We still don’t know the outcome of the 2016 election, in which our “democratic process” has produced two candidates widely despised by the American people, but we do know the race’s biggest loser: reporters and the profession of journalism, which has been reduced to surrogacy, largely on behalf of Hillary Clinton.
Before going further, let me state that my own politics are on the left but I won’t be voting in this election. Both parties have collaborated to rig the system so that’s it’s virtually impossible for an independent candidate to compete given the financial and institutional hurdles that have been put in place to block such a possibility. We live in an oligarchy where democracy is virtually meaningless; I’m not debasing myself by participating in this charade.
Several studies rank electoral integrity in the United States as the worst among Western democracies — for example, the one discussed here — and this year’s campaign has made the United States an international embarrassment. I’ve personally witnessed elections in Africa and Latin America that had more legitimacy than the charade that will culminate here next Tuesday. The idea of the United States lecturing foreign countries about holding fair elections has long been dubious and is now grotesque.
We have two unbelievably shitty candidates, neither of whom is fit to lead the country. Donald Trump is a reckless narcissist who, as his debate performances indicated, cannot string together more than two sentences, let alone articulate a coherent vision for the country’s future. His remarks about women, Latinos and African-Americans are reprehensible and, whether he believes his own statements or is merely trying to stir up anger for his electoral benefit, have emboldened people who hold retrograde and genuinely scary views.
Then there is Hillary Clinton, who has been in public life for decades and who grows more and more unpopular upon exposure —and for good reason. Whatever one thinks of the so-called “Servergate” scandal —and I personally find it troubling that she put classified information on a private server that was almost certainly obtained by foreign intelligence services — she stonewalled and lied to the FBI during its investigation, which has now been reopened. She and her family run a foundation that aggressively solicited donations from corporations, wealthy individuals and foreign governments that have interests before the government, and in some cases Clinton, as secretary of state, took actions that can only be seen as quid pro quo for big donors. These facts alone should disqualify her from political life and make her the legitimate target of criminal investigations.
After the FBI reopened its investigation, John Kass, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, cogently wrote in an opinion piece titled “Democrats should ask Clinton to step aside”:
Think of a nation suffering a bad economy and continuing chaos in the Middle East, and now also facing a criminal investigation of a president. Add to that congressional investigations and a public vision of Clinton as a Nixonian figure wandering the halls, wringing her hands. The best thing would be for Democrats to ask her to step down now. It would be the most responsible thing to do, if the nation were more important to them than power. And the American news media — fairly or not firmly identified in the public mind as Mrs. Clinton’s political action committee — should begin demanding it.
Don’t bet on the best happening. It appears there may be a few late Democratic defectors but Clinton is surrounded by a core group of amoral supporters who, like her and her husband, lie without remorse or shame and with such conviction that it appears they don’t know the difference between fact and fiction. The truth is utterly irrelevant to the Clinton crowd, as are the issues. All that matters is winning — as seen in their rigging of the DNC to ensure Hillary’s nomination — and their continued ability to exploit public office for private gain.
It’s even less likely that the media, especially major outlets and Washington political reporters who have all but openly worked on Clinton’s behalf, will rethink their roles. This election has exposed as never before that there is indeed a media elite, bound together by class and geography, that is utterly clueless about its own biases and filters. A vast number of journalists covering the presidential campaign are economically privileged brats that seem blissfully unaware that for most Americans, the economy is in recession and people are terrified.
If you don’t understand that, you can’t understand Trump. That an addled, reckless, dangerous billionaire is the last electoral hope to tens of millions of Americans may be a sad reflection of the complete breakdown of our political system, but it doesn’t make Trump’s appeal to a significant chunk of the electorate illegitimate nor does it make all of his supporters irrational morons and racists, as one gathers from news accounts and liberal pundits.
The destruction of the industrial heartland due to Democratic-driven trade policies, shrinking salaries that force many Americans to work two and three jobs to support their families, the staggering rise in health care costs under Obamacare, widespread economic insecurity that has fueled a national opioid epidemic, and Hillary’s trigger-happy views are highly rational reasons for any voter to consider casting a ballot for Trump. So, too, are fears that Clinton’s election would lead to an entrenchment of institutionalized corruption and corporate political power. (If Hillary wins and Chuck Schumer takes over as Senate Majority Leader, Wall Street will get its every dream through Congress.)
