CNN anchor and chief Washington correspondent Jake Tapper this week entered the news cycle obliquely. An article in USA Today noted some turbulence over just how to describe his role in the June 8-10 Clinton Global Initiative America Meeting in Denver. Was he going to be a “speaker” at the event, or something else?
CNN and the Clinton Foundation appear to be going back and forth on the matter, as Breitbart’s John Nolte has reported.
Neither USA Today nor Breitbart would have plowed such interest into this matter a year ago, back when the Clinton Foundation was an aggressive global charity with a bipartisan roster of supporters. After Hillary Clinton ramped up and then announced a 2016 presidential bid, the Clinton Foundation has turned into something different: An aggressive global charity with a bipartisan roster of supporters — and whose every move is suspect. Author Peter Schweizer, the New York Times, The Washington Post and Fox News, among others, have combed the foundation’s records in search of overlaps with Clinton’s dealings as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013. “We will see a pattern of financial transactions involving the Clintons that occurred contemporaneous with favorable U.S. policy decisions benefiting those providing the funds,” writes Schweizer in “Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich.”
The sudden touchiness of the Clinton family charity explains why last week’s revelation that ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos had donated $75,000 to the foundation blew a pothole in an otherwise smooth career. And it surely contextualizes the negotiations between the foundation and CNN over just how Tapper’s participation in the Denver event is presented. At the Denver confab next month Tapper will not only interview former president Bill Clinton as part of the proceedings but is also listed as the moderator of a panel on “The Business Case for Investing in America’s Workforce,” according to the event’s Web page. Portions of that discussion will air on CNN, according to a network spokesperson, who notes that details are still being negotiated.
The proceedings will take place under the banner of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), a Clinton Foundation subsidiary that “convenes global leaders to create and implement innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges,” according to the foundation. And by the foundation’s accounting, CGI community members “have made nearly 3,200 commitments which have improved the lives of over 430 million people in more than 180 countries.”
Those numbers look impressive, but it’s a name that attracts media heavies such as Tapper. He’ll interview Bill Clinton for 15 to 20 minutes, according to the foundation. Even when his wife is not at the center of the country’s biggest ongoing news story, former president Clinton is an ideal interviewee — informed, agile and ever willing to joust with his questioners. Says a CNN spokesperson: “This on-the-record interview with President Clinton will be broadcast exclusively on CNN. Nothing is off limits and Jake intends to use this opportunity to ask important, pressing and relevant questions of the former President who happens to have a unique role in the 2016 elections.”
So why is Tapper also moderating a CGI panel?
Because that’s part of the media-CGI “template,” to cite the term of Craig Minassian, chief communications officer for the Clinton Foundation. This template features access to the former president in addition to — or, perhaps, in exchange for — participation in one of the CGI’s panel discussions. “There’s an understanding that the package has two elements because that’s how we’ve always done it,” says Minassian, who indicates that the arrangement dates back to 2006.
The template saw some action earlier this month, when CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour participated in a CGI event in Marrakesh, Morocco. She interviewed Bill Clinton and moderated a panel discussion on youth and education. The interview made some waves, as Bill Clinton chided “Clinton Cash” author Schweizer: “Even the guy that wrote the book apparently had to admit under questioning that we didn’t have a shred of evidence for this, we just thought we would throw it out there and see if it flies. It won’t fly!”
The panel discussion on youth and education yielded less striking headlines. It consisted of Amanpour chatting with Chelsea Clinton, vice chair of the Clinton Foundation, along with two others — Kenyan Kennedy Odede, who runs a girls school in Nairobi that’s sponsored by the Clinton Foundation, and Tunisian activist Asma Mansour. The first question from Amanpour to Chelsea Clinton: “What about your current trip has really staggered you or stood out for you?” Softballs aside, the discussion was thorough, informed and utterly shadowed by the Clinton Foundation iconography on the curtain surrounding panel members:
The panel discussion, as well as the Clinton interview, secured air time on Amanpour’s show.
