More and more journalists claim to have uncovered a key story of the unfolding 2016 presidential campaign. And more and more journalists insist it's all about them. Well, them and Hillary Clinton.
Specifically, we're told that Hillary's relationship with the press is going to be the defining dynamic of the 2016 campaign season, if she chooses to run. Not her pact with voters, mind you. But her dealings with the press. (Inside baseball trumps all, apparently.) I honestly can't remember a run-up to a presidential campaign where the D.C. press spent so much time writing about the D.C. press and how it will cover a candidate who isn't even a candidate yet.
Just look at this avalanche of recent analysis:
-Here's What Journalists Really Want from Hillary Clinton [Vanity Fair]
-Don't Blame Hillary Clinton's Media Problem on the Right-Wing Press. Blame Clinton Herself. [The New Republic]
-Hillary Clinton vs. The Press [syndicated columnist Richard Cohen]
-End of an Era? Clinton Media Strategy May Be Due for an Overhaul [New York Times]
-Hillary's Armor [Fox News' Howard Kurtz]
-What Is Hillary Clinton Afraid Of? [Politico]
-Why The Clintons Can't Handle the Media [New York]
And surprise! Virtually all the examinations reach the same conclusion about the strained relationship: Clinton just has to just "deal with" her misgivings and get over it if she wants to become president.
Not surprisingly though, the onslaught of media coverage about Hillary's media coverage isn't reflective. Instead, it's mostly one-way and instructional. It's telling Clinton how she must change her behavior, or else. (Should journalists really be in the “or else” business?) There's very little contemplation about why Clinton might be wary of the manner in which the political press provides scrutiny.
Regardless, journalists are sure of one thing: Hillary (and Bill Clinton) hate the press and remain purposefully cloistered away from it.
“All politicians resent the media, but few can match the mixture of incomprehension, terror, and bitter recrimination mustered by Bill and Hillary Clinton toward the Fourth Estate,” New York breathlessly announced, claiming “the various streams of thought trickling through the Clintons' brains do not converge upon any coherent strategy for dealing with the media.” (That sounds bad.)
On and on the cataloging has gone in recent weeks, as news consumers are inundated with descriptions of Clinton's “fear and loathing of the media,” and how she's “withdrawn into a gilded shell.”
But how exactly have Hillary and Bill Clinton acted on this supposed hatred of the media?
Where are the vivid, memorable examples of the marauding Clintons and their aides and allies "knee-capping" reporters who crossed them? Where are the tales of power-hungry Clintonites waging a vicious war against journalists with heavy-handed threats of payback? If you comb through the mountain of recent commentary about the Clintons and the press you won't find convincing examples, which suggests to me they don't exist.
Instead, we get the often-related anecdote about Clinton's spokesman who earlier this year sent back a snark-filled response to an email inquiry from a Buzzfeed writer about Clinton's daily activities; an inquiry the spokesman thought was pointless and dopey. (i.e. “Has she withdrawn money from an ATM? Has she downloaded an app or a song?”)
And then there are the endless claims that Hillary Clinton uniquely walls herself off from the press and if she'd just open up, if she'd travel to back of the media bus and hang out with reporters, she could schmooze them onto her side. “Why not spend 30 minutes back there every so often, talking about whatever you are able to talk about?” asked Michael Hogan at Vanity Fair.
But in 2008, Hillary tried to do just that when she ventured onto the campaign bus in New Hampshire brandishing coffee and bagels for reporters. She was met with icy indifference: “One reporter compared the awkwardness to running unexpectedly into an ex-girlfriend. 'Maybe we should go outside and warm up,' said another, as Clinton exited into the freezing air.”
Question: Is Hillary doing anything radically different in terms of dealing with the press today than, say, what Jeb Bush is doing? (He's another often-discussed potential candidate for 2016 who hasn't yet made any public declaration about his intentions.) Or how Mitt Romney dealt with the press as an emerging candidate. In other words, who are all these other prominent pols who have simply thrown open their doors in recent years and granted total access, or who never have a cross word to say about their coverage? (Fact: the conservative movement in America is partially built around complaining about the press coverage of Republican politicians, and has been for generations.)
