The Clinton campaign machine has developed a reputation for being adversarial, at best, with the press. Is it a response to a drubbing by the media during her husband’s presidency? Or is it a lesson learned from the Bush administration? The New Republic's Michael Crowley explains the consequences of crossing Hillary.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. HILLARY CLINTON: I am happy to be here tonight, and this pantsuit, it’s asbestos tonight. [LAUGHTER] So - BROOKE GLADSTONE: Political pundits predicted that at Thursday's Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton would try to pull herself out of the hole she dug during the last debate. We don't plan to weigh in, only to observe that some say the media are too easy on Hillary, others say they're too tough.
But everyone agrees that she's the star of any show she's in. And, as The New Republic's Michael Crowley recently observed, fame is a powerful weapon to wield against an unruly press. MICHAEL CROWLEY: Which is to say, if you do something we don't like, forget about getting the Good Morning America interview that everyone's going to tune in and watch or, as you saw in the episode having to do with GQ Magazine, deciding not to run a negative story because, apparently, there was a threat that they would lose access to Bill Clinton for another story they wanted to do and they wanted to put Clinton on the cover. Those are things they can do because they're the Clintons and they're a couple of the most famous people in the entire planet. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you write that, quote, "Even seasoned political journalists describe reporting on Hillary as a torturous experience." How come? MICHAEL CROWLEY: Hillary has surrounded herself with a team that is incredibly disciplined in their dealings with the press. There is a deserved reputation on the part of the Clinton machine that they'll make somebody pay for crossing them, and particularly for making mistakes.
And again, there are people who argue that's quite reasonable, but I think they have taken it to a new level of sophistication and intensity. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And how do they do it? MICHAEL CROWLEY: You saw this happen when the two Hillary biographies were published. They got copies of the book before they were supposed to be publicly available and they leaked the book to The Washington Post before the kind of publicity machine was ready to sort of roll out these breathless revelations.
Then, at the same time, they had lined up counterattacks on various facts. They appear to have gotten a source for a key anecdote in one of the books to come forward and say, I don't stand by this. They killed [LAUGHS] these books in their grave.
You know, bloggers and media watchdog websites have proliferated, and there are reporters, I think, who feel the campaign has really become very good at feeding material to these sites to really train their sights on these reporters and make life very difficult for them, put the pressure on them, and get their editors nervous. So I think there's a feeling that they've actually done a great job of kind of harnessing the Internet to go after people. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, then, do you think this rather cold-shoulder treatment of the press in general is modeled after the Bush Administration, or do you think Hillary is singular in American politics in terms of just how badly she and her husband were trampled by the press? MICHAEL CROWLEY: Words can't describe what they've been through in the media, and any human being [LAUGHS] would be understandably incredibly wary of this beast that seeks information about [LAUGHS] them and wants to tell news stories about them.
At the same time, something her campaign believes, it's that many Democrats feel that they have tried too hard to be friends with the press. The Democrats made the mistake of seeing reporters sort of as their therapists. The Bush model is, we don't really have to talk to you guys. When we have something to announce, we'll let you know. You can come to the press conference.
And I think that the Hillary campaign is trying, to some degree, to emulate that: don't call us, we'll call you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's conventional wisdom that during a presidential season you shouldn't make the press angry because they'll - MICHAEL CROWLEY: Right. BROOKE GLADSTONE: - treat you badly. MICHAEL CROWLEY: Right. BROOKE GLADSTONE: This has often been said with regard to Al Gore. MICHAEL CROWLEY: Yes. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it seems, in this S&M world of politics and the press, the rough treatment seems to work when it comes to Hillary. MICHAEL CROWLEY: [LAUGHS] You know, I would argue that, in general, going back really maybe to the time she joined the Senate, that she has succeeded in changing the narratives about her career trajectory and image from being this kind of Lady Macbeth of the White House, to being an independent woman who has mastered military and foreign policy issues and did her homework in the Senate.
Her campaign announcement went very smoothly. The rollout of her healthcare plan was a phenomenally slick and successful rollout the included a fairly successful appearance on [LAUGHS] Fox News, of all places, and a flattering column from David Brooks in The New York Times.
So yeah, I think that this approach has worked. But even people who felt that the campaign has been very effective in dealing with the press have said they have to be really careful about how hard they push it, how far they take it, because a lot of Democrats feel that Al Gore might have won in 2000 had the press corps basically liked him better and felt that his campaign was a little more open with information and a little more willing to deal with them. BROOKE GLADSTONE: We've been discussing Hillary as a campaigner. Should she be elected on the basis of her campaign performance, or is there a way to project how that might inform her performance as President? MICHAEL CROWLEY: I think there are a lot of Democrats, including ones I talked to, who said, if she's got to be tough and make some reporters mad, that's fine if it means that when we get into the thick of the general election they're going to be able to police her coverage, prevent her from being Swift-Boated, and make sure that she gets a fairer shake from the media than she has.
But the question people have to ask themselves, especially in the wake of an administration that used some of these tactics, some of this aggressiveness toward the press and this sense that you didn't really have to open up very much, people have to ask themselves, well, what came of that. The press didn't get answers to important questions and bad things came of secrecy in this White House.
So there's a way in which I think Democrats may feel this is the right approach to get there, but they may not like what it looks like once their president is there. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much. MICHAEL CROWLEY: Thank you so much. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.