OBSESSIONS AUGUST 20, 2013
If I say “Bill Clinton” and “Kazakhstan,” does that ring a bell? In various conversations about the Clintons over the past months—this is actually what political journalists do, constantly, is talk about the Clintons—I’ve mentioned “Bill Clinton” and “Kazakhstan” and provoked surprisingly little clanging.
So here’s an extremely quick and oversimplified refresher of the story connecting Bill Clinton and Kazakhstan that appeared on the front page of the January 31, 2008 edition of The New York Times. In 2005, Clinton visited the Central Asian former Soviet republic with a Canadian mining financier, where they were hosted by the repulsive dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev. Clinton spoke well of Nazarbayev in a way that, in the words of reporters Jo Becker and Don Van Natta Jr., “undercut both American foreign policy and sharp criticism of Kazakhstan’s poor human rights record by, among others, Mr. Clinton’s wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.” Then, soon after, the mining guy won massive uranium contracts from Kazakhstan. And soon after that, Clinton’s charity received more than $31 million from the mining guy, which was kept secret for nearly three years, in addition to a much more prominent $100 million donation. Clinton and the mining guy denied a quid pro quo. But there is no denying the several quids and quos.
The point is that, as Politico’s Maggie Haberman was today only the latest to note, the Clintons have a habit of making news—so much news that it is actually hard sometimes to keep track of it all.
Which is why it seemed wise when New York Times politics editor Carolyn Ryan announced last month that reporter Amy Chozick would be assigned to cover Hillary Clinton and the Clintons. Why not? They are by far the most newsworthy family in American politics not currently in formal office—and therefore not covered, by default, by one of the politics section’s ordinary beats. Even if you think Clinton unlikely to run for president in 2016 (and that would put you in the minority), the fact that she would be just short of a shoo-in for the nomination means she is the most likely nominee. Her husband is the former president who has continued—through his charity, through visiting North Korea, through campaigning for his wife, and through being Bill frickin’ Clinton—to be a newsworthy figure. And Hillary Clinton is a former senator from New York, which happens to be the same state in which the Times is based. Already the assignment has bore fruit; Anthony Weiner’s spectacular blow-up and the involvment therein of his wife, top Clinton hand Huma Abedin, was helpful here. Could Chozick have held off reporting on the Clintons’ Hampton digs? Probably. But the basic rationale for this beat seems unimpeachable.
David Brock, officially the head of the liberal media watchdog Media Matters for America but unofficially, apparently, a Clinton flack, disagrees. He attacked the Times Tuesday in an open letter, writing that recent articles “raise the question of whether what we are seeing is an anti-Clinton institutional bias.” A whole Clintons beat? He thinks the Gray Lady doth protest too much.
I’ll leave the armchair psychoanalysis of Brock, whose high-profile switch from right to left began with an unexpectedly favorable 1996 biography of Hillary Clinton, to others. Suffice to say that his letter is rather hackish, and not infrequently just plain wrong. Chozick and Nick Confessore’s report last week on “‘unease’ over finances and management” at the Clintons’ foundation was not “evidence-free,” as Brock charges, but chockful of evidence, which Brock confirms by proceeding to repeat the foundation’s own pushback (which Chozick herself reported on). Public editor Margaret Sullivan’s exploration of Chozick’s beat—which was cautiously supportive—was not, as Brock claims, commissioned by politics editor Carolyn Ryan, which I know because Ryan is not allowed to edit Sullivan. “The public editor”—it’s the Times’ fancy word for “ombudsman”—“works outside of the reporting and editing structure of the newspaper,” the Times states, on a page it took me five seconds to Google. (I also confirmed with a Times spokesperson—as Brock also could have done!—that the public editor answers to publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.) Brock accuses Maureen Dowd for unfairly attacking the Clintons, which, in fairness, is how she won her Pulitzer. But while I suppose that could be part of “institutional bias,” it is probably worth it for a self-proclaimed media expert (!) to parse the distinction between the news section, where Chozick works, and the opinion section, where Dowd does. As for Brock’s notion that writing about Clinton as a 2016 presidential candidate is “purely speculative,” the best rebuttal is a hearty: “Dude. C’mon.”
Brock has built Media Matters into a highly effective and useful watchdog for conservative media bias. But the organization has also been tainted by bizarre, seemingly personal stands: Earier this year, for instance, it disseminated pro-administration talking points after we learned that the Department of Justice had tapped the phones of some Associated Press reporters, and then asserted that it was not Media Matters but rather some Media Matters offshoot nobody had ever heard of who had actually sent out the talking points. If Brock cannot stay reasonable when his sacred cows (apparently, Obama and the Clintons) are attacked, then he should cede stewardship of his organization to somebody who can.
As for the Clintons, if they are resentful of the Times, then they should take revenge in the way that would hurt the Times the most: Stop making news.