Once Again, the Media Gets It Wrong on the Clinton Foundation

Since Hillary Clinton began her career as a politician in 2000, she and the outside groups that support her have raised nearly $750 million in the course of her two runs for the U.S. Senate and two bids for the presidency. About a fifth of that money came from the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors – powerful industries with many issues before lawmakers in Washington.

If you really want to know how and why Hillary Clinton might be compromised as a president, this vast river of donations over many years is the place to start—a point that Bernie Sanders made often last spring. In this election cycle alone, Clinton has so far raised $41 million from Wall Street donors. How might Clinton's deep and longstanding ties to such donors affect her wherewithal to regulate finance if she wins the White House?

It’s a good question. Strangely, though, the media has become obsessed with looking backward, to the insignificant side show of money flowing to the Clinton Foundation—and what sort of special access to Hillary Clinton donors might have gotten when she was secretary of state.

Along the way, flawed or clueless reporting by otherwise reputable publications—including the Wall Street Journal, as I’ve noted—has generated mini-firestorms about “new revelations” alleging “pay-for-play” that, on closer examination, don’t amount to much.

RelatedHitJob: A Closer Look at the WSJ’s Clueless Attack on the Clinton Foundation

The latest red-hot story from the Associated Press is a case in point. It breathlessly reports that over “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.”

A tweet by the AP boiled the point down further: “More than half those who met Clinton as cabinet secretary gave money to Clinton Foundation.”

How many people is the AP talking about here? All of 85, out of 154. Okay, now just take a moment to think about how absurdly misleading this claim is: Did Hillary Clinton really only meet with 154 people during her years at State that were “outside the government?” Of course not. She probably met with thousands, starting with innumerable foreign officials as she circled the world.

While the AP didn’t list all the names of the foundation donors Clinton met with, the examples provided in this story and elsewhere hardly point to some dark conflict of interest. They include: 

  • Bono, a leader in global anti-poverty work that Clinton has known—and collaborated with at times—for many years, and someone who also met high-level officials in the Bush Administration, including George W. Bush himself.
  • Melinda Gates, whose foundation is, indeed, the biggest donor to the Clinton Foundation, along with various NGOs that work with the U.S. State Department. As co-chair of the richest private foundation in the world, Gates might well have been there do a favor for Clinton, not vice versa. 
  • Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economist who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for pioneering low-interest "microcredit" for poor business owners, and a revered figure in global development circles. The AP devotes nearly a quarter of its expose to portraying Yunus as just another donor hustling for special favors, which is absurd. Among other things, both Clintons have known Yunus and praised his work since the early 1980s.
  • Nancy Mahon of MAC AIDS, the charity of MAC Cosmetics, which is owned by Estee Lauder. MAC AIDS has, indeed, been a donor to the Clinton Foundation, along with many other funders that have highly valued the foundation’s work in this area. Mahon met with Clinton as the charity began a partnership with the State Department.
  • Jeff Skoll, a philanthropist who is deeply involved in promoting social entrepreneurship around the world, and who met with Clinton along with his foundation president Sally Osberg.

Now, to be sure, Hillary Clinton also met or spoke with Clinton Foundation donors who were less logical people for her to be talking to. But many of these donors have also supported her with political donations over the years, like Haim Saban (one of her all-time biggest donors), John Mack (another key donor who is the head of Morgan Stanley), and Randi Weingarten, who’s long known Clinton and who leads the American Federation of Teachers, a union that has endorsed her on multiple occasions.

News flash: Public officials in Washington meet all the time with donors, from the president on downward. It’s a problem in our system, yet hardly one unique to Hillary Clinton. How many little favors do you think Colin Powell did for GOP donors when he was secretary of state?

Weirdly, it never occurred to the AP reporters to cross-check the donors to the Clinton Foundation with the donors to Hillary’s political career. There’s huge overlap here, since it turns out that many of the people who have faith in the Clintons as political leaders also believe in their nonprofit work. Certainly, there are some donors in this mix with more transactional motives. Welcome to the world of politics, which, in the case of the Clinton Foundation, has become enmeshed in the world of philanthropy.

The obvious potential for conflicts here is why the Clinton Foundation probably should have been mothballed long ago, and should be soon, if Hillary wins the presidency. As I’ve said before, balancing the foundation’s fundraising with Clinton’s presidential ambitions was a very bad idea.

But let’s not pretend that this foundation is somehow a unique example of the corruption of philanthropy by politics. These two worlds intersect all the time. Indeed, Judicial Watch, the nonprofit organization that’s been driving the news lately with its attacks on Clinton is entirely a creature of philanthropy, supported by donors who in some cases have a direct financial interest in who controls the White House. Meanwhile, the nonprofit organization that serves as a platform for Peter Schweizer, who’s also led the attack on the Clinton Foundation, starting with his book Clinton Cash, is heavily supported by the foundation of Robert Mercer, the hedge funder who has been the single largest donor to GOP candidates in this election cycle. If GOP tax plans were enacted, Mercer would save many millions of dollars. In turn, philanthropists on the left support nonprofits that work in close coordination with elected Democrats.

Related: Meet the New Best Friend of Conservative Policy Groups: Robert Mercer

What's the bigger scandal: That a GOP mega-donor is heavily financing a smear of the Clintons, just like Richard Scaife did in the 1990s, while getting a tax-deduction for such giving? Or that Hillary Clinton took some meetings with long-time donors? They're both bad, I'd say, but the media's not interested in the former story. 

Recently, I wrote about how donors increasingly engage in both political and philanthropic giving in pursuit of the same overall goals. Hopefully, more journalists will explore this critical nexus. 

Look, I get that the media doesn’t yet grasp how enmeshed our “charitable” sector has become in politics and public policy, since it's complicated and opaque stuff. But reporters like Stephen Braun and Eileen Sullivan should do their homework before writing about places where these two paths meet, like the Clinton Foundation, in order to provide more context. Otherwise, they’re just being irresponsible.