The Sad Decline of VOX: How a Once-Promising Media Outlet Became a Bastion of Neoliberal Corporatism

Here’s looking at you, Matthew Yglesias

Politics Features Vox
The Sad Decline of VOX: How a Once-Promising Media Outlet Became a Bastion of Neoliberal Corporatism

Back in April, the watchdog group FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting), put out a story about how VOX, known for being run by former Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein, published a “glowing” story by Matthew Yglesias, about Goldman Sachs without disclosing a substantial financial interest it had in the financial giant.

The article, titled, “Why Goldman Sachs just started offering savings accounts for the masses,” included such lines as “What Goldman Sachs has that other online banks don’t is a widely recognized brand name built on excellence in other dimensions of financial services that could help further push internet banking beyond the early adopter demographic.” Though it flew under the radar of the mainstream media, to those paying attention, the piece revealed a disturbing decline for what began in 2014 as a promising new media outlet—a transformation into a source for neoliberal, pro-corporate propaganda disguised as left wing punditry, just two years after its inception.

It is this trend that has made VOX a reliable mouthpiece for Hillary Clinton, who has relied heavily on donations from Wall Street this election—leading her opponent in money from hedge funds as of July of this year. VOX’s headlines over the past year have reinforced whatever narrative the former Secretary of State’s campaign was pushing at that moment, from the idea that she was representing Obama’s third term to the idea that Sanders’ campaign was unraveling—an idea we now know was directly advocated for by high-ranking DNC officials.

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Recently, VOX weighed in on the brewing scandal involving Hillary Clinton’s State Department and its relationship with the Clinton Foundation. Yglesias, who once mockingly tweeted before the Michigan primary “Where did the Sanders campaign get this idea that he can win Michigan?” wrote two articles—“The AP’s big exposé on Hillary meeting with Clinton Foundation donors is a mess” and “The AP’s defense of its bad Clinton Foundation story is also bad”—in which he went after the Associated Press for its report that the majority of Hillary Clinton’s meeting as Secretary of State, were with Clinton Foundation donors.

From the AP’s story:

More than half 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. It’s an extraordinary proportion indicating her possible ethics challenges if elected president.

At least 85 of 154 people from private interests who met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton while she led the State Department donated to her family charity or pledged commitments to its international programs, according to a review of State Department calendars released so far to The Associated Press. Combined, the 85 donors contributed as much as $156 million. At least 40 donated more than $100,000 each, and 20 gave more than $1 million.

The 154 did not include U.S. federal employees or foreign government representatives. Clinton met with representatives of at least 16 foreign governments that donated as much as $170 million to the Clinton charity, but they were not included in AP’s calculations because such meetings would presumably have been part of her diplomatic duties.

In the first piece, Yglesias argues that there is no wrongdoing, while at the same time acknowledging that it does exist, and downplaying it:

The nut fact that the AP uses to lead its coverage is wrong, and Braun and Sullivan’s reporting reveals absolutely no unethical conduct. In fact, they found so little unethical conduct that an enormous amount of space is taken up by a detailed recounting of the time Clinton tried to help a former Nobel Peace Prize winner who’s also the recipient of a Congressional Gold Medal and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Here’s the bottom line: Serving as secretary of state while your husband raises millions of dollars for a charitable foundation that is also a vehicle for your family’s political ambitions really does create a lot of space for potential conflicts of interest. Journalists have, rightly, scrutinized the situation closely. And however many times they take a run at it, they don’t come up with anything more scandalous than the revelation that maybe billionaire philanthropists have an easier time getting the State Department to look into their visa problems than an ordinary person would.

Of course, it is a huge deal for the top U.S. diplomat to continue to have a financial stake in a nonprofit corporation that solicits donations from foreign governments and the wealthy. It is an even bigger deal for that diplomat if those donations bought access to the State Department—regardless of the degree of that access. That is the very essence of corruption.

And that is what we’re dealing with. Money buys access. We’ve known it for a long time. That is why outright bribery is illegal. Studies have already shown how corrupting the influence of money is in our political system (popular will is outweighed by the desires of the elites). Hillary Clinton is human. As such, the idea that she would be above such a fundamentally human failing is cognitive dissonance at its finest.

At this point there is no denying that the relationship between the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton State Department was improper. We now have seen through email releases, just how close the two entities were, with Clinton Foundation officials successfully advocating for Clinton Foundation donors with Department officials. And on top of all that, we know from an International Business Times investigation that Foundation donor nations received weapons sales increases at higher rates than non-donor nations. So with all of this information so widely available, and for so long, all roads lead to Rome.

But Yglesias ignores these realities. He instead focuses on a Tweet by the AP.

The basic allegation here, that the majority of the people Clinton met with as secretary of state were Clinton Foundation donors, is remarkable. And the implication that the investigation that unearthed this striking fact has also revealed “ethics challenges” is important.

In fact, this is the sum total of his argument, that the article itself was not misleading, but the Tweet was, and therefore the AP shirked its journalistic duty to target Clinton in 140 characters or less. The AP’s editor Kathleen Carroll has acknowledged that the Tweet was “sloppy,” but said she stands by it. That’s probably got something to do with the fact that it is not inaccurate: According to the AP’s analysis—which excluded official meetings with government officials—more than half of the people she met with were donors to the Clinton Foundation.

In his second piece, Yglesias proposes his theory of about why the (arguably) most trusted name in news would do such a thing. By way of insinuation, he says that the AP was retaliating for resistance they’d received in trying to procure Clinton’s daily schedules from the State Department:

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.

He also makes an interesting, albeit weak, argument for why the AP was wrong to only count meetings with non-government people:

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…

This is very strange logic. Government officials meet with private citizens all the time as part of their official conduct.

Once again, however, Yglesias disregards a simple reality. Meeting with members of the public is not a typical role for the nation’s top diplomat, in spite of what other government officials’ roles may be. The AP’s report simply confirms that Clinton Foundation donors received special treatment in comparison to non-donors—a point he conceded at the outset of his first article.

He also makes the case that because Clinton’s schedules from the State Department have not been released in their entirety (they will not be until after the election), the AP’s story is premature. But considering that journalists can only report on information available to the public, this a moot point.

The remainder of the piece is a mixture of old debunked lines like “Clinton’s use of a private email account for official communications was in line with precedents set by Bush administration officials,” and appeals to the VOX reader’s assumed anti-Trump bias—the “well Trump did x, y, and z” distraction from Clinton’s flaws as a candidate:

Paul Manafort was apparently receiving off-the-books money from a Kremlin-linked Ukrainian political party.

Yglesias’ articles gained widespread traction, and have even been cited by Media Matters For America. However, the day after the second of his pieces was published, VOX put out a follow-up and backtracked quietly, acknowledging the point I made at the beginning of this piece that what is truly disturbing is the access donations appear to have bought:

The key to understanding why good government advocates are upset about the new revelations is to first get past the argument that Clinton Foundation donors were transactionally rewarded for their gifts.

This is not what my sources argued. Instead, the heart of their complaint was that the foundation’s contributors appear to have gained a greater ability to make their voices heard by Clinton’s State Department by virtue of donating to her husband’s private foundation.

What is happening here is that VOX is circling the wagons around an increasingly embattled Hillary Clinton, but is having a difficult time containing these compounding disasters. Perhaps, on a human level—to quote Yglesias—its editors realize that its success as a left-wing media outlet is tied directly to her future as candidate. That’s because if her brand of neoliberalism fades or falls out of style, they will surely have a difficult time backpedaling from where they stand today.

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