It was just a tweet. A single post on Twitter. No one at The Associated Press has said this yet, but you can imagine them thinking it. The tweet in question, however, touched off a firestorm of controversy around the news wire’s story on the Clinton Foundation to the point where it has actually undermined the story itself.
It looked like a garden-variety promotional tweet, designed to attract attention to the AP’s big investigation into allegations of conflict of interest on the part of the Democratic presidential candidate. But by trying too hard to drum up interest in the piece, the wire service made itself the target instead.
The post made a significant, and startling, claim. Namely, that “more than half those who met Clinton as Cabinet secretary gave money to Clinton Foundation.” Surely this was compelling evidence of a conflict.
As sharp-eyed reporters for competing news outlets noted within minutes of the tweet and article being posted, however, this statistic was only true if you ignored the thousands of government officials, dignitaries, and so on that Clinton met in her capacity as Secretary of State.
As Matthew Yglesias at Vox pointed out, “the stark fact highlighted in the AP’s tweet and social share card is, for starters, totally false.” In order to come up with its blockbuster figure—that 85 out of the 154 people Clinton met with eventually donated to the Clinton Foundation—the AP “excluded from the denominator all employees of any government, whether U.S. or foreign.”
There are other problems within the Associated Press story, including the fact that it attempts to make Clinton look bad for meeting with people like Mohammed Yunus, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who pioneered the concept of micro-lending to help underdeveloped nations.
But even the justifiable questions in the piece were arguably overshadowed by the misleading, clickbait-style nature of the AP’s promo (which Republican candidate Donald Trump was happy to spread). It didn’t help when the wire service refused to respond to criticism of the tweet, including a request from the Clinton campaign that it be amended or deleted.
The only response from AP was to release a statement saying 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.”
The problem is that there are probably a number of significant questions and concerns that ought to be raised about the Clinton family and its foundation, and the relationship between it and the former Secretary of State, who may soon become president of the United States.
But pumping up a sketchy statistic to try and drum up interest in that idea actually defeats the purpose because it makes the AP look desperate, and that in turn provides even more fodder to those who might want to cast doubt on the report’s conclusions.