Media Hype “Optics” In AP Report On Clinton Foundation, While Admitting There Is No Evidence Of Ethics Breaches

››› ››› NICK FERNANDEZ & JARED HOLT

Media are attempting to scandalize a report from The Associated Press that revealed that “[m]ore than half the people outside the government who met with now-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money ... to the Clinton Foundation,” calling the report “breathtaking” and “disturbing,” because it “looks bad,” and the “optics” and “perceptions” are problematic, despite the fact that their programs also note that “it wasn’t illegal,” and there was no quid pro quo. The focus on the “optics” of the situation rather than the facts has led some in media to criticize the reporting, and explain that “consumers of the media [should] think twice about whether or not the narrative” media are pushing “fits ALL of the facts.”

The Associated Press: “Many Donors To Clinton Foundation Met With Her At State”

AP: “More Than Half The People Outside The Government Who Met With Hillary Clinton While She Was Secretary Of State Gave Money … To The Clinton Foundation.” According to The Associated Press, “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.” The AP wrote that the number is “an extraordinary proportion indicating her possible ethics challenges if elected president.” From the AP’s August 24 report:

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.

At least 85 of 154 people from private interests who met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton while she led the State Department donated to her family charity or pledged commitments to its international programs, according to a review of State Department calendars released so far to The Associated Press. Combined, the 85 donors contributed as much as $156 million. At least 40 donated more than $100,000 each, and 20 gave more than $1 million.

[...]

The AP's findings represent the first systematic effort to calculate the scope of the intersecting interests of Clinton Foundation donors and people who met personally with Clinton or spoke to her by phone about their needs.

[...]

Clinton's campaign said the AP analysis was flawed because it did not include in its calculations meetings with foreign diplomats or U.S. government officials, and the meetings AP examined covered only the first half of Clinton's tenure as secretary of state. [The Associated Press, 8/24/16]

Media Call The Report A Bombshell ...

On Fox News’ The Five, Eric Bolling Calls AP Report “Bombshell Evidence Of Pay-To-Play Deals.” Fox host Eric Bolling hyped the Associated Press report as “bombshell evidence” that Clinton orchestrated “pay-to-play deals” between the Clinton Foundation and her office at the State Department. From the August 23 edition of Fox News’ The Five:

ERIC BOLLING (CO-HOST): Brand-new bombshell evidence of pay-to-play deals between the Clinton Foundation and Hillary's State Department. Newly released emails and phone records exposing the ties that the Democratic nominee has long denied. They show a senior executive at the Clinton Foundation was in regular contact with Cheryl Mills, Hillary's chief of staff when she was secretary of state. [Fox News, The Five, 8/23/16]

On Your World, Stuart Varney Hypes Report As Evidence Of “Influence Pedaling At The Very Highest Level.” Fox host Stuart Varney said the Associated Press report “linked” Clinton to “influence pedaling at the very highest level.” From the August 23 edition of Fox News’ Your World with Neil Cavuto:

STUART VARNEY (HOST): How can we lighten up when a future president possibly is linked to influence pedaling at the very highest level? [Fox News, Your World with Neil Cavuto, 8/23/16]

CBS This Morning: “The Optics Are Disturbing.” Despite pointing out that the Associated Press report contained “no proven quid pro quo,” CBS’ Anthony Mason claimed “the optics are disturbing” and Bloomberg’s John Heilemann called the report “very unseemly, at a minimum.” From the August 24 edition of CBS This Morning:

ANTHONY MASON (CO-HOST): We should point out there is no proven quid pro quo here.

JOHN HEILEMANN: That’s the point -- that’s the point the Clinton campaign certainly is making and as of now, today, it is true.

MASON: But the optics are disturbing.

JOHN HEILEMANN: Well, the notion that people are able to arrange last-minute meetings with the secretary of state, that there is a private kind of back channel between foundation staff, like Doug Band, who is the most famous of these people, Huma Abedin, the most famous of her senior staffers, that that’s a way where, you if you need to see Secretary Clinton, you write a check for $1 million.

[...]

