Monday, May 11, 2015

New York Magazine Adopts the Clinton Rules

Clinton Rules Dept. - Back in the 1990s, the American news media suffered a peculiar distemper. Seemingly airborne, it spread widely and wildly, rapidly infecting journalistic outlets great and small and leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Only into 2001 did it subside, not because anyone had found any sort of miraculous vaccine or cure but merely because Bill Clinton, the primary focal point of the mania, had left the capitol. In its aftermath, the illness was rarely discussed or even acknowledged within most mainstream journalistic circles. There were no introspective post-mortems, no efforts to repair the damage it had caused, no apologies to those wronged. Some who had caused the most harm even saw their careers advanced by it. Mainstream journalism never faced up to it. It has never entirely gone away and now, it's returning with a vengeance.

This disorder became known, among those of us who managed to avoid infection, as "the Clinton rules." It manifests itself as a caveat in the canons of professional journalism. By the Clinton rules, the goal is negative press about Bill and/or Hillary Clinton and all journalistic standards are allowed to be abandoned in the pursuit of it. Rumor, innuendo, unsubstantiated allegations, ridiculous misrepresentations, outright fabrications--all are acceptable and even encouraged. As Bob Someby, who has long howled against the Clinton rules, put it, "Under 'the Clinton rules of journalism,' you can say any goddamn thing you want--as long as you say it about the Clintons." In the '90s, the Clinton rules produced Whitewater, "filegate", "travelgate", and on into infinity. Bill Clinton was accused of everything from selling missile tech to China to selling plots at Arlington National Cemetery to political contributors. The entire Clinton presidency was perpetually choked by a constant cloud of allegations and faux-"scandals," many of them fabricated by right-wing activists, few of them ever amounting to anything.

Hillary Clinton, now a candidate for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, does little to conceal her contempt for the press. She's spent most of her time in the national spotlight being subjected to an endless stream of journalistic crimes, the reportorial equivalent of muggings, drive-by shootings and gang-rapes. Adore her or despise her, it's hard to argue she hasn't earned her bitterness. And, in fact, the current presidential contest has seen the press returning to its old pattern. Peter Schweizer is a conservative activist with a long history of unsubstantiated, misleading and false claims. In the abstract, not someone to whom mainstream journalists would give the time of day, but when he assembled the anti-Clinton tome "Clinton Cash," those same journalists were tripping all over one another to get a piece. Amy Chozik, writing in the New York Times, revealed that "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." Essentially a conspiracy with a known smear-artist.[1]

Gabriel Sherman, writing in New York magazine, has just provided another example of the Clinton rules in an article about the Clinton Foundation's dispute with Charity Navigator, a non-profit that monitors charitable groups and that, in March, placed the foundation on its watchlist of potentially troublesome charities. The disconnect between the facts Sherman records and the conclusions he draws from them is almost unbelievable. "Clinton Foundation officials," write Sherman, "accuse the Navigator of unfairly targeting them, lacking credible evidence of wrongdoing, and blowing off numerous requests for a meeting to present their case." Following the pernicious "he said/she said" formula so common in the corporate press, he continues:
"Navigator executives counter that the Foundation has demanded they extend the Clintons special treatment. They also allege the Foundation attempted to strong-arm them by calling a Navigator board member."
The job of the journalist at this point is to evaluate who is telling the truth. The bare facts of Sherman's article support every one of the grievances of the Clinton Foundation, which renders dishonest Sherman's portrayal of them as merely self-serving accusations. Though Sherman sides with the claims of Charity Navigator, those same facts are not kind to them. The "strong-arm" remark invokes images of burly thugs slapping a hammerlock on some hapless fellow and demanding protection money. It's unclear whether this was a characterization offered by Navigator officials or by Sherman himself but Sherman's story offers absolutely nothing to support it. The Clinton rules.

By Sherman's account, "the Clinton Foundation was happy to promote Charity Navigator’s work (back when they were awarded its highest ranking)." This all changed on 11 March when the foundation received an email
"informing them they would be added to the [Navigator watch list] on Friday, March 13, unless they could provide answers to questions raised in newspaper accounts. Among the press controversies the Navigator cited: A Wall Street Journal report that noted 'at least 60 companies that lobbied the State Department during [Hillary Clinton's] tenure donated a total of more than $26 million to the Clinton Foundation.' Politico, meanwhile, revealed that the Foundation failed to report to the State Department a $500,000 donation from the Algerian government, a violation of the ethics agreement the Clintons had arranged with the Obama White House. Politico also reported that the Foundation’s former CEO, Eric Braverman, quit after a 'power struggle' with 'the coterie of Clinton loyalists who have surrounded the former president for decades.'"
Earlier, Sherman had asserted that these press reports had occurred "long before Clinton Cash," but the first two reports he cites occurred in late February, the last in March--all within a few days of one another--and it's a matter of public record that the publisher of "Clinton Cash" was shopping around its allegations to news outlets long before the book was released. In April, Matt Purdy, an editor at the New York Times, said, "Months ago, we were given early galleys of the book and offered exclusive rights to all the material in it." Meaning those stories did not appear "long before Clinton Cash." Were they connected to the Schweizer book? Schweizer does, in fact, raise a stink about the Algerian donation reported by Politico. The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, is a part of the News Corp empire, which includes Harper Collins, the publisher of "Clinton Cash," and Fox News, which, as noted earlier, entered into some sort of deal with Schweizer. None of this featured fresh blood: The Journal's story dealt with events that had occurred while Clinton was Secretary of State but it appeared over two years after Clinton had left that post, and the donations it struggled to render sinister were all disclosed at the time they were made. And, of course, the material covered by the Journal was also covered in Schweizer's book. It's possible the Journal's story is unconnected to Schweizer in the same way it's possible I'll win the lottery this week.[2]

