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In Media Coverage of Clintons, Anonymous Gossip and Fact-Free Cynicism Still Rule

A Commentary by Joe Conason

Friday, September 27, 2013

For the American media -- and especially for "the liberal media" -- even the possibility of a Hillary Clinton presidential nomination, however distant, seems to invite a reversion to bad old habits. During the presidency of Hillary's husband, all too many Washington journalists lived by "the Clinton rules," which meant applying the most cynical interpretation to everything Bill and Hillary Clinton (and anybody associated with them) did or had ever done.

The resulting distortion of journalistic standards and political discourse did real damage to the country and wasted precious years on the worthless investigations that led up to Clinton's impeachment. Both he and Hillary not only survived but ultimately rose above the calumniations. And many of the people who once sought to ruin them, including big names in the mainstream media, now cultivate the popular, powerful Clintons assiduously. Just glance at the list of participants in the Clinton Global Initiative's annual conference, on stage this week in New York City.

Indeed, for anyone who attends CGI, the combination of commitment and celebrity that surrounds the Clintons -- including daughter Chelsea, who helps to run their family foundation - is palpable. Today the annual conference and all of its offshoots are so well established that nobody is surprised to see top corporate CEOs and political figures from around the world mingle and network with nonprofit and foundation executives, all in pursuit of innovative solutions to the world's most pressing problems. Nobody is surprised to see Christine LaGarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, talking women's empowerment with U2's Bono and a courageous Pakistani feminist activist named Khalida Brohi. And perhaps nobody is even surprised to see President Barack Obama sit down for an extended chat with Bill Clinton as they launched his administration's campaign for health insurance enrollment under the Affordable Care Act.

Yet while the excitement surrounding CGI results in deserved attention to the actual work of the Clinton Foundation every year, the media's actual interest in all those uplifting stories is quite limited. And as the Hillary candidacy looms ever larger, a reversion to mean-spirited gossip, trivia, and unfounded suspicion can already be detected.

Consider the latest edition of The New Republic, whose usually astute editors chose the opening day of CGI to publish a long, dubious profile of Douglas Band -- the former Clinton counselor who conceived the global initiative in 2004 and then spent years building it up (along with myriad other responsibilities to the former president and the foundation). Over the past few years, Band has moved on to create a successful global business that consults with corporations, some of which are connected with Clinton in one way or another.

This is a dog-bites-man story, about someone who eventually did well by doing good. Much of the article was innocuous, much was repetitive of earlier profiles, and much was familiar cliche. But the Clinton rules require something more sinister -- in this instance, a "Scandal at Clinton Inc." headline that the story utterly fails to support.

Like The New York Times article that purported to "expose" troubles in the Clinton Foundation last summer, the New Republic claims to reveal scandalizing conflicts of interest where none exist.

Typically, the Clinton rules provide a full exemption from traditional standards of fairness -- and this specimen, based almost wholly on anonymous quotes, is no exception. Mistakes abound, from the assertion that the former president has no credit card (he does) to the claim that Band sought an elite American Express black card (his AmEx card is plain old green).  More troubling insinuations, such as the notion that Band profited personally from Clinton's speeches, are equally wrong.

The article seeks to damage Band by suggesting that his consulting business was built on his supposedly waning "access" to Clinton. But that underestimates both Band -- whom the former president praised unreservedly during interviews this week -- and his continuing relationship with the Clintons. He is among the foundation's directors, sitting on three of its boards, speaks with the former president regularly, and was much in evidence at CGI, sporting the lapel badge that grants access to every venue there. He will emerge unscathed from this "scandal."

When President Clinton opened CGI on Monday, he spoke movingly about a Dutch nurse and her architect husband whom he had met last summer while she was working for the Clinton Health Access Initiative in Africa. Terrorists murdered both of them in the Nairobi mall massacre, just weeks before she was to deliver her first baby. The work of everyone at CGI, he said, must stand as a "rebuke" to the perpetrators of such atrocities. It is also a rebuke to those who promote anonymous backbiting and defamatory gossip over journalism that might matter.

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