It’s all very unseemly, at a minimum. [CBS, CBS This Morning, 8/24/16]

CNN’s Josh Rogin: “85 Is Still A Big Number” And The AP Report “Looks Bad.” CNN political analyst Josh Rogin said the Associated Press report “looks bad” despite the fact that the information it shares is “not illegal” and “doesn't even technically break the rules.” From the August 24 edition of CNN’s Early Start:

JOSH ROGIN: At the same time, 85 is still a big number and that’s a lot of donors. Even though it’s not illegal, and as the AP story notes, it doesn't even technically break the rules that Clinton and the Clinton Foundation agreed to, it looks bad. [CNN, Early Start, 8/24/16]

CNN’s Alisyn Camerota: “How Is This OK?” While introducing the Associated Press report, CNN host Alisyn Camerota asked a Clinton surrogate, “How is this OK?” From the August 24 edition of CNN’s New Day:

ALISYN CAMEROTA (CO-HOST): Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are responding to this Associated Press report that half of the people outside of government that Hillary Clinton met with when she was secretary of state were donors to the Clinton Foundation. There were 85 people that she met, they were donors, and they contributed together $156 million to the Clinton Foundation. Christine [Quinn], how is this OK? [CNN, New Day, 8/24/16]

Morning Joe Panel: AP Report “Really Was Breathtaking.” Panel members on the August 24 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe said the Associated Press report was “breathtaking” and showed Clinton Foundation owners received special State Department access “to a large extent.” Co-host Joe Scarborough cited AP’s use of the term “extraordinary proportion” to claim “just how out of skew this was.” From the August 24 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe:

NICOLLE WALLACE: These allegations have been around for a long -- “Clinton Cash” was a book about this very sort of topic, and it didn't get much traction in the mainstream media because it was written by someone entrenched in the conservative media establishment, but the AP -- sort of the most unimpeachable journalism source.

MIKE BARNICLE: If she were running against a more credible opponent, this would perhaps be almost a death note because rather than get to corruption at first, it gets to judgement. What were they thinking -- both Clintons -- what were they thinking while she was secretary of state to continue this? And it does show that it was about access to a certain extent, to a large extent. They knew, obviously, that she was going to be running for president at some point. What were they thinking?

WALLACE: And it gets to what -- we were talking about Maureen Dowd before the show, what she’s written about for years, just this sort of feeling that Clinton-ism includes an ideology and mindset that the rules don't apply to them.

JOE SCARBOROUGH (CO-HOST): Rules don't apply to them and they always, Willie, make things tougher for themselves than they need to. And just think about this year. In the past, Hillary Clinton blamed vast right-wing conspiracies for going after her. Think about who her main opponents have been this year, the people that have been hammering her the most -- The New York Times, Bernie Sanders, Ron Fournier, a Democrat who is, well maybe he’s an independent, but he’s long admired the Clintons and voted for them. And now we have The Associated Press, who called this number -- and again, this means nothing in the blogging age, I suppose, but for The Associated Press to write in a news story this term, that it was quote, “an extraordinary proportion,” shows you just how out of skew this was. It really was breathtaking when I read this story. [MSNBC, Morning Joe, 8/24/16]

CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield: “Even If Nothing Resulted From It, There Are The Appearances.” During the August 23 edition of CNN’s Legal View with Ashleigh Banfield, host Ashleigh Banfield told James Carville that “even if nothing resulted from” the Associated Press report, there’s still “the appearances”:

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD (HOST): There were communications between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department --

CARVILLE: All right, let's start with -- let's start with facts. Can --

BANFIELD: And even if nothing resulted from it --

CARVILLE: Right. Can? Can? Do I? --

BANFIELD: There are the appearances, which Hillary Clinton said she would do her best to make sure wouldn't happen. [CNN, Legal View with Ashleigh Banfield, 8/23/16]

On CNN Newsroom, US News’ David Catanese: AP Report “Underlines The Perceptions That People Have Had About The Clintons For Years.” U.S. News & World Report senior politics writer David Catanese claimed the Associated Press report “underlines the perceptions” that the Clintons are “secretive, that they help their friends and that they're willing to blur lines no matter what, out of defiance and arrogance.” From the August 24 edition of CNN Newsroom with Carol Costello:

DAVID CATANESE: Look, this is a problem that underlines the perceptions that people have had about the Clintons for years, that they're secretive, that they help their friends and that they're willing to blur lines no matter what, out of defiance and arrogance. I would just ask Keith [Boykin]. He says the foundation should continue to stay open, even after a Hillary Clinton presidency takes place, if that takes place. Do you think it is OK if a billionaire foreign donor gave money to the Clinton Foundation and then two weeks later asked for access with a meeting to the president of the United States? Would that be OK for you? Would you think that that's ethical and fair and a good way to perform government? [CNN, CNN Newsroom with Carol Costello, 8/24/16]

While Pointing Out There’s Nothing There

On The Five, Fox News’ Juan Williams: “You’re Talking About Perceptions … If You’re Saying To Me, ‘Hey, We’ve Got The Evidence,’ You Don’t Have A Thing.” Fox host Juan Williams pushed back on claims that the AP report can “be perceived as a pay to play,” saying, “You’re talking about perceptions … but if you’re saying to me, ‘hey, we’ve got the evidence,’ you don't have a thing.” From the August 23 edition of Fox News’ The Five:

ERIC BOLLING: Couldn't that be perceived as a pay to play? I'll drop $32 million in the foundation, I get access to maybe making a deal with the State Department?

