Hillary and the Press

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Michael Crowley has a very interesting piece in The New Republic about how the Hillary Clinton campaign manages the media. The essence is here:

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. Hillary’s aides don’t hesitate to use access as a blunt instrument, as when they killed off a negative GQ story on the campaign by threatening to stop cooperating with a separate Bill Clinton story the magazine had in the works. Reporters’ jabs and errors are long remembered, and no hour is too odd for an angry phone call. Clinton aides are especially swift to bypass reporters and complain to top editors. “They’re frightening!” says one reporter who has covered Clinton. “They don’t see [reporting] as a healthy part of the process. They view this as a ruthless kill-or-be-killed game.”

Despite all the grumbling, however, the press has showered Hillary with strikingly positive coverage. “It’s one of the few times I’ve seen journalists respect someone for beating the hell out of them,” says a veteran Democratic media operative. The media has paved a smooth road for signature campaign moments like Hillary’s campaign launch and her health care plan rollout and has dutifully advanced campaign-promoted themes like Hillary’s “experience” and expertise in military affairs. This is all the more striking in light of the press’s past treatment of Clinton–particularly during her husband’s White House years–including endless stories about her personal ethics, frostiness, and alleged Lady Macbeth persona.

It’s enough to make you suspect that breeding fear and paranoia within the press corps is itself part of the Clinton campaign’s strategy. And, if that sounds familiar, it may be because the Clinton machine, say reporters and pro-Hillary Democrats, is emulating nothing less than the model of the Bush White House, which has treated the press with thinly veiled contempt and minimal cooperation.

The last point about emulating Bush’s press relations is worth further analysis. It is certainly true that Clinton Administration veterans used to intersperse their criticisms of the Bush White House with grudging, and sometimes glowing, admiration for the way it brow-beat the press into submission. At least that was what you would hear during Bush’s first term. (Along the lines of, “If we ever get back in, we’re going to do that!”) What you’ve heard since from Clinton vets and other Democratic operatives is that the open contempt for the press exhibited by the Bush operation eventually backfired, not just as a matter of public relations but, far more gravely, as a function of governance. The assumption that journalists were the enemy and that everything they wrote was biased and wrong — about Iraq, for example — only added to the insulation of the White House from reality as the President’s public support began to plummet. And that insulation from reality is at least partly to blame for some of Bush’s worst mistakes — including his response to Katrina and his insistence, for several years, that the U.S. was “making progress” in Iraq, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

I suspect that sorry history is not lost on the Clinton team — which is made up of veterans of both New York politics and an eight-year administration. There is a difference between aggressively trying to manage the media during a campaign on what are largely political process stories and having so much disdain for reporting itself that you discount it and lose touch with reality.