Over the Labor Day weekend, there was quite the chatter comparing and contrasting the news media coverage of Hillary Clinton’s alleged improprieties involving the Clinton Foundation and Donald Trump’s actual improprieties involving the Trump Foundation, his businesses, and his campaign.
Trump supporters will complain about bias in the previous paragraph, to which I say, hey, go to town. None of the news stories about the Clinton Foundation (as opposed to her handling of emails at the State Department) demonstrate anything truly disturbing. Consider:
- The Associated Press suggests Clinton’s meetings with non-state officials were biased in favor of Clinton Foundation donors. Vox’s deconstruction of the AP’s report, however, showed there was no there there.
- The Los Angeles Times suggested ties between a Nigerian billionaire donor to the foundation and Clinton favors, but Kevin Drum eviscerated it in Mother Jones to the point where he asked, “Am I missing something? How did this end up as the lead story in today’s LA Times?“
- The New York Times ran a story with the headline, “Emails Raise New Questions About Clinton Foundation Ties to State Dept.” suggesting that Clinton aide Huma Abedin looked into getting a Clinton Foundation aide a diplomatic passport for a trip to North Korea. The problem, however, as Vox noted, is that, the passport was never issued. So the question was answered, and the answer was, “nothing untoward happened.”
- ABC News suggests donors tried to gain preferential seating at official receptions. As a (non-wealthy) attendee at a state luncheon, I’m underwhelmed at the benefit of such seating. Indeed, if you were a wealthy donor trying to gain access to, say, the vice president, giving a large check to the Clinton Foundation in the hopes of a bank-shot of access is just about the most inefficient form of political spending imaginable.
Many of these stories make me mildly queasy about Doug Band thinking he could constantly ask Huma Abedin for favors. It’s part of a pattern of stories that make me queasy about Hillary Clinton’s management style. But really, these latest stories about the Clinton Foundation and access are nothingburgers. This has not stopped the press, however, from writing about it and writing that it’s a problem for Clinton and opining that Hillary Clinton should distance herself from the philanthropy.
To be clear, I don’t disagree with much of this coverage. I’m just noting that there’s an awful damn lot of it.
Now, consider Donald Trump. Here are a few stories about possible conflicts of interest and corruption scandals involving him in recent weeks:
- The Huffington Post reported that Trump quintupled the rent charged to the campaign for using Trump Tower between March and July, even though the campaign had fewer paid staff in the latter month. The obvious inference to draw is that Trump raised the rent once his campaign was being financed primarily by outside contributions rather than the candidate himself.
- The Wall Street Journal reported that, as of July, 17 percent of all of the Trump’s campaign spending had gone to “companies linked to himself or his children, or to reimburse their travel expenses.”
- The Post’s David Fahrenthold reported that Trump had to pay a $2,500 fine to the IRS because “Trump’s charitable foundation had violated tax laws by giving a political contribution [of $25,000] to a campaign group connected to Florida’s attorney general.” Oh, and by the way, after Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s campaign received that money, she decided not to investigate fraud allegations against Trump University. This is but one in a series of Fahrenthold’s investigations into Trump’s bogus claims of charitable donations.
- The AP reported the appearance of a similar pay-for-play deal with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott back in 2010 when Abbott was the Texas attorney general and decided, like Bondi, not to pursue an investigation into Trump University. A former Texas official says he was told to drop any investigation for “political reasons,” according to CBS.
To sum up: Donald Trump has specialized in directing campaign money to his family businesses and using his own money to donate to politicians who might be thinking about investigating him. Oh, and by the way, Trump still hasn’t released his tax returns because he thinks the public doesn’t care so why bother. As the Post editorialized: “What else is he lying about? We don’t know, you don’t know, and Mr. Trump seems to believe we can all live with that. Can we?”
All of these stories were reported by mainstream media outlets, so I don’t quite buy the notion that the press isn’t doing its job covering both candidates’ real and perceived scandals. I do buy the notion, however, that the Clinton stories have had a much bigger echo than the Trump stories. As Matthew Yglesias noted, the Clinton stories “bounce on cable” but the Trump stories don’t. Also, there’s this:
— Michael Calderone (@mlcalderone) September 4, 2016
Even Matthew “Both Sides” Dowd notes that the media game seems to be rigged against Clinton.
"Both have serious trust issues but we have set the bar too low for trump, & we often hold Hillary to a Ginger Rogers standard" @ThisWeekABC
— Matthew Dowd (@matthewjdowd) September 4, 2016
So what explains this disparity? I think there are two small things going on and one big one. A small thing is that Hillary Clinton has been ahead in the polls and more likely to be the next president of the United States. It’s therefore not too surprising that she faces the harsher media glare. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver noted the cycle of candidates leading in the polls facing more negative stories, which then narrows the gap with their opponent and switches the media glare to them. As Trump narrows the gap, I expect to see a greater focus on his corruption.
The second small reason is that at this point it’s just easier to report on the Clinton than on Trump. Clinton has made it easy for the press to cover these things as the emails have been released. Trump, on the other hand, is a model of opacity, requiring reporters like Fahrenthold to have to do real shoe-leather reporting to find anything. On their personal finances, Clinton has been transparent, and Trump has been the opposite of that. Paradoxically, Clinton’s relative transparency has made it easier to discover even the slightest possible appearance of impropriety.
I think there’s a bigger reason, however, and it’s not Clinton-specific. Josh Marshall got at it somewhat in this post when he wrote, “Many reporters and editors simply take it as a given that Trump’s a crook. So stories about Trump’s corruption amount to what journalists call dog bites man stories — not really news because it’s the norm and wholly expected.” Indeed, in the primaries Trump bragged about buying up politicians and promoted his tawdry brands in news conferences. So new reports about Trump ethical lapses and legal violations aren’t terribly surprising.
The reason the Clinton Foundation has earned more scrutiny is that the Clinton Foundation, like Hillary Clinton herself, ostensibly stands for something greater. The best version of Donald Trump is someone who nevertheless does everything to advance the greater glory of Donald Trump. Clinton, like most politicians, laudably professes to a higher ideal. Corruption and conflict of interest are more eye-grabbing when they come from someone committed to a life of public service. The possibility of ethical lapses involving a philanthropy exposes hypocrisy in a way that no Trump scandal possibly could.
We are living in an era in which trust in authority and institutions is at a low ebb. Trump being exposed as a corrupt hack is unsurprising because no one thought much of him in the first place, and he’s been weirdly candid about his corruption. The suspicion around Clinton, on the other hand, reflects the fact that Americans increasingly view previously-respected authorities as not what they seem to be.
This, by the way, is the same reason the mainstream media is less concerned about the funding of for-profit think tanks than nonprofit think tanks. The former are expressly trying to make a buck; the latter espouse a higher ideal of offering competent policy advice to policymakers. No one is shocked if JPMorgan Chase Institute produces analyses that could help JPMorgan Chase. If the Brookings Institution even gives the appearance of doing it, however, then it’s a story.
We are in a moment when small hypocrisies seem worse than blatant corruption. And in that moment, Clinton pays a greater price for her perceived indiscretions than Donald Trump does for his actual indiscretions. It’s not fair; it’s just the way it is.