The Clinton Foundation & the Media: What’s Actually Wrong with this Picture

Imagine a charity that has assisted more than 430 million people, worldwide, in just 10 years. An organization that “literally saved the lives of tens of millions” of people with its work. An agency that, according to Pulitzer Prize winner Politifact, has helped to provide access to low cost medications to some 11 million people with HIV/AIDS.

Now, imagine that charity being ripped apart by the mainstream media, not because of any proven allegations of fraud, mismanagement, dishonesty, or unethical practices, but instead, because that charity happens to have the word “Clinton” in it. Seem far-fetched? It isn’t. If the media has its way, its unfounded and downright irresponsible allegations against the Clinton Foundation may not simply mean that the Foundation has to continually alter its already legal and above-board policies to try to suit the press, but the Foundation may be forced to close its doors altogether. Many media commentators have even suggested such a move, such as Jonathan Chait, who argued that “The Clinton Foundation Must Die,” not because of any actual impropriety, but merely because anything that concerns the Clintons must be “amiss.”

Here’s the thing about Chait and other critics of the “optics” or unspecified allegations about the Clinton Foundation (or Hillary, for that matter) just not looking “quite right” — they are engaged in a very dangerous game, one which could cost millions of people’s lives. As James Carville has explained, if the Clinton Foundation is forced to shut its doors, “A million people are gonna die because we had to prove a point.” And unfortunately, the people who will die or lose access to critical health and educational services are not the people who are throwing stones at the Foundation; those critics are insulated from the damage they are doing, because they consist of people who can afford the luxury of not being affected by the loss of all the good the Foundation does. This, however, makes these criticisms even more irresponsible and reprehensible — when the privileged few make unfounded calls to dismantle a program that benefits millions at the socioeconomic bottom, it is they who are acting unethically, not the people running the Foundation.

For the sake of argument, I’ll analyze specific claims that consist primarily of right-wing attacks and are each without basis in reality. The most general argument which is, not coincidentally, made by Donald Trump, among others, is that the Clinton Foundation has some kind of “conflict of interest” problem. These alleged conflicts are not only unproven, but they have been investigated time and again by the FBI and DOJ and have been found to be groundless. What is interesting about the “conflict of interest” arguments is that, in addition to seeming to be directed primarily (and often solely) at the Clintons and, in particular, Hillary, these arguments rarely, if ever, get made against Republicans. For example, when George W. Bush was President, “members of his family were a part of several foreign boards,” including his father, George H.W. Bush. Bush, Sr. was, moreover, “a member of the Carlyle Group which had Saudi investors including members of the Bin Laden family.” While he was President, Bush, Sr. was running his own “Points of Light Foundation.” And when Senator Bob Dole ran for President, his wife, Elizabeth, was running the Red Cross, at a salary of $200,000 per year.

Generalities, aside, some critics have alleged improprieties based upon specific, though heavily distorted versions of events. For example, Fox News commentator Gerri Willis claimed that Charity Navigator, a so-called charity watchdog organization had “placed the Clinton Foundation on a watch list,” Willis said. “They think there are problems with this nonprofit. They don’t like the way it runs itself. They say the money is not spent wisely.” However, in assessing these claim, FactCheck.org found them to be completely inaccurate, and that Charity Navigator never said anything remotely resembling Willis’s claims. Instead, Charity Navigator explained that they have not condemned the Clinton Foundation; they merely do not rate it because its scope and the way it operates make it difficult to assess under Charity Navigator’s particular metrics. The only reason why Charity Navigator’s metrics do not allow for a rating is because they only evaluate a charity’s performance over time, and since the Clinton Foundation has several initiatives that it brings into its fold (from fighting AIDS to combating global warming) at different times, the type of metrics Charity Navigator would ordinarily use might offer a skewed result.

However, for anyone who is actually interested in how the Clinton Foundation spends its money or how charity watchdogs rate it, they need look no farther than the well-reputed Charity Watch. According to Charity Watch’s analysis, the Foundation has an “A” rating, and 88–89% of its budget is spent directly on charity programs, which is much higher than the industry standard of 75%.

Some critics, such as Carly Fiorina, have alleged that the Clinton Foundation is problematic, but such claims are based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the way in which the Foundation operates. Fiorina argues that very little of the Clinton Foundation’s capital goes to grants, which somehow proves that the organization is corrupt. However, what Fiorina and others either fail to understand or intentionally misrepresent to the public is this — the Clinton Foundation, generally speaking, is not a grant-maker. Instead, it is an actual charity, which means that instead of just giving money away, it does the hard work itself. The Foundation is what is known as an “operating charity,” and criticizing an organization for doing its work directly, instead of hiring it out, is preposterous. If that were a valid criticism, then charities like the Carter Center, Habitat for Humanity, and even the Red Cross would fail to pass Fiorina’s test, because their efforts tend to be done directly, rather than simply in the form of check-writing.

Another criticism of the Foundation deals with, yet again, emails. The media has claimed that emails between certain Clinton aides (namely, Huma Abedin) and some Foundation donors are evidence of some form of collusion or, as Trump put it, a “pay to play” system. Well, first of all, given that Trump is about as dishonest as they come, it’s hard to give credence to any of his claims when it comes to collusion or emails, especially in light of his request in July for the Russians to hack Secretary Clinton’s emails, his own false claims about donating $1 million to veterans, or his refusal to provide any of his tax returns. Contrast that with the Clintons, who have had their emails scrutinized by every major government agency, have donated millions of dollars to the Foundation, have not made a single penny from it, and have provided substantial documentation of both their own tax returns and those of the Foundation.

But what’s perhaps most interesting about the emails is that, again, there’s no smoking gun. As Kevin Drumm explains, “What’s really noteworthy about the most recent email releases is that they demonstrate a surprisingly high level of integrity from Hillary Clinton’s shop at Foggy Bottom. Huma Abedin was tasked with running interference on favor seekers, and she seems to have done exactly that. There’s no evidence at all that being a donor to the Clinton Foundation helped anyone out. So tell me again what the issue is here?”

In each instance of a supposed Clinton Foundation “scandal,” no scandal actually exists. What does occur is that the risks get higher and higher that with a press and conservatives seemingly dedicated to unraveling the Foundation in its entirety, they may just get their wish. The costs of ending the Clinton Foundation wouldn’t be small: over 2,000 people would lose their jobs, and hundreds of millions of people would be negatively impacted, with millions of lives at stake. A Foundation that has helped “turn the tide on the HIV/AIDS pandemic” would be eradicated, and so too, would its future potential.

This is a foundation that does much of its good because the Clinton name is attached to it — a foundation that saved the lives of HIV positive teens and young adults “when no else would.” This is a foundation that is set up almost exactly like the Carter Center, which no one would dare attribute the word “scandal” to. And this is a foundation that is doing work that no one else has signified a willingness or ability to do. Is it any wonder, then, that members of the media who suggest its demise and gleefully whisper “scandal” to one another are the ones who should truly be ashamed? Unless these naysayers wish to use their own names (which are of dubious worldwide cache), time, money, and hard work to serve the most vulnerable populations, they have no business questioning the “optics” or “ethics” of two people who have served the public in ways that are remarkable. And if those critics do not stop and evaluate their claims through a more objective lens, or perhaps even give the Clinton Foundation every benefit of the doubt that Republican-run foundations (Trump’s comes to mind) have received, then they are the ones whose ethics should be questioned — not the Clinton’s.