The Clinton Foundation doesn’t micromanage the questions posed by the likes of Amanpour or Tapper in these sessions. “We don’t put editorial restrictions on interviews with the president,” says Minassian. “We’re not trying to compromise the editorial perspective of the journalist but the reason we’re working with news organizations is so that we can get the message and word out about the work that CGI is doing.”
At that, CGI has been successful. Though Tapper is the news peg for this go-round, many of his colleagues have plowed this same terrain over the years. Former CNN anchor Piers Morgan, CNN anchor Erin Burnett, former CNBC host Maria Bartiromo, PBS’s Charlie Rose, former NBC News anchor David Gregory and others have all worked the CGI interview-panel circuit.
Consider that last one. In June 2014, Gregory interviewed Bill Clinton in the aftermath of media buzz about the Clinton family’s wealth. In her then-headline-making tour for her book “Hard Choices,” Hillary Clinton had made news with her comment that the family was “not only dead broke, but in debt” after leaving the White House. When asked about the topic by Gregory at CGI, Bill Clinton said, “It is factually true that we were $7 million in debt.”
Gregory also moderated a panel with Clinton and national business leaders on economic issues, portions of which aired on “Meet the Press,” not to mention a “Meet the Press Extra”.
That’s not all, either. MSNBC aired an “extended” version of the panel discussion.
The tradeoff facing media organizations that want a seat at the CGI scene appears stark: You get to interview Bill Clinton one on one. But you have to stick around to do one of our wonky panel discussions — and air the end product. Which brings up an idea — couldn’t CNN or NBC News or ABC News simply tell CGI that they’ll take Door No. 1 (President Clinton interview) and decline Door No. 2 (panel discussion)? “They could but we wouldn’t do it,” says Minassian.
Assertive! For Clinton watchers who chronicle the family’s transactional nature, log this one in the books. The foundation’s people know they have a commodity for which news organizations will negotiate. And the byproduct of the negotiations is extensive exposure for the Clinton Foundation. This should go down in the Philanthropy Book of Best Practices.
It’s all a collaborative arrangement, notes Minassian. “Hopefully it works for everybody,” he says. “We like to think it’s a creative approach. Everybody has felt that it gives them access not only to an interview but also to other important voices. . . . Our approach is that CGI is a content platform, where the content is the philanthropic work that all sectors of society are doing.”
The Erik Wemple Blog is agnostic about whether CGI is a content platform. In any case, Minassian highlights the ways in which CGI’s interests overlap with the media’s. For instance, the topic of Amanpour’s panel discussion very much tracked on the sort of issues she approaches in her international coverage. The economics topics explored by Gregory’s panel, likewise, melded with the fare on “Meet the Press.” “We’re working with them to create content,” says Minassian.
Yet it’s not quite as collaborative as all that. The Clinton Foundation is doing what other global charities only dream of doing, which is to muscle media organizations into promoting and moderating discussions on themes of the charity’s choosing. Consider that after more than a decade of holding CGI conferences, the foundation now fields proposals from TV outlets. “The networks have been coming to us for years,” says Minassian, noting that CNN last fall approached the foundation about its 2015 plans.
“Working with networks to originate programming from CGI events is just one of the many ways we showcase philanthropic work that’s improving the lives of millions of people around the world to as wide an audience as possible,” Minassian writes in an e-mail. “Since CGI has a long history of convening global leaders from all sectors of society, it shouldn’t be surprising that networks approach us about working together to create compelling content. Good news about what’s going right in the world is a tough sell so of course we’re going to take every opportunity to promote it.”
If nothing else, the arrangement places pressure on the networks to tell viewers just who is deciding on the themes of discussion and the guests arrayed on stage. Transparency, that is. Said Tapper in a note to the Erik Wemple Blog: “As I learned from the late, great David Carr and from you when I worked for you at Washington City Paper years ago, transparency is extremely important in journalism. That lesson (and others) I learned during my time at WCP guide me to this day, and that will not change no matter whom I interview.”