Here’s another slightly edited dispatch from my ongoing off-social-media conversation with some political reporters on the obvious implicit bias I see in coverage of Clinton vs. Trump. The reporters I’ve engaged publicly and privately don’t see it that way — and they are, I firmly believe, sincere and honest in that belief. So the task, as I see it, is to build the argument story by story and (as possible) in analysis of the sum of coverage, that they’re wrong, and to do so in a way that honest and expert reporters can read, analyze, and, I hope, become persuaded by.
What caught my eye today was this article in the Washington Post, “Inside Bill Clinton’s nearly $18 million job as ‘Honorary Chancellor’ of a for-profit university,” by Rosalind S. Hellerman and Michelle Ye Hee Lee. That story has received professional praise as a well reported deep dive — and it is! Really.
By that I mean: it is definitely a long (2604 words) and detailed dissection of Bill Clinton’s involvement with Laureate University, a major international for profit higher-ed company. The reporters play fair by the rules of the craft: they show their work, and a reader can see where each individual fact comes from.
But does that make it a good story, an honest one, or one that within the larger story — that of the 2016 presidential election — meets basic standards of journalism as it serves readers interests?
Not at all.
That’s what I argued below in my note to one of my correspondents. Here, the point is that the elite political press — like any group of people working on the same stuff in substantial isolation from the outside world — has its own professional criteria for excellence. They’ve got a value system and an expectation or understanding of what represents good work or bad. They’re not all wrong in that.
But as far as I can see from the outside, theirs is a bunker-dwelling, mostly technical standard: well reported = good, for example. I don’t think that there is a conspiracy at the Times or the Post, or CNN or what have you simply to shiv the Clintons.
But what I think outside the bunker (and please do recall: a presidential campaign is a mind-and-body deranging experience; these folks really are working without access to a lot of the reality checks that could help) those of us who are looking at the coverage both closely and synoptically see the problem not as one of reporting, but of coverage.
That is, what matters is the way stories are assigned, framed, their narratives interpreted within each piece, how they’re edited and placed (2604 words!) affects the overall message readers and the electorate as a whole receive.
Thus, the ongoing and increasingly inexplicable failure of The New York Times to engage what should be a burgeoning Trump bribery scandal with state attorneys general and Trump U. Thus all the stories on the Clinton foundation which (a) failed to show what was implied and (b) omitted crucial context, like the Bush Foundation headed by a Powell. And thus today’s story, in which two good reporters distill what had to have been a substantial amount of work that taken all-in-all demonstrates that Bill Clinton made a lot of money while there was, in the words of the story itself, “no evidence that Laureate received special favors from the State Department in direct exchange for hiring Bill Clinton…”
What there was, instead, was a reason to ask whether or not such special favors might have taken place. The answer was no.
There the story should have ended. But because this was the Clintons, and this is the elite political press, it was impossible to accept that answer. Hence what is a type specimen for how the press is getting this election wrong — with potentially disastrous consequences.
With that as prologue (I know…logorrhea…), my breakdown of the piece for my journalist-contact. We began by marveling at the size of Bill’s fee — which truly is pretty astonishing:
I agree with you on the sum, though from where I sit, with my full time job in higher education (and a professor’s kid, and w. two professor-siblings and, and, and…) what bothers me most about that clearly outsize wage is that it is less of an outlier than it should be. As I’m sure you know, top academic positions at a lot of places are now paid at seven figure levels. A million or so/year as a college president is different from $3.6 million/year as an honorary chairman, certainly. But it’s also true (and a scandal) that higher ed, both non and for profit has headed down the same path for CEO and senior management compensation that large businesses have. That’s troubling.
But what got me about the story was the contrast between the reporting craft you rightly recognize: meticulous, detailed pursuit of both individual incidents and the financial details…and the lack of any substance to the clear thrust of the story: that this was another example of soft corruption in the Clinton family. You look at the lede and it clearly asserts a pay-off. Clinton invites someone to a working dinner who is an FOB, who later hires Bill for lots of money.