Though he traces the Clintons' problems in their many public disputes to "their lack of transparency" these facts suggest a rather different source for this particular dispute. The false assertion that all of this happened "long before Clinton Cash" bolsters the allegations by making them sound like the unconnected work of independent press outlets. Was Sherman actively trying to mislead his readers? Is this just a case of irresponsible sloppiness? In either event, this is a case of the Clinton rules. When it comes to slamming the Clintons, regular journalistic standards don't apply.

Sherman continues:
"Over the next few days [after the Navigator warning], Foundation officials desperately attempted to contact Navigator executives to rebut their claims but, inexplicably, couldn't get through to anyone on the phone."
A pretty significant part of the story. Other than writing it off as inexplicable, did Sherman even try to get any explanation for it? He doesn't say. Navigator sent its email on 11 March and the first successful contact Sherman records between the two parties occurs on the 13th, the day Navigator added the foundation to the watchlist. Sherman specifically says this happened in the evening, so presumably this contact was after the foundation had been added. Stepping away from Sherman's commentary and merely looking at the facts he records, one is left with the impression that Navigator staff had given the foundation two days to respond to the press reports in order to avoid being listed then went fishing, leaving Foundation officials with no avenue of appeal. That's extraordinary but it seems to have raised no red flags for Sherman.

That contact on the 13th was, as Sherman explains, "a detailed email rebuttal" from Clinton Foundation CEO Maura Pally:
"'All of the other organizations on your watch list have had substantiated allegations of financial, fiscal or other impropriety,' she wrote, according to an email the Foundation provided to New York. 'The stories you cite about the Clinton Foundation merely point to donations, or gossip around our operations, none of which constitute any wrongdoing.'
"It didn't work."
It does, however, raise questions that are of rather central importance to Sherman's story, questions Sherman entirely declines to properly cover.

As noted earlier, that Wall Street Journal report cited by Navigator wasn't about shady backroom deals--it dealt with fully-disclosed donations made to the Clinton Foundation. It wallows in innuendo--more of those Clinton rules at work--but its authors, James Grimaldi and Rebecca Ballhaus, specifically wrote:
"Corporate donations to politically connected charities aren't illegal so long as they aren't in exchange for favors. There is no evidence of that with the Clinton Foundation."
Likewise, the Politico piece about the donation from the Algerian government offers no substantive accusation of wrongdoing. At the beginning of Clinton's tenure at State, the foundation entered into a complex ethics agreement regarding, in part, various donations from various sources to various elements of the Clinton network. In 2010, an horrendous earthquake struck Haiti and the Algerian embassy donated $500,000 to a relief fund for the victims established by the Clinton Foundation. This was unsolicited and, as Politico notes, the foundation proudly displayed news of the donation on its website. The question here is whether, under the terms of the ethics agreement, the foundation should have cleared the donation with ethics officials at the State Department before accepting it. And the answer, it would seem, is no:
"Though the foundation is now conceding that the failure to clear the Algeria donation was a mistake, it’s not entirely clear that the treatment of the gift violated the literal terms of the November 2008 agreement... The deal... set rules only for the Clinton Global Initiative and... four other Clinton Foundation units... The agreement could not possibly have specifically addressed the project aimed at alleviating the impact of the Haiti earthquake, which took place 14 months after the pact was signed. The foundation’s Haiti relief fund did not exist before the earthquake. The agreement also appears to be silent on how any new Clinton Foundation project would be treated, although the foundation did pledge to disclose all of its contributors annually. The foundation says it did so with respect to the Algeria gift."
In regard to the relevant portion of the ethics agreement, Politico adds:
"The Clinton Foundation insisted at the time, and reiterated this week, that those steps were voluntary, not required by law."
In short, this is another non-story, another product of the Clinton rules. Sherman, practicing those rules himself, asserts that Politico had "revealed" that the Algerian donation was "a violation of the ethics agreement the Clintons had arranged with the Obama White House," which is false but has, since this "story" broke, been repeated into infinity by anti-Clinton elements.

