How the AP Spun the Story About the Clinton Foundation

The Associated Press has just shown us why it is important to be vigilant in how we consume the news as it is reported. They took some interesting information they gathered and spun it into something it wasn’t…scandalous. Here is their lead-in introduction:

More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money – either personally or through companies or groups – to the Clinton Foundation. It’s an extraordinary proportion indicating her possible ethics challenges if elected president.

At least 85 of 154 people from private interests who met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton while she led the State Department donated to her family charity or pledged commitments to its international programs, according to a review of State Department calendars released so far to The Associated Press. Combined, the 85 donors contributed as much as $156 million. At least 40 donated more than $100,000 each, and 20 gave more than $1 million.

Chris Cillizza is an example of a pundit who ran with it. In reference to that intro, he writes this:

It is literally impossible to look at those two paragraphs and not raise your eyebrows. Half of all of the nongovernmental people Clinton either met with or spoke to on the phone during her four years at the State Department were donors to the Clinton Foundation! HALF.

And those 85 people donated $156 million, which, according to my calculator, breaks down to an average contribution just north of $1.8 million. (Yes, I know that not everyone gave the same amount.)

It just plain looks bad. Really bad.

Now…let me pull a couple of other quotes from what he said.

No one is alleging that the Clinton Foundation didn’t (and doesn’t) do enormous amounts of good around the world…

To be clear: I have no evidence — none — that Clinton broke any law or did anything intentionally shady…

In other words, what it comes down to is “it just plain looks bad.” That is basically what most every drummed up “scandal” against Hillary Clinton comes down to: from the perspective of the people judging her – it looks bad. Welcome to the world of optics as scandal.

One way to look at this is that the AP spun the story they wanted to tell about this information. That happens almost all the time and we often don’t notice. To clarify how that happened here, note first of all the AP headline: “Many Donors to Clinton Foundation Met With Her at State.” As Adam Khan points out – that’s actually not true.

As he said, that wouldn’t have made for a “big story.” So they spun the information in a way that got an awful lot of attention. The AP did something else to spin this tale:

The 154 did not include U.S. federal employees or foreign government representatives…

Clinton’s campaign said the AP analysis was flawed because it did not include in its calculations meetings with foreign diplomats or U.S. government officials, and the meetings AP examined covered only the first half of Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.

That is how they came up with the numbers to say, “More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money – either personally or through companies or groups – to the Clinton Foundation.”

But here is where the AP blew their story. In an attempt to provide an example of how this becomes an “optics” problem for Hillary Clinton, they focused much of the article on the fact that she met several times with Muhammad Yunus, a Clinton Foundation donor. In case you don’t recognize that name, he is an economist from Bangladesh who pioneered the concepts of microcredit and microfinance as a way to fight poverty, and founded Grameen Bank. For those efforts, Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010.

The connection the AP tries to make is that SoS Clinton met with Yunus because he was a Clinton Foundation donor. What they didn’t mention is that their relationship goes back over 30 years to the time Hillary (as first lady of Arkansas) heard about his work and brought him to her state to explore the possibility of implementing microfinance programs to assist the poor.

During the time that Clinton was Secretary of State, the government of Bangladesh was trying to discredit Yunus and remove him from leadership at Grameen Bank due to the fact that he was seen as a political threat. In case you think Clinton’s engagement on that presents and “optics” problem, consider this press release from then-Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry.

I am deeply concerned by efforts to remove Muhammad Yunus as managing director of the Grameen Bank. The international community will watch this situation closely, and I hope that both sides can reach a compromise that maintains Grameen Bank’s autonomy and effectiveness. Institutions like the Grameen Bank make a significant contribution to Bangladesh’s development and democracy and Professor Yunus’s life-long work to reduce poverty and empower women through microloans has deservedly received world-wide attention and respect.

Since those days, the whole fascination with microfinance as a way to combat poverty has waned a bit – mostly due to for-profit banks that abused the possibilities. But it is interesting to note that President Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham Soetero, was deeply involved in promoting microfinance in Indonesia. Clinton herself made that connection on the day she started work as President Obama’s Secretary of State.

We have, with President Obama, someone who believes in development and diplomacy. Coming to the State Department yesterday sent a very strong signal. A few of you may even know, as I mentioned in my testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee, that the President’s late mother was an expert in microfinance and worked in Indonesia. I have been involved in microfinance since 1983, when I first met Muhammad Yunus and had Muhammad come to see us in Arkansas so that we could use the lessons from the Grameen Bank in our own country. I was actually looking forward to being on a panel with the President’s mother in Beijing on microfinance.

One has to wonder why the AP chose this story of Clinton’s 30+ year relationship with a Nobel Peace Prize recipient committed to combating global poverty as the one to highlight in their efforts to suggest that the Secretary of State met with people because of their donations to the Clinton Foundation. I can’t imagine a more flawed example.

I am not suggesting any nefarious motives on the part of the AP reporters. But as we see so often in the media, the facts must be paired with a narrative that gives them meaning. It behooves us as consumers of the media to think twice about whether or not the narrative fits ALL of the facts.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.