There’s nothing secret about the media’s anti-Trump stance. A formal declaration of war was launched on August 7, when Jim Rutenberg, the New York Times media columnist, wrote a story under the headline, “Trump Is Testing the Norms of Objectivity in Journalism.” Rutenberg wrote that journalists were in a terrible bind trying to stay objective because Trump, among other things, “cozies up to anti-American dictators,” has “put financial conditions on the United States defense of NATO allies,” and that his foreign policy views “break with decades-old …consensus.”
Rutenberg made clear that he and other reporters viewed “a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous,” which required them to report on him with a particularly critical point of view. This, he said, would make journalists “move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional,” which would be “uncomfortable and uncharted territory.”
There are so many things wrong with all this that it’s hard to know where to start. Rutenberg’s comment about dictators was clearly a reference to Vladimir Putin, who is an authoritarian leader who Trump, to his shame, admires. However, Russia is not the world’s worst dictatorship — and has been far more effective at fighting ISIS than the Obama administration — and Hillary’s cordial relationship with the Saudi regime, to cite just one example, seems far more dangerous. But rethinking “the alliances that have guided our foreign policy for 60 years” — the alliances that have resulted in non-stop war since 9/11 and the U.S.’s current involvement in seven overseas conflicts — is not an acceptable position for a presidential candidate in Rutenberg’s view.
Furthermore, how is it that the media has derogated to itself the right to decide what candidates deserve special scrutiny and what policies are acceptable? In a democracy, that is supposed to be the voters’ job.
And worst of all is Rutenberg’s statement about the role of journalists. “All governments are run by liars and nothing they say should be believed,” I.F. Stone once wrote. “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations,” said George Orwell. For those two self-evident reasons, being “oppositional” is the only place political journalists should ever be, no matter who is in power or who is campaigning.
But for Rutenberg and the New York Times being oppositional is only “uncomfortable” when it comes to covering Hillary Clinton. It didn’t seem uncomfortable at all when it came to running a story about Trump’s taxes based on three pages of a decades-old tax return that was sent anonymously or when it ran another story with the headline, “The 282 People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter: A Complete List.”
All during the campaign we have watched Hillary Clinton rehearse campaign themes and, almost as if by magic, the media amplifying those themes in seeming lockstep. The hacked emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta have demonstrated that this was not mere happenstance, but, at least in part, resulted from direct coordination between the Clintonistas and the press.
Mark Leibovich of the Times magazine gave the Clinton campaign significant input and review into a fawning profile of the candidate. “Pleasure doing business!” campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri wrote him at the conclusion of the process.
The Clintonistas had an equally pleasurable relationship with the Times’s Maggie Haberman, who, it was said in one email, “We have had… tee up stories for us before and have never been disappointed.” Haberman even apparently read Palmieri an entire story prior to publication “to further assure me,” Palmieri wrote.
Ezra Klein, the boy wonder editor-in-chief of Vox, is considered to be the campaign’s most reliable mouthpiece, as seen in a March 23, 2015 email in which Clintonistas were wondering which journalist it could call upon to push out a campaign storyline they were then concocting. “I think that person…is Ezra Klein,” wrote Palmieri. “And we can do it with him today.”
In a July email, Neera Tanden, Hillary’s longtime friend, aide, and attack puppet, strategized with Podesta about “recruiting brown and women pundits” and pushing pro-Hillary media figures such as MSNBC’s Joan Walsh and Klein’s colleague at Vox, Matthew Yglesias, to be even more faithful stenographers. “They can be emboldened,” she wrote, as if these two loyalist PR assets needed any further encouragement.
In the same email, Tanden wrote that when New York mayor Michael Bloomberg was “having problems” with the Times he called publisher Arthur Schulzburger [sic] to arrange a coffee to complain about the newspaper’s reporting and that their chat “changed the coverage moderately but also aired the issues in the newsroom so people were more conscious of it.” Unfortunately, she added, “Arthur is a pretty big wuss” so he wouldn’t do more to help out Bloomberg without additional prodding.
To get real results to change the Times’s coverage of the 2016 campaign, “Hillary would have to be the one to call” Sulzberger — a rather astonishing remark that begs a million questions about the Times’ election reporting.
