“Knowing” is not knowing

Matthew Yglesias argues that the press can both determine and fuel headlines. The decision to cover or not to cover x may be just as significant as what is written about x.

Yglesias discusses the media’s pass on Colin Powell’s charitable foundation, America’s Promise, which continued while he was Secretary of State and which featured well-heeled donors contributing, perhaps with expectations of benefit.

Well, Powell’s wife, Alma Powell, took it over. And it kept raking in donations from corporate America. Ken Lay, the chair of Enron, was a big donor. He also backed a literacy-related charity that was founded by the then-president’s mother. The US Department of State, at the time Powell was secretary, went to bat for Enron in a dispute the company was having with the Indian government.

Yglesias suggests that the constant barrage of negative press against the Clintons led many to “know” that she must be “corrupt.” Such “knowledge” served as a prism through which Clinton detractors viewed every word and deed of the Clintons.

Because people “know” that she is corrupt, every decision she makes and every relationship she has is cast in the most negative possible light. When she doesn’t allow her policy decisions to be driven by donors, she’s greeted by headlines like “Hillary Blasts For-Profit Colleges, But Bill Took Millions From One.”

The media are not themselves charitable foundations. They’re in business to make money, which is becoming increasingly difficult to do. We should not be surprised, then, that they resort to misleading headlines to attract visitors or that they run hit pieces against public officials. There is a ready-made audience for sensationalization. Yglesias:

It’s natural to assume that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. But the smoke emanating from the Clinton Foundation is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. It is the result of a reasonably well-funded dedicated partisan opposition research campaign, and of editorial decisions by the managers of major news organizations to dedicate resources to running down every possible Clinton email lead in the universe.

Whatever one thinks of that decision, it’s at least appropriate to ask editors and writers to put their findings on these matters into some kind of context for readers’ benefit. To the extent that Clinton is an example of the routinized way in which economic elites exert disproportionate voice in the political process, that’s a story worth telling. But it’s a very different story from a one in which Clinton is a uniquely corrupt specimen operating with wildly unusual financial arrangements and substantive practices.

Much of what we’ve seen over the past 18 months is journalists doing reporting that supports the former story, and then writing leads and headlines that imply the latter. But people deserve to know what’s actually going on.