Originally posted Monday, September 28, 2015. Reposted Wednesday morning, May 3, 2017.
In light of the political press corps’ triumphant embrace of Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign for its seeming exoneration of their collective failure in their coverage of the Presidential campaign and their hysterical umbrage at Hillary Clinton’s having the temerity to still imply they played a role in getting us President Trump, I thought it would be a good time to repost this one from the fall of 2015, which I would now file under the heading “From the Department of Shoulda Seen It Coming”. Make sure to follow the link to Chris Cillizza’s column. It’s a perfect specimen of a journalist invoking the Clinton Rules while asserting it’s all the Clintons’ fault for not accepting that those rules are just the natural rules of the game and not the invention of self-important journalists like Cillizza, and you’ll get a kick out of his telling Bill Clinton how to do politics.
So say you're a member in good standing of the national political press corps. This means you accept as givens certain premises and let them shape all your reporting and "analysis". First among these premises is that the coverage of a political story in no way affects the course and outcome of that story. You are there but not there and just because you say look at this you aren't actually directing your readers and viewers to look at this and not at that or that looking at one thing instead of another changes anyone's thinking about what's happening.
Another important premise is that your reporting and analysis must be balanced. Balanced is used as if it's a synonym for objective, unbiased, and neutral (all of which are assumed to be virtues of good journalism) and it's achieved by an actual intellectual balancing act. You treat every argument and story as if there are two sides of equal weight and never give one side without giving the other. If after doing that it still sounds as if the scale is tipping in one direction you quickly add weight to the other to make it tip back to "level" just as you did back in junior high science and math class with actual scales and brass weights.
But almost as high up on the list is the dead certainty that Both Sides Do It.
But what do you do when no matter how you try to balance things or what direction you tell people to look, it's the fact that one side is relentlessly, ruthlessly, and unapologetically lying with every breath and committed to an agenda of wantonly and maliciously undoing every social and economic good that's been achieved over the last hundred years?
What if the facts are that one side is wrong? Not simply wrong as in error but wrong on purpose? Willfully wrong. And not just now and then. Not even just routinely. But all the time because being wrong serves their economic and political purposes?
How do you balance that?
What do you do if you want to maintain your membership in good-standing in the club of politically savvy pundits and reporters?
You thank the ghost of David Broder for the Clintons about whom it was decided long ago by the sachems of your guild it's safe to assume any scandal and impropriety and depth of sleaze that takes your fancy. You don't even have to specify what you think they're doing wrong. You just point out that they're doing something in a way that makes it sound like a wrong thing to do.
Bill Clinton was just up on the screens here in the press room at the Clinton Global Initiative. He was doing an interview with CNBC’s Becky Quick. These days Hillary’s email is the Clinton story that won’t go away. The political press won’t let it. They won’t admit they have anything to do with it. Like I said, they won’t admit they have anything to do with shaping the news at all. News just happens, and it is what it is. All they do, according to them, is open their notebooks or point their cameras, as if, again, what they choose to write down or what they decide to point their cameras at doesn't determine what they report. They won’t let the email story go. They can’t let it go. They need it.
They need it for balance.
Whenever one of the Republican candidates says something that’s stupid, hateful, factually in error, or an out and out lie; whenever one promises to do something impossible, irresponsible, and destructive “on Day One” of his or her Presidency; whenever one of them shows that he or she isn’t fit to hold any public office in a 21st Century democratic-republic, never mind the Presidency---which all do every day and twice on Sunday---and reporting it would show that voting Republican is voting to do actual harm to the nation and the world (They’re all promising to start World War III in the Middle East, after all.), then the rules require that all reporting must be balanced, and, conviently, Hillary's emails are within easy reach to plunk on the scales and tip them back.
Whenever the news is that the Republicans are wrong, dangerously wrong, politically, economically, morally wrong, you can run another critical story about the email for balance.
See, you can say, she’s just as bad if not worse.
