when they left the White House in 2001 (which, to the degree it was true, was caused by the cost of defending Bill Clinton from lawsuits arising from his presidential scandals). And yet, the Clintons currently have a combined net worth estimated at $111 million.

Highly compensated speeches

Other than her salary as a senator, and then as secretary of state, and from books they have written, most of that wealth has come from highly compensated speeches they both gave for ridiculous sums of money, including some that were in private to Wall Street groups and for which she has refused to release the transcripts (even though her excuse for not releasing them, which was that other presidential candidates weren’t releasing similar transcripts, has passed its use-by date, since all of those other candidates are long since out of the race for president).

Oh, and in case you missed the latest wrinkle on the story of how the Clintons became hundred-millionaires, the Washington Post just reported that a for-profit college paid Bill Clinton nearly $18 million for serving as “honorary chancellor.”

Well, so the story of how Trump and Clinton got rich, and how Trump, at least, used his wealth to at least “ingratiate” himself with politicians if not flat-out bribe them not to sue him, is full of smelly angles. Other than the fine that Trump paid (see above), none of the transactions has been found to be criminal. But, I would say, they raise questions that are legitimate fodder for investigative journalism.

Most of Hillary Clinton's wealth has come from highly compensated speeches.
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Much of Hillary Clinton’s wealth has come from highly compensated speeches.

But are they equally suspicious, or is one worse than the other? Everyone’s entitled to their opinion on that, but is everyone entitled to pay attention to the money issues surrounding one of the candidates and not the other?

Here’s where maybe we get back to the funhouse mirror I introduced at the top (funhouse mirrors distort reality), or perhaps we get pretty quickly into the realm of my favorite twin demons, “confirmation bias” and “selective perception.”

Let’s say most of us are probably biased enough that we are quicker to see scandal when funny money stories start appearing about Clinton or when they start appearing about Trump. That’s how life is. Objectivity is a virtue journalists are supposed to (or claim to) practice, and perhaps fall short occasionally. But regular voters are under no such obligation. So whichever candidate you are inclined to believe the best or worst of, that is your right and privilege.

But, as I just mentioned, journalists are supposed to screen out bias. Yet, in a recent New York Times column, Paul Krugman argued that considerations of balance (and he would apparently say phony balance) may cause journalists to lose their judgment. Krugman thinks that the evidence against Trump as a political briber is overwhelming but the evidence that the Clintons are shifty money grubbers is much weaker, and he accuses the media of failing to make the distinction. Here’s a taste of that Krugmanian argument:

There aren’t many efforts to pretend that Donald Trump is a paragon of honesty. But it’s hard to escape the impression that he’s being graded on a curve. If he manages to read from a TelePrompter without going off script, he’s being presidential. If he seems to suggest that he wouldn’t round up all 11 million undocumented immigrants right away, he’s moving into the mainstream. And many of his multiple scandals, like what appear to be clear payoffs to state attorneys general to back off investigating Trump University, get remarkably little attention.

Meanwhile, we have the presumption that anything Hillary Clinton does must be corrupt, most spectacularly illustrated by the increasingly bizarre coverage of the Clinton Foundation.

Step back for a moment, and think about what that foundation is about. When Bill Clinton left office, he was a popular, globally respected figure. What should he have done with that reputation? Raising large sums for a charity that saves the lives of poor children sounds like a pretty reasonable, virtuous course of action. And the Clinton Foundation is, by all accounts, a big force for good in the world. For example, Charity Watch, an independent watchdog, gives it an “A” rating — better than the American Red Cross.

Now, any operation that raises and spends billions of dollars creates the potential for conflicts of interest. You could imagine the Clintons using the foundation as a slush fund to reward their friends, or, alternatively, Mrs. Clinton using her positions in public office to reward donors. So it was right and appropriate to investigate the foundation’s operations to see if there were any improper quid pro quos. As reporters like to say, the sheer size of the foundation “raises questions.”

But nobody seems willing to accept the answers to those questions, which are, very clearly, “no.”

Consider the big Associated Press report suggesting that Mrs. Clinton’s meetings with foundation donors while secretary of state indicate “her possible ethics challenges if elected president.” Given the tone of the report, you might have expected to read about meetings with, say, brutal foreign dictators or corporate fat cats facing indictment, followed by questionable actions on their behalf.

