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The Clinton Foundation and the Media: A Deep-Seated Conflict of Interest

Liberals’ knee-jerk defense of Clinton risks giving conservatives the high ground on the issue of money and politics.

Part of the Series

Earlier this week, an Associated Press (AP) story showed that a disproportionate number of Clinton’s meetings with private citizens at the State Department were with large donors to the Clinton Foundation. At the very least, these stories ought to spark a serious media conversation about money, politics and philanthropy. Instead, much of the media, especially the wide array of Clinton loyalists all over the industry, have been quick to dismiss the story as part of an anti-Clinton agenda.

The media industry, which many claim is out to get Clinton, is actually made up mostly of donors to the Clinton Foundation. These donors are also actively supporting Clinton’s campaign with donations and even fundraising. Indeed, while Clinton’s potential conflicts of interest at the State Department are thought-provoking, her financial ties to Big Media are a concern in their own right. These close ties are especially unsettling on the heels of a primary season in which the corporate media attacked Bernie Sanders constantly, and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) was caught manipulating the media on Clinton’s behalf.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

It is understandable that many want to avoid criticizing Clinton, out of fear of giving the reckless, racist, authoritarian Donald Trump fodder to attack her. However, this type of suspension of critical thinking will not prevent a Trump presidency; Trump will attack Clinton no matter what “fodder” is or isn’t provided. However, the backlash against any critique of Clinton’s donor relationships may have long-term political consequences. Every time liberals do cartwheels trying to defend Clinton on this issue, they are undercutting their own fundamental arguments against Citizens United and the influence of the likes of the Koch brothers.

How Washington Works

Consider a recent op-ed by Joy Ann Reid in the Daily Beast, in which Reid claims the AP’s reporting on the Clinton Foundation is just another “fake scandal” and a product of the “media’s general Hillary Clinton loathing.” There is no story, she argues — just a spiteful media with an anti-Clinton agenda.

Reid’s claims about Clinton being treated unfairly by the press are hard to accept. Reid — one of her biggest advocates — has been able to, within a five-day window, make this very case on the most recent episode of Meet the Press, during her own Sunday morning television show on MSNBC and in her aforementioned column. Reid’s media appearances are just one example of how members of the media have come out to defend Clinton against every critique she has faced. Paul Begala, a former staffer for Bill Clinton, argued on CNN that the media has a “different standard for Clinton” and that the story was “politics at its worst.” James Carville, another former staffer for President Bill Clinton suggested on MSNBC that “someone is going to hell,” for criticizing the Clinton Foundation.

Clinton’s “media problem” is not that the relationship is too adversarial, but that it is too compromised. How can we trust the dominant media to cover Clinton’s potential conflicts of interest, when they are complicit in their own conflict of interest with the candidate? It is no wonder the “pay for play” allegations against Clinton at the State Department have largely been dismissed by pundits as, to quote Chuck Todd, just the way “American politics” works.

“This is Washington,” observed moderator John Dickerson on Sunday’s “Face the Nation.” “People who write big checks get the things that they want.”

Clinton’s Big Media Money

On the subject of writing big checks, it is rather astonishing that despite the Clinton Foundation’s financial relationships being a major news story in recent weeks, most media seem entirely uninterested in disclosing — let alone covering — their own industry’s donations to the foundation. The list of such donors, first reported by Politico (whose owner is a donor himself) is exhaustive and includes many of the most powerful media institutions in the country. Among the donors: Comcast (which owns NBC, and its cable sister channels, such as MSNBC); James Murdoch of News Corporation (owner of Fox News and its sister stations, among many other media holdings); Time Warner (CNN, HBO, scores of other channels); Bloomberg; Reuters; Viacom; Howard Stringer (of CBS News); AOL (owner of Huffington Post); Google; Twitter; The Washington Post Company; George Stephanopoulos (host of ABC News’ flagship Sunday show); PBS; PRI; the Hearst Corporation and others.

Clinton’s defenders will, as they have been doing in response to the State Department stories, argue that the Clinton Foundation does important charitable work — which it indisputably does. But that doesn’t mitigate the potential for conflicts of interest. And in any event, that argument can’t plausibly explain why Big Media contributes so much to the Clinton presidential campaign. The Center for Responsive Politics’ data on campaign donations shows that Clinton has been the media industry’s chosen candidate since the primary. As of August 22, 2016, the TV/movie/music industry is the fourth-largest donor to the Clinton campaign, while printing/publishing is tenth. More specifically, Clinton is the largest recipient of donations (by far) from all of the following industries: cable television, print and periodicals, radio, telecom services, TV production and Internet companies.

All of the broadcast giants are on board. Clinton is the largest individual recipient of campaign donations from Comcast (NBC News, MSNBC), Time Warner (CNN), News Corp (Fox News), CBS Television and Walt Disney (ABC News). If the media outlets hate Clinton as much as Reid suggests, it is curious that they seem to be working so hard to make her president of the United States (and, dating back to her first election, a senator). Also worth noting is that the AP is, according to its own description, “owned by its American newspaper and broadcast members,” which make up the corporate media.