But before Hillary’s less than careful management of every single one of the tens and tens of thousands of emails she sent and received over the course of four years when she was Secretary of State---and apparently she shouldn’t have had any other priority but keeping track of her email---before that became the worst thing any Clinton ever did which makes it the worst thing any politician has ever done, this was becoming that story.
This being this, the Clinton Global Initiative.
The “scandal” being ginned up---with no complicity on the part of the political press, of course. News just happens, remember.---had to do with the fact that some of the millions and millions and millions of dollars the Clinton Foundation had raised over the past ten years had come from people, nations, and corporations with unsavory reputations and something other than charity on their minds. Some of that money was probably intended not to do good for others but to do the givers themselves a service--it was intended to buy influence with the influential Clintons who were expected to use their influence to influence various agencies and entities and persons in government to do things beneficial to the givers.
Additionally, the Clintons themselves have made a lot of money from various sources since Bill left the White House. They’re rich and they got rich mainly by taking advantage of Bill’s having been President. That the advantages they took and the ways they took them were legal and have worked not just to their own benefit but to the good of multitudes of struggling, oppressed, sick, hungry, and desperate people around the world doesn’t make them immune from question or criticism. Bill doesn’t mind the questions. Hillary is a little touchier.
You can’t blame the political press corps for being cynical and suspicious when large sums of money are being thrown around. They work out of a city where you can’t throw a brick in any direction without beaning a lobbyist.
But the question is does money intended to buy influence buy that influence?
And considering what the Clinton Foundation was set up to do, there are other, more important questions, specifically is the money donated by well-intentioned people who gave it not to buy influence with the Clintons but for the Foundation to use to do real, material good going where it’s meant to go and being put towards doing the good it’s meant to do and once it’s there is it actually doing good?
But there are...implications.
Appearances to consider.
It’s not clear-cut what the Clintons were expected to have done about this, except to make sure the Foundation was careful about where the money came from and that it was spent wisely and to effect, which seems to have been the case.
Should Hillary not have taken the job of Secretary of State? Should the Clinton Foundation have shut up shop while she was Secretary of State? Should it shut up shop now that she’s running for President? Should she not be running for President?
(There’s a school of thought that says that within the political press corps there’s a not insignificant number of journalists and pundits who think the answer to that last question is an emphatic no and they’re out to make her wish she hadn’t.)
Quick asked about this in the interview and Bill came readily to the Foundation’s defense.
“I’m proud of the fact we have all these people here and we never ask anybody what their politics [are]. We have tried to disclose our donors and we have tried to do reasonable vetting. If there’s some reason we shouldn’t take money---and there have been several occasions over the last ten years when, for one reason or another, we haven’t been able to accept contributions, and we just politely turned them down. We didn’t try to embarrass anybody. We just said no.
But just think of it. If ten years ago, I’d said to you, “Ten years from now, we will have raised or secured more than ten billion dollars worth of money to help 430 million people in one hundred and eighty countries, and ninety percent of these commitments were made by the private sector, philanthropy, non-governmental groups, and governments working together, changing the face of the way philanthropy is done, you would have thought that was a pretty good deal. I think you have to strain pretty hard to make something bad out of that.
He went on:
I try to be very transparent, so anybody who wants to look at it and find something to criticize is welcome to do so.
I should also say, last year...we commissioned [the data analysis company Palantir Technologies] to analyze all our commitments and they said that more than forty percent had been fully completed, that another forty percent seemed certain to be completed in the way that had been promised, that six percent had failed and we should examine them because they tried to succeed, and we didn’t have enough data on fifteen percent. Over ten years, that’s pretty good.
So it’s not just that people make these commitments, they actually try to do what they say. Most people do that. And the commitments that involve multiple partners actually exceeded their stated goal.
There are things the Clintons and the Foundation should have done differently. Bill acknowledged that in the interview. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what they could have done, because whatever they’d done would have been, according to the Clinton Rules the political press operates by, wrong just because the Clintons were doing it. Bill acknowledged that too.