But the prime example The A.P. actually offered was of Mrs. Clinton meeting with Muhammad Yunus, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who also happens to be a longtime personal friend. If that was the best the investigation could come up with, there was nothing there.

Paul Waldman of the Washington Post makes a similar argument here.

I have great respect for both Krugman and Waldman and found myself nodding along. Then I read a big pushback against this argument by Glenn Greenwald of “The Intercept,” (whom I also admire). Greenwald is no love slave of Trump. Not even slightly. And he isn’t arguing that Trump and Clinton are equal morally, politically, philosophically or in what they are willing to do to get richer.

But he does think there are plenty of problems with the Clintons, including questions about how they got so rich. And he couldn’t quite handle the Krugmanian tone that, to him, suggested that Trump is so very awful and Clinton is so preferable that journalists should just shut up about her various pecuniary peccadillos.

His piece was headlined: The Unrelenting Pundit-Led Effort to Delegitimize All Negative Reporting About Hillary Clinton. Here’s a taste of Greenwald’s argument:

That prominent journalists are overwhelmingly opposed to Donald Trump is barely debatable; their collective contempt for him is essentially out in the open, which is where it should be. Contrary to Krugman’s purported expectation, countless Clinton-supporting journalists rushed to express praise for Krugman. Indeed, with very few exceptions, U.S. elites across the board — from both parties, spanning multiple ideologies — are aligned with unprecedented unity against Donald Trump. The last thing required to denounce him, or to defend Hillary Clinton, is bravery.

That American journalists have dispensed with muted tones and fake neutrality when reporting on Trump is a positive development. He and his rhetoric pose genuine threats, and the U.S. media would be irresponsible if it failed to make that clear. But aggressive investigative journalism against Trump is not enough for Democratic partisans whose voice is dominant in U.S. media discourse. They also want a cessation of any news coverage that reflects negatively on Hillary Clinton. Most, of course, won’t say this explicitly (though some do), but — as the wildly adored Krugman column from yesterday reflects — they will just reflexively dismiss any such coverage as illegitimate and invalid.

That Donald Trump is an uber-nationalist, bigotry-exploiting demagogue and unstable extremist does not remotely entitle Hillary Clinton to waltz into the Oval Office free of aggressive journalistic scrutiny. Nor does Trump’s extremism constitute a defense to anything that she’s done. It is absolutely true that Trump has at least as many troublesome financial transactions and entangling relationships as the Clintons do: These donations to the Florida attorney general are among the most corrupt-appearing transactions yet documented. Even worse, Trump has shielded himself from much needed scrutiny by inexcusably refusing to release his tax returns, while much of the reporting about the Clintons is possible only because they have released theirs. All of that is important and should be highlighted.

But none of it suggests that anything other than a bright journalistic light is appropriate for examining the Clintons’ conduct. Yet there are prominent pundits and journalists who literally denounce every critical report about Clinton as unfair and deceitful, and band together to malign the reporters who scrutinize the Clintons’ financial transactions. Those prominent voices combine with the million-dollar online army that supreme sleaze merchant David Brock has assembled to attack Clinton critics; as the Los Angeles Times reported in May: ‘Clinton’s well-heeled backers have opened a new frontier in digital campaigning, one that seems to have been inspired by some of the internet’s worst instincts. Correct the Record, a Super PAC coordinating with Clinton’s campaign, is spending some $1 million to find and confront social media users who post unflattering messages about the Democratic front-runner.’”

To be clear, I don’t read Greenwald as arguing that anyone should let up on Trump. I don’t read him as arguing that Clinton is pure, nor that her transgressions are equal to Trump’s. He’s clearly arguing that if journalists get to the point where they lose interest in investigating Clinton’s peccadillos with equal tenacity and reporting what they find, you just can’t call it journalism.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (26)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 09/07/2016 - 10:34 am.

    The “funhouse mirror”

    Eric, I’m initially thinking of the one with two huge curves, convex and concave. I don’t remember if they curved to the same degree. I’m not so sure yours do.

    Maybe thinking people should simply admit there is no fruitful purpose to comparison/contrast this year.
    Oh, it all makes good chatter in these pages, but to what principled purpose?
    Who really can honestly look forward to the lesser of two anythings?

  2. Submitted by Tim Milner on 09/07/2016 - 11:35 am.

    Can’t stand either candidate

    but agree that Clinton has been given a far greater pass on the investigative journalism. I mean, really. Two people having spent their lives as public servants are now worth $111M!! With no investigation on how that happened?