When Maura Pally wrote to Navigator that these stories "merely point to donations, or gossip around our operations, none of which constitute any wrongdoing," she was entirely correct.

On 17 March, Pally and Ken Berger, then-CEO of Navigator, clashed over the phone. When Pally said the stories were without substance,
"Berger insisted that since the newspapers published the articles, they were relevant. 'Our whole thing is, if major media outlets say there's something here that you should be aware of, we're not going to be judge and jury on what the media says,' Berger later told me. 'We felt there had been enough questions.' As a matter of practice, the Navigator doesn’t conduct its own investigations. On its website, they state: 'Charity Navigator … takes no position on allegations made or issues raised by third parties, nor does Charity Navigator seek to confirm or verify the accuracy of allegations made or the merits of issues raised by third parties that may be referred to in the CN Watchlist.'"
This conversation is the source of the earlier claim that Foundation officials tried to "strong-arm" Navigator. Nothing about Sherman's account of it supports that characterization and Navigator, not the Foundation, is the org with the power in this dispute. Pally subsequently attempted to arrange a meeting with Berger to discuss the matter further and Berger refused. Sherman quotes him on the matter:
"We were not opposed to having a sit-down meeting. The point was, what is it that we're going to cover? We've already been around the block. What's the value of this?"
Sherman records that his own examination of the matter had led Pally to resume talks with the Navigator but she has a problem:
"'I remain at a loss as to what information we can provide to address Charity Navigator's concerns and be removed from the Watchlist,' she wrote Tim Gamory, the Navigator's acting CEO."
Sherman doesn't explain how the Foundation can address Navigator's concerns either. He ends by mocking the Clinton camp:
"For its part, the Clinton camp sees the episode as another reason to feel aggrieved. But even some Clinton advisers have been frustrated that they don’t appear to have learned from past self-inflicted wounds... Unfortunately for Hillary’s campaign, the Navigator’s policy is that charities that land on the list stay there for a minimum of six months. Sandra Miniutti, the Navigator’s spokesperson, told me that, in order to get off the list, the Clintons need to publicly address each of the controversies raised by the media with a convincing response.
"The clock is ticking."
Line up these facts:

The press collaborates with a smear-artist to produce anti-Clinton stories, stories built entirely on innuendo that contain no substantive charge of wrongdoing and thus nothing that can be substantively rebutted.

Based on these stories, a charity watchdog threatens to add the Clinton Foundation to a watchlist otherwise populated by charities plagued by proven improprieties, thus smearing the Foundation by association.

Officials at the watchdog give the foundation only two days to reply then don't answer their phones for the duration of that period then add the foundation to the watchlist.

When the Foundation's CEO notes that the press accounts are without substance, the watchdog CEO replies that it isn't his job to investigate or evaluate the press reports--the reports that form the basis of his org's decision to add the foundation to the watchlist.

When the Foundation's CEO presents a vigorous defense in the face of this Kafkaesque farce, the watchdog CEO characterizes this as an effort to strong-arm him and a demand for special treatment.

The watchdog's policy is that, once listed, a charity automatically remains on the list for at least six months and a spokesman for the watchdog insists that, in order to get off the list, the foundation will have to respond to the press accounts, those press accounts that contain no substantive charge of wrongdoing and thus nothing that can be substantively rebutted.

There's a scandal here all right but it sure as hell isn't the one Gabriel Sherman is trying to sell. Given Charity Navigator's scope and influence, its officials' insistence that the sort of treatment doled out to the Clinton Foundation is standard operating procedure would, if taken seriously, be rather chilling. Except by Sherman's accounting--a substantial caveat, one must concede--what the Foundation's officials have said appears to be entirely correct; that, for whatever reason, the foundation is being singled out for very unfair treatment. That treatment and the why of it are both stories the press should pursue but won't. That a journalist could come along and, surveying these facts, blame the Clintons and their foundation is... well, it's the Clinton rules. And it's probably just going to get worse.



[1] The first fruits of this collaboration was a "bombshell" article on the front page of the New York Times, which insinuated that Clinton had facilitated the sale of an uranium mine to Russian interests in exchange for contributions to the Clinton Foundation from some interested Canadians.


Columnist Gene Lyons, a longtime critic of the Clinton rules, wrote, "there’s a reason articles like the Times’ big exposé are stultifyingly dull and require the skills of a contract lawyer to parse. Murky sentences and jumbled chronologies signify that the 'Clinton rules' are back: all innuendo and guilt by association. All ominous rhetorical questions, but rarely straightforward answers." Bob Somerby at the Daily Howler chopped it to pieces and the story completely disintegrated.

[2] The third cited story, the Politico piece about Eric Braverman's resignation from the Clinton Foundation, doesn't hint at any wrongdoing and Sherman doesn't bother to tell his readers what concerns Navigator may have had with it.

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