Tuesday afternoon, Stephen Braun and Eileen Sullivan of the Associated Press released the results of a review of State Department appointment data that they used to make some striking claims about Hillary Clinton’s schedule as secretary of state.
According to their reporting, Clinton spent a remarkably large share of her time as America’s chief diplomat talking to people who had donated money to the Clinton Foundation. She went out of her way to help these Clinton Foundation donors, and her decision to do so raises important concerns about the ethics of her conduct as secretary and potentially as president. It’s a striking piece of reporting that made immediate waves in my social media feed, as political journalists of all stripes retweeted the story’s headline conclusions.
Except it turns out not to be true. The nut fact that the AP uses to lead its coverage is wrong, and Braun and Sullivan’s reporting reveals absolutely no unethical conduct. In fact, they foundso little unethical conduct that an enormous amount of space is taken up by a detailed recounting of the time Clinton tried to help a former Nobel Peace Prize winner who’s also the recipient of a Congressional Gold Medal and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Here’s the bottom line: Serving as secretary of state while your husband raises millions of dollars for a charitable foundation that is also a vehicle for your family’s political ambitionsreally does create a lot of space for potential conflicts of interest. Journalists have, rightly, scrutinized the situation closely. And however many times they take a run at it, they don’t come up with anything more scandalous than the revelation that maybe billionaire philanthropists have an easier time getting the State Department to look into their visa problems than an ordinary person would.
A case study in Clinton Rules reporting
More than a year ago, Jon Allen wrote for Vox about the special “Clinton Rules” that have governed much reporting on Bill and Hillary Clinton over the past 25 years. On the list are the notions that even the most ridiculous charges are worthy of massive investigation, that the Clintons’ bad faith will always be presumed, and that actions that would normally be deemed banal are newsworthy simply because the Clintons are involved.
The blockbuster AP story released Tuesday afternoon fits the model to a T.
Start with this card the AP used to promote the story on social media:
The point of a card like this is that it will be seen and shared by many more people than click through and read the story itself.
The AP’s teaser tweet, similarly, will be more widely seen and shared than the underlying story.
And within the story itself, of course, the most-read part will be the lead paragraph, which reads:
More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money — either personally or through companies or groups — to the Clinton Foundation. It’s an extraordinary proportion indicating her possible ethics challenges if elected president.
The basic allegation here, that the majority of the people Clinton met with as secretary of state were Clinton Foundation donors, is remarkable. And the implication that the investigation that unearthed this striking fact has also revealed “ethics challenges” is important. The many Americans who already have a negative view of Clinton will see these facts ricocheting through their feeds and appearing on Fox chyrons and will further entrench their negative views.
Only a relatively small handful of people will actually read the story from beginning to end and see that there’s no there there.
Watch: Clinton on negative attacks, misinformation and her approval ratings
Hillary Clinton has met more than 154 people
The stark fact highlighted in the AP’s tweet and social share card is, for starters, totally false.
If you read that and thought to yourself that it seems wrong for the secretary of state to be spending so much time in meetings with Clinton Foundation donors rather than talking to US government officials and representatives of foreign countries, then you are in luck. To generate the 154 figure, the AP excluded from the denominator all employees of any government, whether US or foreign. Then when designing social media collateral, it just left out that part, because the truth is less striking and shareable.
Even so, the number 154 is preposterously low, as Clinton would routinely meet dozens of civil society leaders, journalists, and others on any one of her many foreign trips as secretary of state. In the campaign’s official response to the AP, they argue that the data is “cherry picked” from a “limited subset” of her schedule.
But regardless of that, the AP’s social media claims are simply false — ignoring well over 1,000 official meetings with foreign leaders and an unknown number of meetings with domestic US officials.
There was nothing inappropriate about the meetings
Regardless of the denominator, there is still the fact that Clinton had meetings with more than 80 people who also directly or indirectly donated to the Clinton Foundation or related ventures.
As the AP puts it: “[T]he frequency of the overlaps shows the intermingling of access and donations, and fuels perceptions that giving the foundation money was a price of admission for face time with Clinton.”
