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The AP’s defense of its bad Clinton Foundation story is also bad

Hillary Clinton Campaigns Across California Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Paul Colford, vice president and director of media relations at the Associated Press, issued a statement Wednesday afternoon defending AP’s reporting on Hillary Clinton’s meetings with Clinton Foundation donors, which has been widely criticized (by me, for example) for some deeply misleading framing.

The AP reported, with much heavy breathing and insinuation, about Clinton holding meetings as secretary of state with people who had also donated money to the Clinton Foundation. It did not, however, appear to uncover anything at all improper resulting from these meetings. And it used to some questionable math to make the meetings seem much more common than they were.

The initial article was bad, and while the defense of the article usefully clarifies a key point, it is also bad.

Colford has no defense of inaccurate social content

Promoting the story in question, the AP made a clear factual claim that a majority of Clinton’s meetings were with Clinton Foundation donors. This is not true, and indeed is not even what the text of the AP story says — not constrained to 140 characters, the full story explains that the math threw all US government officials and foreign government officials out of the denominator.

The AP made a slightly different version of the same inaccurate claim in a social share card associated with the story. Notice here it is directly saying that Clinton only had meetings or phone calls with 154 different people over the course of four years as secretary of state, which is clearly ridiculous.

Neither version of the claim is true. Clinton — as the text of the article itself concedes — met with far more than 154 people during her time as secretary of state, meaning the 85 Clinton Foundation donors in question were a distinct minority of the people she met with.

Colford’s response simply does not address in any way the question of why AP would put out false factual claims on social media.

My guess is that the AP sees social promotion as secondary to and distinct from the core journalistic enterprise in a way that makes it okay to elide key factual points for the sake of enhanced oomph. But many people see the social collateral for stories without clicking through to read the full context. It’s difficult to pack a ton of nuance into a tweet, but it should be easy to avoid straightforwardly false claims.

AP has struggled to get Clinton’s full records

Colford’s response adds some useful context as to why AP journalists feel frustrated with Clinton. They have been trying to report out this story of whom she met with for some time, and the State Department has not been cooperative:

As AP wrote, our reporting was based on Mrs. Clinton’s calendars covering the entirety of her tenure as secretary of state and on more detailed schedules of meetings and phone calls covering roughly half that period. AP first requested Mrs. Clinton’s calendars and schedules in 2010 and again in 2013 but was unsuccessful. AP then sued the State Department in federal court to obtain the schedules it has received so far. AP expects to receive the remaining files before Election Day and will continue to examine them and report on their contents.

On a human level, this makes the prosecutorial tone of AP’s story much more understandable. It is trying to gain access to public records relating to Clinton’s schedule, and it is meeting resistance. It is frustrated by the resistance and naturally feels that it raises the question of what Clinton has to hide. I get it.

That said, frustration with difficulty unearthing factual information doesn’t change the fact that AP’s math appears to be based on incomplete records. And it certainly doesn’t change the fact that its reporting thus far has not, in fact, managed to unearth any misconduct.

It’s possible there is misconduct lurking in the not-yet-released schedules, but the story so far is that AP has looked into this and can’t find the goods. Yet that’s not the story AP wrote.

Colford has a weird explanation for the number of people the AP used

The number from AP’s tweet that a majority of the people Clinton met with as secretary of state were Clinton Foundation donors is derived, as explained in the text of the article, from excluding all officials of US and foreign governments from the denominator. A good guess is that US and foreign government officials were excluded from the denominator in order to make the math seem more shocking.

Colford’s statement, however, offers another reason — meetings with non-government personnel are not part of Clinton’s official duties as secretary of state:

AP has been transparent in how it has reported this story. It focused on Mrs. Clinton’s meetings and calls involving people outside government who were not federal employees or foreign diplomats, because meeting with U.S. or foreign government officials would inherently have been part of her job as secretary of state. We focused on Mrs. Clinton’s meetings and calls involving those people outside her duties as secretary of state whom she chose to include in her busy schedule.

This is very strange logic. Government officials meet with private citizens all the time as part of their official conduct. Indeed, the AP’s own reporting makes this very clear. Clinton, for example, spoke to Muhammad Yunus about his difficulties with the government of Bangladesh and then attempted to help him. She also discussed a public-private partnership related to AIDS education with the head of MAC Cosmetics’ charitable arm. She pretty clearly did both of those things in her capacity as secretary of state.

Indeed, it’s the fact that she was acting in an official capacity that raises the question of conflicts of interest in the first place. If this were just a story about who Hillary Clinton has lunch with in her spare time, it would be totally pointless.

The story is still that there’s no story

Colford rather enigmatically notes that "this reporting was done by the same AP investigative team that discovered Mrs. Clinton’s private email server and traced it to her basement in Chappaqua, New York, and whose reporting last week resulted in the resignation of Donald Trump’s top campaign strategist."

Good for them!

A key thing about those two investigative stories is that they revealed actual examples of misconduct. Clinton’s use of a private email account for official communications was in line with precedents set by Bush administration officials but violated Obama administration directives. Paul Manafort was apparently receiving off-the-books money from a Kremlin-linked Ukrainian political party.

Neither of those stories has a bearing on the legitimacy of this particular story, the result of a very legitimate line of inquiry: Did Clinton do special favors for Clinton Foundation donors?

But having looked into it, the reporters do not seem to have found any special favors. That in and of itself is an interesting conclusion. There has been a lot of discussion around potential conflicts of interest related to the Clinton Foundation, so the absence of any clear evidence of actual misconduct is a useful contribution to our understanding.

The story the AP wrote — full of arbitrary math, sensationalistic tweets, and strange insinuations — is not.

Clinton on attacks, misinformation and approval ratings

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