Hillary Plays the Game

There's nothing wrong with her aggressive attitude towards the press

How’s this for an effective media strategy for a presidential candidate: “Aggressively stamp out any misstatement about HRC before it can take on a life of its own in the popular mythology”?

This is from Michael Crowley in The New Republic blogging about HRC (aka Hillary, aka “the frontrunner”) the other day. It’s the same point he makes in an article in the magazine’s current issue, “Bunker Hillary.” In it, he tries to deconstruct the aggressive approach to managing the press that Team Hillary has taken, or, as he puts it in the piece’s subhead, their “strategy for crushing the media.”

Through tone and substance, Crowley provides a portrait of a paranoid candidate unwilling to let any air into her campaign, let alone even the most mildly spontaneous exchange. The particulars he offers come from what seem like a slew of political reporters laid out like so much roadkill in bulldozer Hillary’s wake:

Reporters who have covered the hyper-vigilant campaign say that no detail or editorial spin is too minor to draw a rebuke. Even seasoned political journalists describe reporting on Hillary as a torturous experience. Though few dare offer specifics for the record—“They’re too smart,” one furtively confides. “They’ll figure out who I am”—privately, they recount excruciating battles to secure basic facts. Innocent queries are met with deep suspicion. Only surgically precise questioning yields relevant answers.

Without apologizing for Hillary — who doesn’t seem to need much apologizing done for her — I had to wonder, after reading this, what was wrong with her approach? Crowley quotes one reporter complaining, “They don’t see [reporting] as a healthy part of the process. They view this as a ruthless kill-or-be-killed game.” Well, for a presidential candidate in a tough race, isn’t it?

A candidate like Hillary gains nothing from letting the press get closer to her. First, because she doesn’t need to. She sells papers and she knows it. Hillary cannot be ignored and that’s an incredible power she wields over the press. So why shouldn’t she control her image as much as she can? If you’re Joe Biden, you want the press to follow you even to the bathroom if it will get you a story in The New York Times. If you’re Hillary, you can set limits. But, the media has also not exactly proven that giving them more access or not responding to any perceived mischaracterization would result in a fair shake for Hillary. Do we not remember the stories on her laugh and cleavage just in the last few months? She understands, maybe better than most candidates, how one little macaca gaff can become the seed that destroys a whole campaign. Why should she want to play any part in providing even one thread of a rope that may hang her?

To his credit, Crowley acknowledges all this. He can see why Hillary would want to avoid talking. When she has opened up, as she did to Michael Kelly about her religion a few years ago, it resulted in a mocking cover story in The New York Times Magazine, “Saint Hillary.” But though he claims to understand her, he also comes to the conclusion that Hillary is now “emulating nothing less than the model of the Bush White House.” Only parenthetically does he add that “no one accuses the Clinton team of outright lying to the press, as the Bushies have done, or of crossing other ethical lines”.

There’s no evidence in Crowley’s own piece for making this parallel between Bush and Clinton. Rather, it just seems Hillary has figured out how to keep the press on a tight leash. The whole article is full of reporters complaining that she isn’t making their job easy for them. But that’s not her concern. She knows what happens when you don’t respond to criticism leveled from the other side or let reporting stand without counter-comment (see: Kerry, John; and Boating, Swift).

What Crowley does inadvertently make very obvious is how well Hillary understands the press’s role in making or breaking her candidacy. It’s something journalists and editors themselves often forget. Too often, they try to stand apart and claim that they have no part in moving the polls one way or the other or establishing a narrative that helps or hinders a candidate. It’s just not true. Hillary’s success so far comes partly from being able to make sure that nothing misreported or misquoted or misrepresented becomes an obstacle for her. That is her job. Journalists shouldn’t expect to get gift baskets of cookies sent to them from the candidates. They should be trying to find other ways to tell the story without relying on their kindness. There won’t be any forthcoming from Hillary, that’s for sure.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.