JUAN WILLIAMS: You’re talking about perceptions. You just said “perceived.” I'm with you on this, I think that it opens the door to negative perceptions, but if you’re saying to me, “Hey, we’ve got the evidence,” you don't have a thing.

BOLLING: Not yet! We're still looking. [Fox News, The Five, 8/23/16]

On Your World, Fox News Contributor Jehmu Greene: “Where Is The Smoking Gun? Where Is The Direct Tie?” After host Stuart Varney claimed the AP report was “clear evidence, it seems, of influence peddling,” Fox News contributor Jehmu Greene asked, “Where is the smoking gun? Where is the direct tie” to support the claim that the Clintons engaged in “influence peddling.” Greene concluded that “[t]he Clinton Foundation is not disqualifying for Hillary Clinton.” From the August 24 edition of Fox News’ Your World with Neil Cavuto:

STUART VARNEY (HOST): This late report from the AP, roughly half the people who had meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had contributed money to the foundation. That is clear evidence, it seems, of influence peddling, doesn't it? You can't laugh that off, can you?

JEHMU GREENE: Where is the smoking gun? Where is the direct tie? I get the breakdown of the numbers, but we live in a world of intersectionality --

[...]

STUART VARNEY: You give money to a foundation, the foundation is headed by the Clintons. Hillary Clinton is secretary of state. She holds meetings, half the time with people who have given money to the foundation. That's a round robin of influence peddling. There it is.

GREENE: Certainly the appearance is not where the Clinton campaign would like to see this conversation. I'm not denying that. But I think that we have to also understand that how have we gotten to this point, because we have a politically motivated organization that has been coming after the Clintons for decades and you've got a flawed candidate that was nominated by the Republican Party and this is the only way that they see that they have a chance. It was not disqualify. [CROSSTALK] The Clinton Foundation is not disqualifying for Hillary Clinton. [Fox News, Your World with Neil Cavuto, 8/23/16]

CBS This Morning: “We Should Point Out There Is No Proven Quid Pro Quo Here.” CBS’ Anthony Mason noted that “there is no proven quid pro quo” in the AP report. From the August 24 edition of CBS This Morning:

ANTHONY MASON: We should point out there is no proven quid pro quo here.

JOHN HEILEMANN: That's the point. [CBS, CBS This Morning, 8/24/16]

CNN’s Josh Rogin: “There’s No Smoking Gun, And It’s Not Really A Straight Up Conflict Of Interest Or An Evidence Of Corruption.” After saying the AP report “looks bad,” Rogin noted that “there’s no smoking gun, and it’s not really a straight-up conflict of interest or an evidence of corruption.” From the August 24 edition of CNN’s Early Start:

JOSH ROGIN: So there's no smoking gun, and it's not really a straight-up conflict of interest or an evidence of corruption. [CNN, Early Start, 8/24/16]

CNN’s Alisyn Camerota: “It Wasn’t Illegal. Everything That The AP Found And The Clinton Camp Is Responding To, Not Illegal.” CNN host Alisyn Camerota previously asked, “How is” the finding in the AP report “OK,” but also noted that the report did not find anything “illegal” and that “[e]verything that the ​AP found and the Clinton camp is responding to, [it is] not illegal.” From the August 24 edition of CNN’s New Day:

CHRIS CUOMO (CO-HOST): Charles, Trump has a simple strategy. Make Clinton look like a felon. So, we get why he's pushing this very hard. But when you look at the calendar and the overlaps of the dates, the Clinton campaign says AP cherry-picked its calendar information. But, if they're even close in terms of showing the overlap, what does it do to the standard of semblance of impropriety? Any outward appearance of doing the wrong thing?

