As we’ve previously pointed out, the Clinton Foundation long ago mastered converting its asset — access to former president Bill Clinton — into wide-ranging media coverage of foundation activities. That mastery continues, if the agenda for next week’s Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Annual Meeting in New York is any indication.
The headliner is that CNN host Erin Burnett will interview Clinton on a quite Clintonian topic: “Looking to the Next Decade.” Burnett will also moderate a panel discussion — a standard part of the deal that media outlets have struck over the years with the foundation. Both the interview and the panel discussion will be filmed for broadcast. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria will be moderating another panel — on the Greek crisis — that includes Clinton and will also secure air time on CNN, according to the program. CGI events are a production of the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation.
Earlier this year, CNN and the Clinton Foundation engaged in some back-and-forth over how the charity had described the participation of host Jake Tapper in a June event. Tapper was slated to interview Bill Clinton and to moderate a panel discussion. After negotiations with the foundation people, Tapper did the Clinton interview, but not the panel, which was moderated by his colleague, Poppy Harlow.
No matter — the CGI-CNN relationship appears solid. In snaring the exclusives with Clinton, CNN elbows aside its big-time competitors in the television news business. All the major networks — CBS News, NBC News, ABC News — send the Clinton Foundation pitches for interviews or programming partnerships, says Craig Minassian, the Clinton Foundation’s chief communications officer. Thing is, CNN’s assets and tendencies jibe well with the format of a CGI presentation: Not only does it have a big international reach — a big deal for a global charity — but it commonly stages panel discussions, which are the primary M.O. for CGI. “There’s always significant interest in interviewing the president, so one of the filters we use is — given limited amount of time that he has — what is the best way to promote the work of the foundation or share the work of the foundation?” said Minassian.
Fox News is among the networks that pitched a straight-up interview with Clinton without a panel discussion to run on the network’s air. “The ones that offer the most robust coverage of foundation work are the ones that get priority,” says Minassian.
Access to the former president is managed through the Clinton Foundation, which shows a great deal of savvy in advancing its own interests alongside those of American media properties. In May, for instance, Cynthia McFadden of NBC News snagged an interview with Clinton just as he was under scrutiny for accepting donations from overseas governments. The correspondent asked the tough questions, Clinton gave strong answers and the report included a window on the work of the foundation in Africa, where the interview took place. “Here in Africa,” reported McFadden, “the controversies back at home seem very far away. These are some of the poorest kids in Kenya, a sampling of the 10,000 who are now attending high school, thanks to commitments made through the Clinton Global Initiative.”
“When you look at that interview,” says Minassian, “they balanced out the interview with the president with doing a fair treatment of the Clinton Foundation work in Africa.”
In previous postings that have stirred little measurable Internet sharing, this blog has lamented the autonomy surrendered by news organizations that partner with CGI. For starters, broadcasters who do the CGI circuit run extended advertisements for the foundation, as its logo serves as the set’s wallpaper. On the substantive front, the Clinton Foundation sets the conference topics and robs its media partners of their customary suzerainty over panelists — a shared task under these deals. Interviewers, however, are indeed free to ask their own questions. “I don’t think they’re compromising their editorial standards because they’re getting high-profile guests and compelling programming,” said Minassian, who noted that the guest list for the Greek crisis session with Zakaria includes not only Clinton but also philanthropist George Soros.
Though CNN is picking the juiciest CGI fruit, it has company on the meeting agenda. Al Jazeera’s Abderrahim Foukara will preside over — and broadcast — a discussion on global conflict. And CNBC is pitching in with a filmed-for-broadcast panel on “Making the Economy Work for People.” Reps from other media outlets — including the New York Times, Vice Media and the Wall Street Journal — are serving as panelists or moderators of the event.* Two Post columnists — Zakaria and Michael Gerson — are participating in the latter capacity as well.
CNN declined to comment. A spokesman for CNBC said the network had “full editorial control” over its panel, which includes West Elm President Jim Brett, Cisco Executive Chairman of the Board John Chambers and Barclays Chairman John McFarlane.
*Correction: Post previously said that these organizations were sending only moderators.