    And I don’t buy the argument about what should Bill have done with his reputation. Look no further than Jimmy Carter as someone who has done tremendous charitable work after his presidency without even coming close to the level of monetary enrichment that the Clinton’s have achieved.

    Meanwhile, Trump is the stereotypic 2nd generation, slick East Coast businessman. He’s holds the experience and skill set to be a used car salesman rather than be president. Still can’t believe the moneymen of the Republican party could not rally behind anyone else. Instead, they allowed Trump to win early primaries with 18% of the vote thereby allowing the press to legitimizing his candidacy because he “won” primaries. Yea he won alright – with 80% of the people not voting for him!!

    All and all a fiasco of biblical proportions that I think will be a case study for how not to elect a President in Political Science classes 50 years from now.

    • Submitted by Thomas Eckhardt on 09/07/2016 - 04:35 pm.

      No investigation

      Clinton has released over 20 years of tax returns. The answer to where their wealth came from is there in black and white. From what I’ve read, it comes mostly from book deals and speeches from the past 16 years. I’d have to think that at least one media outlet has gone through them.

      Meanwhile, Trump hasn’t released any tax returns and nobody knows what his wealth is, or how he accumulated it.

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/07/2016 - 11:37 am.

    Appearances

    It used to be the case that politicians were advised and expected not just not to be improper, but also to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Somewhere along the line we abandoned this concept. Nowadays, we require proof of impropriety in order to form negative conclusions. Maybe this is another influence of the TV show “CSI” where definitive proof is always found at the end of the hour. This revised standard, of course, rewards those who are most practiced and skilled at not leaving a trail of evidence proving that they have committed improprieties. The new standard is that we don’t punish wrongdoing, we punish who are careless in providing evidence of wrongdoing.

    Donald Trump, to give him credit, has been quite blunt about these practices giving us a useful insight into how it’s done. He says quite forthrightly that he makes contributions to politicians entirely without any expectation of an immediate quid pro quo, the only thing our current Supreme Court regards as bribery, knowing full well that a favor will be returned down the road. It reminds me of the scene in the “The Godfather” where Don Corleone says, “Some day, and that day may never come, I will ask a favor of you.”

    • Submitted by Tom Lynch on 09/07/2016 - 04:15 pm.

      Your first sentence

      is total bull hockey. How to you avoid the “appearance of impropriety” when you have an opposition party(the GOP) and a complicit media willing to take anything and blow it out of proportion. The hunting of the Clintons by the GOP and their lapdog MSM over the past 25 years is example number one. Whitewater, Filegate, Travelgate, the White House Christmas card list, cattle futures, Troopergate, Lincoln bedroom, Rose Law Firm, looting the White House, Benghazi, emails, Clinton Foundation, etc. They’re all big Nothingburgers.

      • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/07/2016 - 05:39 pm.

        “How to you avoid the “appearance of impropriety” when you have an opposition party(the GOP) and a complicit media willing to take anything and blow it out of proportion?”

        It really takes planning, and of course the Republicans will always find something to complain about. But certainly an effort could made. One place to start would be to make it clear that there was never to be any communication between Clinton Foundation officials and Hillary, apart from family members, ever. Certainly, a policy should have been established that no contributions should ever be received from foreign governments, or individuals with issues before the government.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/07/2016 - 11:46 am.

    Not my last word

    …I’m sure, but here are the links to my favorite pieces of writing about the current presidential field, and the total unsuitability of one of the two candidates for the job. They’re both lengthy articles, written back in June, but they’re still quite relevant, well-written, and occasionally amusing. I recommend them highly to MinnPost readers, but actually reading both pieces is, of course, up to you.

    The first:

    https://thepolicy.us/thinking-about-hillary-a-plea-for-reason-308fce6d187c#.4ji4w2iow

    If nothing else, this piece takes care of the “Hillary made a lot of money dishonestly by accepting bloated speaking fees” argument, which is one I used against her myself.

    The second:

    https://medium.com/@michaelarnovitz/thinking-about-hillary-a-follow-up-2e01a963a632#.rzg7spegd

    This piece is a reply to the responses the article’s author got to his first piece.

    Overall, Michael Arnovitz is making a reasoned and cogent point: Hillary Clinton is being held to a different standard – a double standard with which most of MinnPost’s female readers are likely all too familiar – than is her opponent. THAT is the “fun house mirror” that counts.