Politico reporter Glenn Thrush apologized to Podesta for writing a story draft that he feared was too critical. “I have become a hack I will send u the whole section that pertains to u,” he wrote. “Please don’t share or tell anyone I did this Tell me if I fucked up anything.” On bended knee would have been more dignified.
Trump’s threats to expand libel laws and to sue journalists are genuinely scary, but Hillary displays similar contempt for journalists. In September, she gave her first formal press conference in more than nine months — virtually this entire presidential campaign. And as the Podesta emails show, the Clintonistas happily work hand in glove with pliant surrogates but operate in quite a different, and dishonest, way with critics.
Which leads me to my own recent experience writing about the Clinton Foundation’s abysmal programs in Colombia, where it has worked closely with Frank Giustra, reportedly the foundation’s largest donor. Giustra, a Canadian stock market manipulator who was known as the “Poison Dwarf” because of his tiny stature — he’s a little north of 5 feet— and tendency to make tons of money at the expense of small investors, invested heavily in Colombia in oil, gold, and timber. He made a fortune while companies he was affiliated with ruthlessly exploited workers and reportedly raped and pillaged the environment.
The Clinton-Giustra partnership had been written about but no U.S. journalists had traveled to Colombia to see what the Foundation has done there. In fact, with few exceptions, the Clinton Foundation’s claims about the good it has done overseas have been unexamined.
I spent 10 days in Colombia last May and spoke to unionists, workers, environmentalists, Afro-Colombians and entrepreneurs — exactly the people who the foundation brags about helping on its website— as well as three left-leaning senators who champion the poor. They were overwhelmingly negative, and in many cases disparaging, about the Clinton Foundation and Giustra, who was deeply involved with an oil company, Pacific Rubiales, that recently went spectacularly bankrupt and which worked with the Army to smash a strike after workers revolted over miserable pay and working conditions.
Bill Clinton had a friendly relationship with Pacific Rubiales too, and in 2012 the two men golfed together at a charitable event for the foundation sponsored by the oil company. Colombia’s president, whose niece got a plush job as “Sustainability Manager” for Pacific Rubiales, golfed with Bill.
I had wanted to write the Colombia story for months but, as is often the case in journalism today, couldn’t find a media outlet to pay for the trip. A friend steered me to the American Media Institute (AMI), a conservative non-profit, which funded the trip.
AMI arranged for the story to run in Politico, but it killed an early version. I then pitched it to Fusion, which ran it on October 13. It immediately generated a furious reaction from the Clinton camp, starting off with a series of tweets by Angel Urena, Bill Clinton’s spokesman. Then the Foundation tried to get Fusion to take the story off its website.
On October 14, Craig Minassian, a Clinton Foundation spokesman, sent a 14-page letter to Fusion, CC-ing foundation officials, Urena and Mark Gunton of the Clinton-Giustra Enterprise Partnership. The first few pages attacked me, citing past articles about the Clinton Foundation and a series of “vulgar” tweets I’d posted about Hillary Clinton and her supporters, including Clinton’s long-time surrogate Joe Conason, author of Man of the World, a rapturous book about Bill Clinton’s post-presidency. (Conason is also former executive editor of the Observer.)
It also complained about factual errors and cited the funding from AMI as being evidence that the story was a right wing plot. In fact, I set up the trip with the help of fixer in Colombia, picked people to interview, and there was no political intrusion into the story. Ironically, a conservative non-profit paid for a piece that defended unions, the poor, women, and Afro-Colombians.
Mostly the dossier contained unverifiable Clinton Foundation propaganda and references to positive press stories about the foundation, like one in pro-Hillary Vox titled “The key question on the Clinton Foundation is whether it saved lives. The answer is clearly yes.” A central component of the foundation’s attack — which Urena played heavily on his Twitter feed —was that I had never attempted to reach the Clinton Foundation or campaign for comment.
Furthermore, I had “misled” the Foundation in the past so “we have every reason to be suspicious of his intentions and doubt he would give our facts a fair hearing,” he wrote. “Other news organizations have handled this material differently, always checking with us prior to publication, giving us an opportunity to respond.” (Giving us the opportunity to edit and approve, is what he should have written.) In the end, Fusion updated the story and posted an editorial note saying that it had not met its standards.
