AP's 'Big Story' on Clinton Foundation is big failure

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Story highlights

  • Raul Reyes: AP story implied Clinton gave more access to those who donated to Clinton Foundation
  • He says report was disservice to readership, which expects impartiality and accuracy

Raul A. Reyes, an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors, writes frequently for CNN Opinion. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The Associated Press last week released the results of an analysis of donors to the Clinton Foundation. Coming just 72 days before Election Day, it seemed to hold bombshell potential, or at least to present another complicated ethical issue for Clinton to explain.

"More than half of 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," its first sentence reads.
    The AP found that 85 out of 154 people from private interests who met with Clinton also gave money to the Clinton Foundation.
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    According to AP reporters Stephen Braun and Eileen Sullivan, these donors constituted an "extraordinary proportion" of the larger group of donors, one that suggests Clinton's "possible ethics challenges if elected president."
    The AP report sounds bad for Clinton, right? Not so fast. The problem is that the AP presented facts out of context and somehow built a whole report around Clinton having done nothing wrong. Although the AP is one of the most respected news organizations in the world, this "Big Story" does not live up to its usual high standards.
    To understand why the AP's supposed exposé is "a mess," as Vox termed it, start with its fundamental premise. The AP makes it sound as though the majority of people that Clinton met with -- during the two years that the AP reporters analyzed her calendar -- were Clinton Foundation donors. The facts are more complicated.
    The key phrase to consider in the AP's analysis is that it excludes "people outside of the government." That means the AP numbers do not include military personnel, US government officials, diplomats, White House staff, foreign leaders and State Department officials. These are all the kinds of people that any secretary of state would normally meet in the course of doing his or her job. If we factored in all these people, the number of people that Clinton met with who were also donors would be nowhere near half.
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    Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon rightfully noted that the AP story left out the 1,700 meetings Clinton had with foreign leaders while she was secretary of state. Using this larger number as a measuring tool, the 85 donors who received access to Clinton works out to about 5% of her meetings. Alternatively, if we consider the 85 donors who received a meeting or a phone call with Clinton out of the more than 6,000 Clinton Foundation donors, the percentage of donors to access becomes even smaller
    The AP judged the ratio of donors who met with Clinton and donated to the foundation (85 out of 154) to be "extraordinary" without explaining why that was extraordinary. Compared to what? Hillary Clinton's running for president while her husband chairs a global initiative is a highly unusual situation -- indeed, one without precedent. For the AP to label its donor/meeting ratio "extraordinary" seems a term that belongs in an op-ed, not a news story.
    Still, on social media the AP tweeted out the headline, "More than half those who met Clinton as Cabinet secretary gave money to Clinton Foundation." This tweet garnered more than 5,000 likes and more than 7,000 retweets.
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    What is troubling here, in addition to the misleading headline, is the finding of a Columbia University study that 59% of people retweet news without reading it. So the AP is disseminating a story on social channels that do not hold the full text up to closer scrutiny. It's just a misleading headline. Not cool.
    In its story, the AP cites Muhammad Yunus, who met with Clinton three times and talked with her by phone as well. Yunus is a Bangladeshi economist who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for championing "micro-loans" for the poor. The AP mentioned Yunus because American affiliates of his nonprofit Bangladesh bank contributed to the Clinton Foundation, as did Yunus' research firm.
    But Yunus is far from a shady figure seeking some type of illegal "pay to play" access. He sits on the UN Foundation Board and has received numerous international awards and honors. He reached out to Clinton because the Bangladeshi government was going after him as a perceived political threat, a situation that also merited the concern of then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry.
    The AP did not mention that Clinton and Yunus have known each other for 30 years, going back to when Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas and wanted to learn about micro-finance projects. It makes sense that Hillary Clinton would be in touch with man whose charitable interests overlap with her, and with whom she has a longstanding relationship.
    The AP goes on to note that Clinton met with other donors, with the head of an AIDS charity and with the president of the Kennedy Center. The key takeaway is that, in all of these cases, there are no allegations of illegal conduct. There is no evidence of impropriety. None.
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    Instead, the AP story relies on the notion, popular on the right, that the Clintons are presumed to be guilty of possible ethical violations. In fact, the most concrete allegation the reporters come up with against Clinton is the she may have helped a wealthy businessman with a visa. That's it. It's hard to see how this qualifies as an exposé or breaking news.
    True, Clinton did meet with 85 individuals who gave to the Clinton Foundation, and maybe the overlap of her influence and position might justify shutting down the foundation in the future. That does not warrant the AP report writing darkly, "(T)he frequency of the overlaps shows the intermingling of access and donations, and fuels perceptions that giving the foundation money was a price of admission for face time with Clinton."
    The AP is itself fueling such "perceptions" with its flawed reportage. No wonder that Donald Trump has already taken to making the false claim that "it looks like it's 50% of the people that saw her (Clinton) had to make contributions to the Clinton Foundation."
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    Appearing Sunday on CNN, AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll seemed to attempt to play down the significance of the report, saying, "We didn't say it (the report's findings) amounted to the end of the world." That's setting an awfully low bar. Defending the controversial tweet, Carroll said that the AP "is a lot better at breaking news and covering stories and taking photographs" than tweeting.
    If that's the case, then maybe the AP should be more particularly conscientious about tweeting, although the idea of a media company not recognizing the importance of social media is not convincing. Beyond that, Carroll said she did not regret the tweet despite calling it "sloppy." Her lack of concern for the AP's usually meticulous accuracy is troubling.
    The report on the Clinton Foundation was a disservice to the AP's vast readership, which expects impartial, sound analysis from the organization. Sadly, it was also a disservice to the foundation's good works and to voters.