The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Of course the media should report on ‘Clinton Cash’

D Democratic presidential hopeful and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton  stops to take a selfie after meeting with members of the Iowa state legislature at the Iowa State Capitol on April 15 in Des Moines. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A New York Times story on a new book detailing allegations of improprieties at the Clinton Foundation contained this paragraph:

But “Clinton Cash” is potentially more unsettling, both because of its focused reporting and because major news organizations including The Times, The Washington Post and Fox News have exclusive agreements with the author  to pursue the story lines found in the book.

Outrage! screamed the Clinton machine. "The conservative author Peter Schweizer has a major credibility problem, though you wouldn't know it, because this anti-Clinton manifesto is being peddled by some in the media who have essentially reprinted the press release on its publication," said Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for Correct The Record, a rapid response super PAC formed to defend Clinton from attacks. At Media Matters for America, David Brock released an entire report detailing past mistakes and omissions by Schweizer.

Clinton herself addressed the issue during a roundtable event in New Hampshire on Monday afternoon. "[I'll be] subjected to all kinds of distractions and attacks, and I'm ready for that," Clinton said. "I know that that comes, unfortunately, with the territory, it is I think worth noting that Republicans seem to be talking only about me."

Then there's this item from Politico's media blog (italics are mine):

The New York Times, The Washington Post and Fox News have made exclusive agreements with a conservative author for early access to his opposition research on Hillary Clinton, a move that has confounded members of the Clinton campaign and some reporters, the On Media blog has confirmed.

So, it's not just the Clinton campaign that's unhappy with the deal made by the Times, Post and Fox News. It's "some reporters" too.

Here's what I say to all of them: OF COURSE we should be examining the claims made in Schweizer's book. Come on!

The most foundational principle of covering a presidential campaign (or anything, really) is trying your damnedest to give people the fullest possible picture of the candidates running to represent them.  The more information you have at your disposal then, the better.

Agreeing to look into the claims in Schweizer's book is not, of course, the same as "reporting" those claims.  Not to be too much of a teacher's pet, but WaPo National Editor Cameron Barr got it exactly right in his quote to Politico. "What interests us more are his facts and whether they can be the basis for further reporting by our own staff that would be compelling to our readers," he said.

That's right. We are information-gatherers at heart.  Our job as reporters and editors and, more broadly as an organization, is to vet all of the information that comes at us to see what should be reported, what shouldn't and what needs to be followed-up on. How then can we (or any media organization) justify turning aside everything in Schweizer's book without a glance?

Is Schweizer any less credible than the National Enquirer? Many reporters turned their noses up when the Enquirer reported about John Edwards' affair with Rielle Hunter during the 2008 presidential campaign. Turns out that the Enquirer had it right — and we were all forced to follow their reporting.

Does that mean that the Enquirer is often right in what they report about politics (or anything else)? No. In fact, not even close.  But checking tips, leads and allegations out is what we do.  Simply because Schweizer has ties to conservatives and/or let some of the Republican candidates look at the book before it publishes doesn't make the information contained within it any more right or wrong.  And by the way, if/when a liberal author writes a book about Jeb Bush's work during his time out of office in the mid-2000s, we owe it to our readers to examine that book's claims, too.

As for those who dislike the fact that The Post, Times and FNC entered into an agreement with Schweizer to exclusively look into the allegations in the book, I say: Either what he writes is accurate and worth following up on or it's not. Yes, the market for Hillary stories is a hot one. But The Post isn't going to report things that aren't true just because they got the book a little bit early.  And places like the Wall Street Journal or ABC aren't going to avoid reporting on the book slightly after the fact if they find that the allegations made within it are correct. So the timing feels to me like a side issue here.

In the end, this could well be much ado about nothing. After all, it's possible that Schweizer's reporting simply doesn't meet the standards mainstream news organizations require to either look further into or report.

But the impugning of information before anyone even sees it or checks it out seems to me to set a dangerous precedent. Journalism's job is to help people understand their world and the politicians running to represent it. More information is a good thing, not a bad thing, in that quest.