​CHARLES BLOW: Right, so​​ I think the word there is the "appearance," right? And that's the problem that they have. The Trump campaign is looking for appearance of something wrong. What the​ AP did was look at just the non-government meetings. ​​Many of these people would have gotten meetings with the secretary of state anyway, right? ​​One is like a Bangladeshi Nobel Prize winner. These are the kinds of people, but they also donated to the Clinton Foundation. This is the problem,​​ big money donations are messy in America. Internationally, they're even more messy. And when you get -- when you're dealing with that universe of people, you're going to have that sort of problem. Donald Trump was a big money donor to the Clinton Foundation, and they showed up at his wedding. This is the sort of thing that happens. And I think that what the problem becomes is he's going to press for 70 days this​​ idea that there's some overlap that is inappropriate. This is what people worried about when Clinton was going into this to become secretary of state. This is the issue.

​ALISYN CAMEROTA (CO-HOST): Absolutely. I mean, Congress was worried about this. And Rebecca, ​so Congress tried to set up these rules because they knew this would be a problem. They understood the incestuous nature of this. So they tried to set up rules, and in fact, ​Senator [Richard] Lugar said, "you should forswear any foreign contributions while you're secretary of state." They didn't do that. ​​But it wasn't illegal. Everything that the ​AP found and the Clinton camp is now responding to, not illegal, but, again, enough of an inappropriate feeling. [CNN, New Day, 8/24/16]

AP’s Stephen Braun On Morning Joe: “We’re Not Saying Crimes Were Committed Here. … There’s No Evidence That There Were Ethics Breaches Here.” During the August 24 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Associated Press reporter Stephen Braun told the panel that there was “no evidence that there were ethics breaches” between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department:

STEPHEN BRAUN: We're not saying crimes were committed here, we’re not -- there's no evidence that there were ethics broaches here. But these are the kind of things that ethics councils in administrations worry about. And in some cases, you know, they might have stymied meetings like that. [MSNBC, Morning Joe, 8/24/16]

CNN Host Ashleigh Banfield: “There’s No Proof Any Leverage Was Ever Gained.” Host Ashleigh Banfield told Boris Epshteyn, who supports Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, that there was “no proof any leverage was ever gained” by Clinton Foundation donors within the State Department. From the August 23 edition of CNN’s Legal View with Ashleigh Banfield:

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD (HOST): Here’s the deal, Boris, other presidents, including Bushes, have had foundations and have never questioned for it when they raised money for charity, and where is your evidence that any money has ever been taken out of a charity and, quote, “lined the pockets,” which is what Donald Trump says on the campaign trail.

BORIS EPSHTEYN: They used $50 million for travel --

BANFIELD: He accuses them of stealing money from a charity. Where is the evidence of that?

EPSHTEYN: They’ve used $50 million -- this is disclosed information. They’ve used $50 million of the foundation’s money for travel. Travel? $50 million? They used that as a slush fund for their -- now, let me finish.

JAMES CARVILLE: Go ahead.

EPSHTEYN: For expenses, for travel, for their lifestyle, whatever it may be. But more importantly, it's a way for foreign leaders, foreign corrupt leaders, foreign criminals like Gilbert Chagoury, to gain leverage. And we already see that in the emails from Doug Band. It's a way --

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD (HOST): There’s no proof any leverage was ever gained. You have to admit that that did not happen.

[...]

You’re a lawyer. You know the difference between fact and accusation. [CNN, Legal View with Ashleigh Banfield, 8/23/16]

On CNN Newsroom, Host Carol Costello: “Even The AP Article Says There’s No Proof.” At the end of a panel debate surrounding the Associated Press report, host Carol Costello told CNN political commentator Kayleigh McEnany that there “are questions, but there’s no proof” that Clinton Foundation donors received special privileges at the State Department. Costello told McEnany that “even the AP article says there’s no proof.” From the August 24 edition of CNN Newsroom with Carol Costello:

KAYLEIGH MCENANY: She signed an agreement saying there would be no blurring of lines between the foundation and the State Department.

KEITH BOYKIN: And she didn’t violate it.

MCENANY: There were. She signed an agreement saying she wouldn’t set up a private server --

CAROL COSTELLO (HOST): There’s no proof.

MCENANY: She did.

COSTELLO: There’s no proof.

MCENANY: There are emails.

COSTELLO: There are questions, but there’s no proof.