  5. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 09/07/2016 - 02:26 pm.

    “Clinton’s peccadillos?”

    WOW! Yet another article that does not even mention H.C. and emails.

    Somewhere Richard Nixon is wishing the “journalism” of today would have infected the Washington Post of his day.

    Also – somewhere Rosemary Woods is impressed with electronic bleaching.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/07/2016 - 04:27 pm.

      WOW!

      Yet another comment that utterly misses the point!

      The article was about coverage of the respective candidates. It was not meant to be a listing of every scandal, however feeble, attached to their names. Or is it a requirement? To appear “balanced” and “unbiased” to conservatives, every article about wither Clinton must include a recitation of everything they were supposed to have done that was wrong?

      Incidentally, despite the best efforts of certain Republican hacks in Congress, the e-mails are nothing. Ms. Clinton was guilty of negligence, but despite efforts to gin up something more, that is as far as it goes. Put it in the same file as Benghazi, or the cattle futures, or Whitewater, or the.White House Travel Office–there is no there there, and it is a waste of time and money to keep pretending that there is more.

  6. Submitted by William Stahl on 09/07/2016 - 03:42 pm.

    Glenn Greenwald: crank or paranoid?

    Glenn Greenwald has his own set of blinders. From the extravagant passages quoted here and elsewhere, one has to conclude that he has a permanent case of advanced dyspepsia regarding the Clintons complicated by a martyr complex. He argues bitterly that there is some kind of plot by the mainstream media to smother any criticism of Hillary. That is absolute baloney. Greenwald is really good at dishing it out with haymakers, but he can’t take a jab. He also isn’t contributing anything useful to the national discussion.

  7. Submitted by John Appelen on 09/07/2016 - 05:25 pm.

    Excellent Piece

    Eric,
    Thank you for a fair and balanced piece. I enjoyed it greatly.

    My view is that the characters of both candidates are highly questionable. The problem is that unless people are willing to seriously start considering Johnson / Weld as a moderate option, we are going to have to plug our noses and vote for one of these self serving candidates.

    And worse yet we will need watch one of them giving speeches for 4 years, or until they get impeached. Maybe we should be asking which Vice Presidential candidate we like better? 🙂

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/08/2016 - 10:04 am.

      The “Moderate” Option?

      “The problem is that unless people are willing to seriously start considering Johnson / Weld as a moderate option . . .”

      Is there a different Johnson/Weld ticket, other than the one endorsed by the Libertarian Party? Gary Johnson:

      Privatized New Mexico’s prisons, with disastrous results;

      Wants an across-the–board 43% cut in federal spending (including military spending);

      Supports increased fracking, despite his belief that it is inefficient and environmentally destructive;

      Opposes any changes to the minimum wage, because he believes that “nobody works for minimum wage;” and

      Does not believe in restrictions on gun ownership.

      I have long felt that the term “moderate” has been overused and misused to the point that it has become meaningless. If you think Gary Johnson is a “moderate,” you have just proved my point.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/08/2016 - 05:32 pm.

        T2

        Gary is apparently a fiscal conservative and a social liberal, which in our culture is somewhat of a moderate.

        He is not trying to limit people’s rights to have guns, have abortions, limit their right to use their land to make money, marry who they want, pay people a market based wage, etc. So yes he is pretty moderate.

        And he apparently thinks that the people in the States will take care of their neighbors, roads, education systems, etc. So there really is no reason to collect an excessive amount of money from us citizens at the Federal level, just to have them redistribute it back to the States… I have never understood why citizens support sending money to Washington instead of St Paul or their home town. Do they think people in Washington DC are wiser than their neighbors? Seems like Johnson’s is a rational moderate concept.

        As for Privatized prisons, I am sure there are pros & cons.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/09/2016 - 08:05 am.

        T3

        I’ll never understand the moderation method here…

        Johnson/Weld seems to support Personal freedom and taking personal responsibility for ones choices.

        They also seem to think that the citizens of a State are capable of taking care of their neighbors, roads, education system, etc, and there is no reason to send extra money to the Feds to just have them send it back to the State. (ie inefficient)

        Not sure how this is not moderate?

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/09/2016 - 09:50 am.

          Not Moderate?

          Again, I think the term “moderate” has been overused to the point of meaninglessness. Saying that a candidate is a “moderate” because he takes a few positions from column A and some from column B just reinforces that point.

