Monday, September 05, 2016

Two Reasons Why the Press Cares More About the Clinton Foundation Than the Trump Foundation

Over the last few weeks, the prestige press—notably led by the New York Times—has taken a renewed interest in the activities of the Clinton Foundation, running a series of stories suggesting that foundation donors might have received some sort of preferential treatment from Hillary Clinton or her staff while she was running the State Department. The lack of any hard evidence of a quid pro quo has not stopped Republican critics and good-government scolds from attacking Clinton over the foundation's existence. The former group doesn't need any proof to find her guilty, while the latter takes the position that the "appearance of impropriety" is itself a transgression—which more or less means that if anybody in the news media thinks you might have done something wrong, then, by definition, you did.

In the midst of a charged presidential campaign against a hated opponent, we might expect Democrats and liberals to mount an aggressive pushback—and indeed they have. Some Clinton defenders have focused on rebutting the news media's suggestions that the former secretary of state violated ethical norms, while others have charged the Times and like-minded press sources with imposing a double standard on the candidates. After all, Donald Trump's own foundation not only broke the law by making a campaign contribution to an elected official using the funds of a non-political organization, but did so just before the official—Florida attorney general Pam Bondi—decided not to launch an investigation into accusations of fraud by Trump's defunct "university." Yet the demonstrated illegal behavior of Trump's organization, to say nothing of the possibility that the money bought a reprieve from punishment for further criminal activity, has received much less press attention than the mere "questions" and "shadows" that supposedly "swirl" around the Clinton operation.

Why the difference? I see two reasons.

The first has to do with the press's particular preoccupation with apparent examples of hypocrisy. Democrats in general are held to a higher standard in the media with respect to scandals, or alleged scandals, involving improper influence or corruption because Democrats, more than Republicans, support the imposition of stricter rules and laws intended to reduce improper influence or corruption. Journalists are especially upset when the party that vows more frequently to clean up government is caught in an ethical lapse, as it is seen as not only dishonorable but hypocritical.

We can see this dynamic in a story the Times published over the weekend on Hillary Clinton's recent campaign finance activities. The article portrays Clinton as spending more time on the fundraising circuit than the campaign trail in recent weeks and openly argues that this shows she prefers the company of the super-rich to that of the regular people she claims to champion in her "seemingly joyless" public campaign. The clear message is that Clinton is something of a phony when she says her policies will benefit "everyday Americans" or when she advocates reform of the campaign finance system.

Republicans also spend a lot of time hanging around rich people, but they tend to openly advocate policies that cut taxes on the wealthy and reduce business regulations while opposing stringent limitations on political money. According to the press, then, Republicans may be out of touch, but they are not dishonest or hypocritical when they engage in this behavior.

The second reason why the media spends more time implying that Clinton's foundation is an ethical problem than cataloging the actual transgressions of the Trump foundation has to do with the specific pre-existing flaws from which the candidates are perceived to suffer. In the main, journalists do not view Hillary Clinton as incompetent, unintelligent, inexperienced, temperamental, or ideologically extreme. Her chief fault in their eyes (and in those of the public as well) is dishonesty—a perception that stretches back to the Bill Clinton years of the 1990s but has been reinforced more recently by the Benghazi and email server issues. Any evidence, or even subject matter, that can be interpreted as consistent with the "narrative" of ubiquitous Clinton shadiness will therefore receive considerable attention, as it vindicates an existing media conclusion. (Secondarily, she is deemed to be an untalented and strategically unsophisticated campaigner—another common theme of critical media coverage.)

To be sure, the media doesn't seem to think that Donald Trump is particularly honest either. But that's far from the primary knock on Trump. His biggest alleged flaw, according to the press, is racial divisiveness, followed by (2) running a supposedly incompetent campaign; (3) lacking apparent command of policy; and (4) exhibiting "unpresidential" personality traits. Indicators that Trump's rhetoric is in fact less truthful than Clinton's are occasionally noted, but don't shape media stories to the same degree—simply because honesty is simply not Trump's #1 problem the way it is for Clinton.

Paul Krugman notes today that a similar dynamic arose in the 2000 presidential campaign. The media made a much bigger deal out of Al Gore's supposed exaggerations and misstatements than they did of comparable remarks by George W. Bush. This was because Gore's main fault was held to be dishonesty, while Bush's main fault was held to be ignorance—so if Bush said something that wasn't true, it was likely to be interpreted more charitably ("he doesn't know any better") than if Gore did the same ("he's intentionally trying to deceive us").

I doubt that the 2016 election will turn on media stories about the Clinton Foundation, and both candidates have ample opportunity to make their own case against each other via television advertising and debate performances. But journalists have hardly been shy about expressing the opinion that the election this year has left the American people with a particularly poor choice of candidates, and the tone of coverage of both Clinton and Trump is likely to be overwhelmingly negative from now until November. It is already clear that the next president, whomever it may be, will come into office viewing the press as a sworn enemy.