With that lead-in, one is naturally primed to read some scandalous material — a case of someone with a legitimately crucial need to sit down with the secretary of state whose meeting is held up until he can produce cash, or a person with no business getting face time with the secretary nevertheless receiving privileged access in exchange for money. Instead, the most extensively discussed case the AP could come up with is this:
Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economist who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for pioneering low-interest “microcredit” for poor business owners, met with Clinton three times and talked with her by phone during a period when Bangladeshi government authorities investigated his oversight of a nonprofit bank and ultimately pressured him to resign from the bank’s board. Throughout the process, he pleaded for help in messages routed to Clinton, and she ordered aides to find ways to assist him.
I have no particular knowledge of Yunus, Grameen Bank, or the general prospects of microcredit as a philanthropic venture. I can tell you, however, that Yunus not only won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize but has also been honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Congressional Gold Medal. In 2008 he was No. 2 on Foreign Policy’s list of the “top 100 global thinkers,” and Ted Turner put him on the board of the UN Foundation. He’s received the World Food Prize, the International Simon Bolivar Prize, and the Prince of Asturias Award for Concord.
In other words, he’s a renowned and beloved figure throughout the West, not some moneybags getting help from the State Department in exchange for cash. On the level of pure politics, of course, this is exactly the problem with the Clinton Foundation. Its existence turns the banal into a potential conflict of interest, and shutting it down is the right call. But the fact remains that this is a fantastically banal anecdote.
Equally banal is this finding: “[I]n December that same year, Schwarzman’s wife, Christine, sat at Clinton’s table during the Kennedy Center Honors. Clinton also introduced Schwarzman, then chairman of the Kennedy Center, before he spoke.”
Of course the secretary of state introduced the chair of the Kennedy Center when she attended the Kennedy Center Honors. More substantively, Braun and Sullivan also note that “the State Department was working on a visa issue at Schwarzman’s request.” One could imagine a scandal here, but the AP doesn’t produce one — was a visa wrongly issued? Or was the State Department simply doing its job and fixing a problem?
The State Department doing its job seems to clearly be the story of the time “Clinton also met in June 2011 with Nancy Mahon of the MAC AIDS, the charitable arm of MAC Cosmetics, which is owned by Estee Lauder.” Was the meeting about Mahon trying to swing a plumb internship for a family member? Nope! As the story concedes, “the meeting occurred before an announcement about a State Department partnership to raise money to finance AIDS education and prevention.”
Meeting with the head of a charity as part of an effort to raise charitable money is just the system working properly. Read the meat of the article, and the most shocking revelation is what’s not in it — a genuinely interesting example of influence peddling.
The State Department is a big operation. So is the Clinton Foundation. The AP put a lot of work into this project. And it couldn’t come up with anything that looks worse than helping a Nobel Prize winner, raising money to finance AIDS education, and doing an introduction for the chair of the Kennedy Center. It’s kind of surprising.
Journalists need to admit when we’ve struck out
Publication bias is the name of a well-known but hard to solve problem in academic research. A paper with a striking new finding is much more likely to be accepted at a top journal than a paper that says, “I investigated an interesting hypothesis, but it turned out to be wrong.” This means that spurious findings — statistical coincidences and such — make it into the published literature, while boring null results don’t. This gives a distorted picture of reality simply because everyone is trying to be interesting.
Similarly, the AP’s basic reporting project here seems like it was worth a shot and probably also fairly time-consuming. But it did not come up with anything. Clinton tried to help a Nobel Prize winner. She went to the Kennedy Center Honors. She had a meeting with the head of the charitable arm of MAC Cosmetics about a State Department charitable initiative.
There’s just nothing here. That’s the story. Braun and Sullivan looked into it, and as best they can tell, she’s clean.
Unfortunately, there’s a financial incentive to lean in the other direction. NBC News found that one major Clinton Foundation donor was a for-profit college whose interests Hillary Clinton has utterly failed to champion, so NBC turned it into a hypocrisy story.
Examining Bill Clinton’s lucrative relationship with the biggest for-profit education company in the world. @CynthiaMcFadden reports now.
The real news here ought to be just the opposite: Donors to the Clinton Foundation may believe they are buying Hillary Clinton’s political allegiance, but the reality is that they are not. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is someone, somewhere whom Clinton met with whom she wouldn’t have met with had that person not been a Clinton donor of some kind. But what we know is that despite very intensive media scrutiny of the Clinton Foundation, we don’t have hard evidence of any kind of corrupt activity. That’s the story.