          In any event, I fail to see how turning government over to corporate interests is a form of “moderation.” Similarly, favoring positions like environmentalism in the abstract while refusing to do anything about it isn’t “moderation,” it’s duplicity of a particularly transparent nature.

          At the same time, I agree with you on the moderation method here (volunteers with uncertain schedules?).

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/09/2016 - 02:45 pm.

            Moderate

            Since most folks see themselves as typical… Maybe “moderate is someone who would vote like me”…

            I prefer to look where the full range lies and determine who is in the middle.

            Who do you see as Moderate? How would you score them?

            Hillary??
            https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members/hillary_clinton/300022

            Obama?
            https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members/barack_obama/400629

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/09/2016 - 04:04 pm.

              Who do I see as Moderate?

              Good question. As I mentioned, I think the term has become pretty meaningless through overuse. I think you’re onto something when you suggest the term really just means “someone who would vote like me.” After all, not many people who describe themselves as “extremist.”

              It probably is most useful to think of the term as a comparative one–one conservative might be moderate than another person, but calling them a moderate doesn’t really tell you much. Overall, President Obama was not the most liberal member of Congress, while Secretary Clinton, vilified from the left as a corporate shill, is probably more liberal than her husband was. Of course, saying someone is “conservative” or “liberal” doesn’t tell you much more.

              • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/09/2016 - 10:27 pm.

                Methodology

                That is why govtrack has a methodology to help quantify this for us. And it identifies Obama and Clinton as you describe them.

  8. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 09/08/2016 - 06:33 am.

    Just a thought or two..

    Greenwald and Intercept do represent a new hope for change where investigative means asking the questions and where certainty is not a positive conclusion?

    Krugman surprises me a bit …but maybe what’s happening in those supported by mainstream corporate ,media will eventually compromise to survive by being with the “winner’ candidate and his/her whichever of the ‘non-choice’ we now are stuck with?

    So it goes…if all we are left with are two unacceptable choices certainly I suppose media voices we thought were columnists with integrity will start accepting the negative foibles of whom they assume will win among our two sad choices …and cling for survival as columnist not necessarily as wordsmiths of integrity if one wants to survive?

    Sad yes,so I suggest one need to develop a most athletic mind of sorts; to read beyond what you necessarily may not believe or accept at the moment but consider alternatives to standard, mainstream journalism sources, that read too often like the minutes of the local men’s club…and explore a little further without fear of being beyond the limited scope and the influence of other ideas if your mind dare explore? Maybe Intercept sets a new standard where ‘investigative’ means something more that soaping of the news gathering culture?

    Hope this makes sense …or scrap it, but either way one of Eric’s finest articles lately…do appreciate.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/08/2016 - 03:20 pm.

      Heroes and Villains

      It seems the people a ways Left and Right of Center insist on seeing Heroes and Villains… When in reality these politicians are just flawed humans just like us.

      Trump and Clinton are both self centered people who have willingly chosen to live in the public eye and be “successful”. Both have made questionable choices and made mistakes.

      How does that go… Let the perfect throw the first stone…

      I wish our culture would start focusing on why the candidates would be good for the position, instead trying to scare everyone against the opponent by turning them into the “villain”…

      Those Mills vs Nolan attack ads are going to get real old by Nov. But apparently us silly voters buy into it.

  9. Submitted by Steven James Beto on 09/09/2016 - 01:54 am.

    Loyalty to Riches

    Putin is building a casino in Russia to rival Macau. I wonder if Trump’s name will be on it?

  10. Submitted by Craig Johnson on 09/17/2016 - 08:22 am.

    Fairness and Objectivity

    Its all fairness and objectivity. Two words with very different meanings. Our press has interpreted fairness to equal time. But equal time is meted out as time given to cover dissimilar topics. Clinton talks of health care policy and the press gives Trump time to belittle Marco Rubio’s privates.

    Of course the press has failed in their application of fairness. Bombast should be excluded from the news – except for conclusions of objectivity. If this were the standard Trump would never have made it through the front door and the Republicans might have been able to present a competent candidate. But they too were beguiled by the embarrassing attention the public paid to the Trump side show of ill mannered ignorance.

    So in the final analysis, we have all failed. And while we may deserve the potential outcome due to our lack of good judgement and voyeuristic tendencies, we must learn to turn away from the train wreck and pay attention to substance.

Leave a Reply