In the heat of a presidential campaign, you'd think that a story about one party's nominee giving a large contribution to a state attorney-general who promptly shut down an inquiry into that nominee's scam "university" would be enormous news.
But we continue to hear almost nothing about what happened between Donald Trump and Florida Attorney-General Pam Bondi.
I raised this issue last week, but it's worth an update as well as some contextualisation. The story re-emerged last week when the Washington Post's David Fahrenthold reported that Trump paid a penalty to the IRS after his foundation made an illegal contribution to Bondi's PAC.
While the Trump organisation characterises that as a bureaucratic oversight, the basic facts are that Bondi's office had received multiple complaints from Floridians who said they were cheated by Trump University; while they were looking into it and considering whether to join a lawsuit over Trump University filed by the attorney-general of New York State, Bondi called Trump and asked him for a US$25,000 donation; shortly after getting the money, Bondi's office dropped the inquiry.
At this point we should note that everything here may be completely innocent.
Perhaps Bondi didn't realise her office was looking into Trump University. Perhaps the fact that Trump's foundation made the contribution (which, to repeat, is illegal) was just a mix-up.
Perhaps when Trump reimbursed the foundation from his personal account, he didn't realise that's not how the law works (the foundation would have to get its money back from Bondi's PAC; he could then make a personal donation if he wanted). Perhaps Bondi's decision not to pursue the case against Trump was perfectly reasonable.
But here's the thing: We don't know the answers to those questions, because almost nobody seems to be pursuing them.
For instance, there was only one mention of this story on any of the five US political shows, when John Dickerson asked Chris Christie about it on Face the Nation (Christie took great umbrage: "I can't believe, John, that anyone would insult Pam Bondi that way").
And the comparison with stories about Hillary Clinton's emails or the Clinton Foundation is extremely instructive. Whenever we get some new development in any of those Clinton stories, you see blanket coverage - every cable network, every network news programme, every newspaper investigates it at length. And even when the new information serves to exonerate Clinton rather than implicate her in wrongdoing, the coverage still emphasises that the whole thing just "raises questions" about her integrity.
The big difference is that there are an enormous number of reporters who get assigned to write stories about those issues regarding Clinton. The story of something like the Clinton Foundation gets stretched out over months and months with repeated tellings, always with the insistence that questions are being raised and the implication that shady things are going on, even if there isn't any evidence at a particular moment to support that idea.
When it comes to Trump, on the other hand, we've seen a very different pattern. Here's what happens: A story about some kind of corrupt dealing emerges, usually from the dogged efforts of one or a few journalists; it gets discussed for a couple of days; and then it disappears. Someone might mention it now and again, but the news organisations don't assign a squad of reporters to look into every aspect of it, so no new facts are brought to light and no new stories get written.
The end result of this process is that because of all that repeated examination of Clinton's affairs, people become convinced that she must be corrupt to the core. It's not that there isn't plenty of negative coverage of Trump, because of course there is, but it's focused mostly on the crazy things he says on any given day.
But the truth is that you'd have to work incredibly hard to find a politician who has the kind of history of corruption, double-dealing, and fraud that Donald Trump has. The number of stories which could potentially deserve hundreds and hundreds of articles is absolutely staggering. Here's a partial list:
- Trump's casino bankruptcies, which left investors holding the bag while he skedaddled with their money
- Trump's habit of refusing to pay contractors who had done work for him, many of whom are struggling small businesses
- Trump University, which includes not only the people who got scammed and the Florida investigation, but also a similar story from Texas where the investigation into Trump U was quashed.
- The Trump Institute, another get-rich-quick scheme in which Trump allowed a couple of grifters to use his name to bilk people out of their money
- The Trump Network, a multi-level marketing venture (aka pyramid scheme) that involved customers mailing in a urine sample which would be analysed to produce for them a specially formulated package of multivitamins
- Trump Model Management, which reportedly had foreign models lie to customs officials and work in the US illegally, and kept them in squalid conditions while they earned almost nothing for the work they did
- Trump's employment of foreign guest workers at his resorts, which involves a claim that he can't find Americans to do the work
- Trump's use of hundreds of undocumented workers from Poland in the 1980s, who were paid a pittance for their illegal work
- Trump's history of being charged with housing discrimination
- Trump's connections to mafia figures involved in New York construction
- The time Trump paid the Federal Trade Commission US$750,000 over charges that he violated anti-trust laws when trying to take over a rival casino company
- The fact that Trump is now being advised by Roger Ailes, who was forced out as Fox News chief when dozens of women came forward to charge him with sexual harassment. According to the allegations, Ailes's behaviour was positively monstrous; as just one indicator, his abusive and predatory actions towards women were so well-known and so loathsome that in 1968 the morally upstanding folks in the Nixon Administration refused to allow him to work there despite his key role in getting Nixon elected.
And that last one is happening right now. To repeat, the point is not that these stories have never been covered, because they have. The point is that they get covered briefly, then everyone in the media moves on. If any of these kinds of stories involved Clinton, news organisations would rush to assign multiple reporters to them, those reporters would start asking questions, and we'd learn more about all of them.
That's important, because we may have reached a point where the frames around the candidates are locked in: Trump is supposedly the crazy/bigoted one, and Clinton is supposedly the corrupt one.
Once we decide that those are the appropriate lenses through which the two candidates are to be viewed, it shapes the decisions the media make every day about which stories are important to pursue.
And it means that to a great extent, for all the controversy he has caused and all the unflattering stories in the press about him, Trump is still being let off the hook.