One guy said to me, who happened to be a Republican, who called me when all this was going on, he said, “Let me get this straight. If I put my money in the Cayman Islands to avoid taxes, I’m fine. If I put it in one of these [black box political action committees] so my name will never appear, I’m fine. If I give you money to help poor people, there’s something wrong with me?”
Well, yes there was. What was wrong with him was that he’d involved himself with the Clintons. He didn’t understand that since everything the Clintons do is suspect, anybody who has anything to do with them, even if it’s to do a good deed, is suspect.
He’d run afoul of the Clinton Rules.
It doesn’t matter that the Clinton Foundation has done things in the right ways. It only matters that they didn’t do things in a way that avoided opening up an opportunity for the political press to enforce the Clinton Rules---as if that was possible.
Back in June, when the story was gaining traction as the story, Bill defended the Foundation in pretty much the same terms as he did today, making the case that there was no case. No one had shown that the Foundation had done anything wrong. And Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post wrote on the political horseracing tip sheet he’s chief tout for,The Fix:
Then there is the fact that Clinton's answer on the foundation seems to be based on the idea that he and his wife are operating in a legal sphere for the next two years. They're not. They're living in the world of politics -- and the rules of that world are far different than those of a court of law.
You have to love this. A middler like Cillizza explaining how politics works to Bill Clinton.
This a perfect illustration of why Moist von Lipwig, the reformed con artist hero of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, thinks the editorial page is the funniest section of a newspaper: it’s premised on the idea that the world would be a much better place if it was run by journalists.
What are these rules?
Are they written down? Can you look them up online?
Who made them?
Was there a commission?
Well, Cillizza and his fellow touts make the rules. Are making the rules. They make them up daily as they go along as they need them to do the job they’ve given themselves of deciding what’s important (while pretending, of course, that they’re not doing any deciding. They’re just reporting on what is).
You might think it's more important to know what real good the money the Clinton Foundation takes in actually does than to speculate cynically on the possibility that some of the billionaires donating that money didn't do it solely out of the goodness of their hearts.
You might think it’s more important that Ebola and malaria patients and children with pediatric AIDS have been treated and cured, that women and girls in developing nations have been given economic and educational opportunities, that solar power and clean water have been brought to out-of-the-way villages in Africa, that schools have been built and teachers have been trained, that elephants and rhinos have been protected from poachers, that small island nations have been getting help dealing with the devastation to their coasts by rising oceans brought on by climate change, that all of that and more has been done and is being done than that Bill Clinton isn’t sufficiently cognizant that he’s living in the world of politics according to the likes of Chris Cillizza and his pals.
You might think it's more important that thanks to all the speeches Bill Clinton gives and all the traveling he's done and all his gladhanding, thousands upon thousands of lives have been saved than that he was paid a lot of money, much of which he put back into the Foundation, to make those speeches and do that gladhanding.
You might that it's more important that as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton worked tirelessly to improve the lot and lives of women and girls all over the world than that she used the "wrong" email server and then failed to personally keep track of every single email she sent and now, years later, can't remember what went where, and can't understand why it matters or rather she understands all too well and can barely contain her anger and contempt.
You might think it matters more what a candidate for President plans to do if she's elected than that she be at the beck and call of lazy, self-important journalists demanding answers to trivial and irrelevant questions about perception problems and campaign strategies and why she's not answering questions she's been answering all along.
You might think it's more important what she says than that she won't be saying it as often in states she won't win no matter what or how often she says it and instead says it more often in states she needs to carry to win the election.
You might think any of that or all of it. But what do you know? You're thinking as if the rules of real life and normal human behavior apply. You're thinking as if the world is as it is and not as fatuous political journalists say it is. You aren't thinking of the rules of the world of politics.
And you don't make those rules.
And on a related note, me again but more recently, from a couple weeks ago: Where Trumps come from, once more with feeling.