Do the Press’ Clinton Rules Stoke Public Cynicism?

extra-extraThere was a lot of noise this last week about the AP’s report on the Clinton Foundation. They found nothing untoward, but spun it into something unsavory. Lots of dark intimations but when you look there’s nothing there. You wonder if there isn’t something to the notion that the press needs to have the presidential race be a nail-biter, if only so they have something to write about through November.

But if artificially tightening the presidential race and increasing the likelihood the we might elect a racist con man president isn’t agonizing enough, the bottomless cynicism on display here undermines the foundations of public life.  How much do we lose when people who have the ability to improve the world have to fear that their motives will be questioned and their reputations dragged through the mud?

Yes, there’s an unhealthy dynamic between the press and Hillary.  You can try to blame her for some of it if you insist but it leads to coverage that insists on finding something sinister in her every action, and when the evidence doesn’t pan out it doesn’t exonerate her; it just must be that she’s hiding it well.  …and “it raises questions.”

Here’s Kevin Drum from the above piece (“Let Us Investigate…”.  Emphasis mine):

…So what about the latest batch of emails. Do they really show “seedy dealings” by Team Hillary?

I dunno. One is from a Clinton Foundation executive asking a Hillary aide if she can set up a meeting for a big donor with someone at State. The Hillary aide says she’ll see what she can do, and then blows it off. In another, a foundation executive asks for help getting someone a job. He’s told that everyone already knows about the guy, and “Personnel has been sending him options.” In other words, he’s blown off. In yet another, it turns out that a Clinton aide spent some of her own time helping the foundation look for a new CEO.

So….what? People in Washington schmooze with people they know to help other people they know? Shocking, isn’t it? My guess is that the average aide to a cabinet member gets a dozen things like this a week. If all we can find here are two in four years—both of which were basically blown off—the real lesson isn’t that Hillary Clinton’s State Department was seedy. Just the opposite. It was almost pathologically honest.

I’ve seen a couple of pointers in recent weeks to this very apropos piece from last year:

The piece fleshes them out, but here are the Clinton Rules the press appears to want to play by:

  1. Everything, no matter how ludicrous-sounding, is worthy of a full investigation by federal agencies, Congress, the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” and mainstream media outlets
  2. Every allegation, no matter how ludicrous, is believable until it can be proven completely and utterly false. And even then, it keeps a life of its own in the conservative media world.
  3. The media assumes that Clinton is acting in bad faith until there’s hard evidence otherwise.
  4. Everything is newsworthy because the Clintons are the equivalent of America’s royal family
  5. Everything she does is fake and calculated for maximum political benefit

So what does this episode portend for future efforts to do good in the world?

I was struck by this piece from Bob Kelty, President of AmRef Health Africa in the USA, “the largest African-based health NGO, a 59-year-old organization that delivers services in more than 30 countries on the continent.”  The Clinton Foundation has helped them secure corporate funding for their “work on maternal and childhood healthcare, battling infectious diseases, providing life-saving surgery, improving water and sanitation, and training healthcare workers.”  If the Foundation is forced to close, that good work will be undermined.

There’s a real-world price being paid for the cynicism that always questions motives and dismisses laudable efforts as Machiavellian scheming.  Kelty closes this way:

The growing politicization of philanthropy represents a real danger to the nonprofit sector, not just in the United States, but around the world. If the Clinton Foundation can be forced to shut its doors, what are the chances that future presidents and public figures will put their reputations on the line to be forces of for good in the world? How much social and financial capital will remain on the sidelines out of fear of motives being questioned? By shutting down CGI, who will convene NGOs, governments, and corporations at the highest levels to form innovative partnerships?

More broadly, can we in the not-for-profit sector allow ignorance about our work to triumph?

UPDATE, 9/4: This morning I see a post from James Fallows that makes several of the same points I’ve tried to make above, and goes further.  As so often, he does it more clearly and powerfully than I do.  Please take a few minutes to read his piece (How the Media Undermine American Democracy), but his main bullet points are these:

  1. The immigration pivot – there was no pivot, but that the press so badly wanted that they saw it, however briefly
  2. “Racially Charged Accusations” – the false equivalence that equates things that aren’t remotely comparable, turning a contrast into he said/she said
  3. They’re all crooks – more false equivalence, re the irresponsible and misleading AP coverage of the Clinton Foundation and the Secretary of State
  4. Weaponized disinformation – interesting and daunting observations on the purposeful spread of false narratives by Putin’s Russia with the goal of undermining its adversaries