OK, let me acknowledge my mistakes and provide a little further information. First off, the Fusion story did contain a number of errors. My name is on the story so I have to take responsibility.
Fine. None of the mistakes was intentional and I spent endless hours prior to publication trying to ensure everything was accurate. There is nothing more embarrassing as a journalist than having to make corrections. I screwed up. But I stand by the story’s on-the-ground reporting from Colombia and the conclusions about the Clinton Foundation’s meager results there.
Second, of course I’m biased against the Clinton Foundation and the Clintons, on the basis of evidence and reporting. I’ve never bothered to hide my feelings, in public, on social media, or in my articles, because I believe that all reporters are biased and readers are smart enough to know that, and that the pretense of objectivity is itself dishonest. What makes a journalist honest is holding all sides to the same standard of criticism, no matter what your own views.
I’m equally biased against Donald Trump and have written a number of critical articles about him and described him in equally vulgar and unflattering terms. The only reasons I haven’t written about Trump more is that I had pitches about him turned down — including one about his revolting comments about women, which I shopped around unsuccessfully last spring during the GOP primaries — and because I believed (and still do) that Hillary Clinton is likely to be elected president, which makes her a bigger target.
Third, and most important, I repeatedly sought comment from the Clinton Foundation. This may seem like a minor matter but the fact that the foundation lied about that shows that it not only seeks out well-trained pet reporters as surrogates, but keeps tabs on and actively seeks to undermine its “enemies.”
In August, when the piece was at Politico, I sent a detailed email to the foundation, to Hillary’s campaign and to the CGEP seeking comment. There was nothing coy about it. I wrote, in part:
I’m currently writing a piece about the foundations’ activities in Colombia, where I recently spent 10 days, and interviewed dozens of people…I truly want to hear your side of this story, which thus far appears to be utterly appalling. While the Foundation and presidential candidate Hilary Clinton have effusively and repeatedly expressed their concerns for the poor and organized labor — and in Colombia specifically mention a deep concern for Afro-Colombians — I found no evidence of that on the ground.
Unionists, Afro-Colombians, elected officials and impoverished people in the slums of Bogota and Cartagena are unanimous: the Clinton Foundation…has played no role at all in helping Colombia’s poor or even worse, it has played a negative role.
I’ve tried unsuccessfully to get comment from you in the past about other stories but wanted to reach out once again in the hopes that you might be able to reply to some simple straightforward questions.
In fact, this was the fifth time in the past year that I wrote about the foundation and it only replied once, prior to publication of the first story. Furthermore, I sought comment at the Clinton Foundation in Colombia and at several of its projects in Bogota and Cartagena, and no one could talk to me or provide even minimal information. (For example, why does the Clinton Foundation run a private equity fund out of its Bogota office? What does that have to do with its charitable efforts?)
Should I have reached out to the foundation again after the story moved to Fusion? Perhaps, but another reporter who had been working on the Colombia story had attempted to get comment from the foundation and received no reply. The foundation (and the Clinton campaign) was given ample opportunity to reply and chose not to. I have a strong suspicion that if Thrush or Klein or Haberman or one of its other pet journalists had asked for comment they would have had no problem.
The 2016 election has exposed like nothing in modern times the desperate need for political reform in this country. That two candidates of such low stature are all we have is an indictment of the system, not the poor voters who are stuck with such dismal choices.
But we also desperately need a better media, because in this election Trump’s voters were not understood and issues he espoused were treated as reckless even in cases where many Americans — in fact most — probably agree with him.
Again, I find both of the major candidates repellent and would never vote for either. Most of my friends and family are voting for Hillary (in despair), and I respect that; I have no intention of losing friendships over this election because of the way someone votes.
But you don’t have to be crazy to vote for Trump. The best reason I’ve seen was recently offered by Camille Paglia, who said, “People want change and they’re sick of the establishment…[I]f Trump wins it will be an amazing moment of change because it would destroy the power structure of the Republican party, the power structure of the Democratic party and destroy the power of the media.”
If she’s correct, that indeed would be the very best outcome of this sad, sad election.
Ken Silverstein is a Washington-based investigative reporter and editor of the site WashingtonBabylon.com. He has written for Harpers, the LA Times, and VICE.