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.
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.