Credibility and Consequences

Reid is hardly alone among her peers in dismissing the AP’s story as “pure fiction,” as former Clinton speechwriter Michael Cohen described it. Matt Ygelsias said the AP struck out and adopted unique “Clinton rules” for reporters, where “actions that would normally be deemed banal are newsworthy simply because the Clintons are involved.” Once again, the problem is framed as an anti-Clinton media, not the fact that politicians, including Clinton, can be (wittingly or unwittingly) influenced by money.

Interestingly, back in 2007 (when he was supporting Barack Obama over Clinton), Yglesias wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times arguing that the Clinton Foundation was not transparent enough. “It’s impossible to view the Clinton Foundation and the Hillary Clinton campaign as entirely separate enterprises,” he wrote. But in 2016, speaking critically about Clinton’s ethics and financial ties is something that many journalists are not willing to do.

However, one can oppose Trump and still speak critically and honestly about Clinton’s ethical murkiness. To think otherwise doesn’t give the public enough credit. People are smart enough to understand that both of these things can be true: (1) Clinton’s financial conflicts of interest are troubling and worth examining, and; (2) Trump’s rhetoric is racist and represents an ugly form of right-wing nationalism. This is why Trump’s chances to win are rapidly dwindling now that he is out of the primary. Clinton is not especially liked or trusted, and yet, The New York Times gives her an 89 percent chance of winning the election. Is winning the news cycle for a day or two more important than acknowledging the corrupting influence of money on politics?

Despite this, only a handful of left-leaning journalists (including David Sirota, Eric Ruder, Timothy Scott and Glenn Greenwald) were willing to seriously discuss or advance the stories about the Clinton Foundation. Most of the dominant media have amplified Clinton supporters’ critique of the AP article; the media that help fund Clinton also helped her win the news cycle. But experts on money and politics did not dismiss the story. Vox’s Jeff Stein spoke with four experts on the issue of money in politics, and they all expressed concern over the Clinton Foundation’s role at the State Department. “Having the State Department opening its doors to foundation donors suggests that the people who are giving to this foundation will get consideration from the Clintons in the context of their work — in her case, the US diplomatic process and possibly more,” said Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics.

Proof, Evidence and Logic

It is worth noting that the Associated Press did make a mistake: A tweet it sent about the article did not include the important caveat that the article was only referencing private meetings. This didn’t render the story worthless — as Clinton’s allies claimed it was — but the specific tweet was, as the AP admitted on Sunday morning, “clumsy.” Indeed, the AP has made questionable journalistic decisions before. Chief among them was the bizarre decision to prematurely call the primary for Clinton, about a day before the California primary was held, based on its phone calls to superdelegates. But Clinton supporters seemed more than happy to trust the AP — which, of course, is effectively owned by the corporate press — at that point.

The clumsy tweet notwithstanding, the knee-jerk defense of Clinton from so many liberal pundits is actually giving conservatives a chance to take the high ground on the issue of money and politics. The primary argument made in her defense is that there is no “proof” that Clinton has dictated policy to favor any of her donors. This was the same argument Clinton used to counter Sanders’ concerns over her relationship with Wall Street. The absence of literal “proof” — as in some smoking gun letter in which Clinton tells a donor she will change policy to their benefit in exchange for money — cannot credibly be the standard by which we evaluate potential conflicts of interest for those in public office.

There is no “proof,” in most instances, that Republicans cater to the Kochs or other billionaires or donors, but there is plenty of evidence. It only takes a modicum of critical thinking to understand why these relationships are problematic, though not illegal (which is, in many ways, the problem). In fact, as Greenwald argued, the “proof argument” is the same argument Antonin Scalia used in his decision on Citizens United. (Justice Steven’s stinging dissent is an instructive read on this issue.) In the future, it is inevitable that a Republican politician, probably much stronger than Trump, will have conflicts of interests that are obvious if not provable. And when they get attacked for it, no one who is unwaveringly defending Clinton in this election cycle will have a shred of credibility on these issues.

Why the Money Matters

While debating with Clinton, Sanders often remarked that large corporations do not donate to campaigns for fun — “they expect something in return.” Should President Clinton win, she will not only be in high demand from media outlets for access and content, but will also have a major role in dictating important media policies, such as media ownership restrictions, net neutrality and appointing an FCC commissioner. The corporate media industry won’t merely seek to shape the national discourse but will also seek policy reforms that will benefit its bottom line at the expense of a plural and free media.

The corporate media lobby, which is spending increasing amounts of money nearly every year, will no doubt aggressively seek to influence policy on all of these issues, as it successfully did with President Bill Clinton 20 years ago when the disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed. This law hurt democracy by relaxing ownership restrictions to facilitate ever-increasing consolidation, which has led to 90 percent of the media being owned by six massive companies — companies that now have a vested stake in a Clinton presidency.

If one truly believes that Clinton isn’t influenced at all by the industries that fund her campaigns and her foundation, then there is nothing to worry about. But, of course, as we were told on the Sunday talk shows over the weekend, “This is Washington. People who write big checks get the things they want.”

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