And what does it say about journalists that they openly claim that a candidate would get better coverage if only she was nicer to them?
Additionally, there's something presumptuous about this entire exercise, and partisan. In the sense that while a mini-stampede has formed as journalists lecture Hillary how she should deal with the press, you read and hear virtually nothing about how Republicans should act during the 2016 campaign. Note that the press' working assumption is that Democrats, and Hillary in particular, must interact with the press differently. And if Democrats don't, there's a penalty to be paid.
Republicans? Not such looming threat exists for them.
And the threats targeting Democrats aren't hollow ones. Just ask Al Gore who was mercilessly mocked by the press during the 2000 campaign. He was ridiculed via unfair coverage by journalists who presented a “portrayal of Gore that was almost entirely invented by the press,” as CJR put it. In 2000, did voters care about how much access Gore granted the press or whether a clique of reporters on his campaign regularly denigrated him in print? No. But in that historically close election, the unjust coverage driven by media contempt might have cost Gore enough votes to force the doomed Florida recount.
Meanwhile, why the Clinton skittishness? The spate of articles about the Clintons' relations with the media are filled with their public and private critiques of how the media does its job. Why might the Clintons have so much criticism for the press?
Maybe it's because she lived through the scandal grinder that was the 1990s, when A-list pundits and reporters spent years championing right-wing conspiracy theories about the Clintons; hollow what-ifs that ended up chewing through years of Congressional hearings.
And then there was Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign, whose unfair and often unhinged coverage no doubt left deep scars for the former senator. As Tina Brown correctly noted last month, “In the 2008 campaign the chronic negativity of the ladies and gentlemen of the press was relentless, and the gouging of Hillary was wholly unrelated to either her record or her behavior.”
The mockery and disdain was incessant, as some journalists openly conceded. During that primary season the Washington Post's Milbank noted, “The press will savage [Clinton] no matter what.” He characterized Clinton's relationship with the press as “poisonous” and “venomous,” and announced journalists simply “dislike” her.
Proof of the Mean Girls-type treatment? Recall this press snapshot from a Hillary event in New Hampshire [emphasis added]:
Reporters sandwiched together in the scrum studied their BlackBerrys and rolled their eyes. One whispered to another sarcastically, “Can you feel the excitement?” Another asked: "Can you please pour some Drano in my mouth?"
Maybe that's why Clinton is wary of the press?
And then there was the rampant media misogyny. Today, the wave of sexist coverage from 2008 is often gently swept away. Instead, vague references to “tough” coverage are inserted, leaving readers with the impression that thin-skinned Hillary couldn't handle a little criticism. ("Deal with it," is the new D.C. media mantra.)
Context? Blogger Melissa McEwen manned the Hillary Sexism Watch during the 2008 campaign, noting troubling examples of media misogyny. In the end, she logged 114 entries. (At the time, Salon's Rebecca Traister detected among male pundits “a nearly pornographic investment in Clinton's demise.”)
Maybe that's why Clinton is distrustful?
Fast-forward to today and there's already a disingenuous, everything-could-go-wrong-for-Hillary brand of coverage that flourishes within the Beltway press corps. For instance, the New York Times last winter published a page-one article claiming the Clintons had to “rebuild” their bond with black voters, despite the fact the Clintons remain hugely popular with black voters.
More recently, the D.C. press has begun warning that Clinton's tenure as secretary of state could damage a potential presidential run. Yet a Pew Research poll this year indicated a strong majority of Americans (67 percent) applaud Clinton's time as secretary of state. In fact, when asked to identify the biggest positive of her long public career, the top response was Clinton's time as secretary.
So maybe that's why she doesn't trust the Beltway media?
And maybe it's time for reporters to stop with the navel gazing.