MCENANY: Go look up the emails and see that if you donate billions of dollars --

COSTELLO: There are questions. Even the AP article says there’s no proof. [CNN, CNN Newsroom with Carol Costello, 8/24/16]

Suggesting “The Optics Are Disturbing” While Admitting “There’s No Evidence That There Were Ethics Breaches” Is Terrible Reporting

Journalist And Yale Political Science Lecturer John Stoehr Criticized The Media For Reporting Accusations Of “Pay To Play” When There Is “No Evidence To Suggest” Wrongdoing. In a series of tweets, Yale lecturer and journalist John Stoehr criticized the media coverage of Judicial Watch’s allegations, saying it proves the thesis of a 1996 Atlantic piece called “Why Americans Hate the Media.” He said of Clinton’s actions, “This is not pay to play. There’s no evidence to suggest it, no matter how much the right-wing group Judicial Watch urges to the contrary.” [Media Matters, 8/23/16]

MSNBC.com: “There Are No Real Allegations Of Wrongdoing, Only Assorted Details That Seem Kinda Sorta Wrong. … The Result Is Something That Resembles A ‘Controversy,’ Even If The Evidence Is Vague And Unpersuasive.” In an August 24 article on MSNBC.com, Steve Benen wrote that “there are no real allegations of wrongdoing here, only assorted details that seem kinda sorta wrong to Clinton’s detractors” creates “something that resembles a ‘controversy,’ even if the evidence is vague and unpersuasive.” From MSNBC.com’s August 24 article (emphasis original):

The report from the Associated Press yesterday came with a headline designed to raise eyebrows: “More than half those who met Clinton as Cabinet secretary gave money to Clinton Foundation.” The story’s lede leaves no doubt that the AP believes it’s uncovered something resembling wrongdoing.

[...]

But right off the bat, the first sentence undercuts the provocative headline: “more than half” of those Clinton met with “outside of government” supported her husband’s charitable foundation. In other words, to arrive at the controversial figure, the Associated Press had to exclude all kinds of people: State Department officials, diplomats, ambassadors, foreign leaders and officials, White House personnel, military servicemen and women, etc.
 
In other words, after excluding the people any Secretary of State might ordinarily see on a typical day, and looking exclusively at this smaller subset of people Hillary Clinton met with, more than half of them contributed to Bill Clinton’s charity.

[...]

There are no real allegations of wrongdoing here, only assorted details that seem kinda sorta wrong to Clinton’s detractors. The result is something that resembles a “controversy,” even if the evidence is vague and unpersuasive. There’s a perception of some unidentified wrongdoing, and evidently, that’s enough.

[...]

But without proof of improprieties, this new “scandal,” at least for now, rings hollow. [MSNBC.com, 8/24/16]

Washington Monthly’s Nancy LeTourneau: “From The Perspective Of The Other People Judging” Clinton, “It Looks Bad. Welcome To The World Of Optics As Scandal.” In an article titled “How the AP Spun the Story About the Clinton Foundation,” Washington Monthly magazine’s Nancy LeTourneau explained how the AP report “has just shown us why it is important to be vigilant in how we consume the news as it is reported.” LeTourneau lambasted media for reporting on the AP report by suggesting that “it just plain looks bad,” saying, “That is basically what most every drummed up ‘scandal’ against Hillary Clinton comes down to.” From Washington Monthly’s August 24 article (emphasis original):

The Associated Press has just shown us why it is important to be vigilant in how we consume the news as it is reported. They took some interesting information they gathered and spun it into something it wasn’t…scandalous.

[...]

In other words, what it comes down to is “it just plain looks bad.” That is basically what most every drummed up “scandal” against Hillary Clinton comes down to: from the perspective of the people judging her – it looks bad. Welcome to the world of optics as scandal.

One way to look at this is that the AP spun the story they wanted to tell about this information. That happens almost all the time and we often don’t notice. To clarify how that happened here, note first of all the AP headline: “Many Donors to Clinton Foundation Met With Her at State.” As Adam Khan points out – that’s actually not true.

[...]

One has to wonder why the AP chose this story of Clinton’s 30+ year relationship with a Nobel Peace Prize recipient committed to combating global poverty as the one to highlight in their efforts to suggest that the Secretary of State met with people because of their donations to the Clinton Foundation. I can’t imagine a more flawed example.

I am not suggesting any nefarious motives on the part of the AP reporters. But as we see so often in the media, the facts must be paired with a narrative that gives them meaning. It behooves us as consumers of the media to think twice about whether or not the narrative fits ALL of the facts. [Washington Monthly, 8/24/16]

Vox’s Matthew Yglesias: “Journalists Need To Admit When We’ve Struck Out.” Vox’s Matthew Yglesias wrote that publications will sometimes use “spurious findings” because “everyone is trying to be interesting,” and the Associated Press report is no exception. Yglesias wrote that the AP report “did not come up with anything” and “that’s the story” and “despite very intensive media scrutiny of the Clinton Foundation, we don’t have hard evidence of any kind of corrupt activity”:

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.

[...]

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. [Vox.com, 8/24/16]

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