Finally, at long last on Tuesday, Hillary Clinton took a question from the press—five questions, actually.
So ended, at least for the moment, a month-long period of increasingly tense relations between Team Hillary and the news media, in which the latter have become progressively more irritated—and vocal—about their lack of access to the Democratic presidential front-runner.
A story on the Daily Mail’s website, describing how the Clinton campaign staff concealed the locations of two of her voter events Monday in the first-in-the-nation caucus state—and omitted a meet-and-greet in Waterloo, Iowa, from the press schedule—highlighted the risks of a strategy that protects the candidate from pesky queries, but potentially alienates the very people whose job is not only to report the candidate’s words and deeds, but also to convey informed analysis of the campaign.
“It’s maddening,” an anonymous print journalist complained to the Daily Mail. “We can’t do our job if the Clinton campaign freezes us out and tells us there aren’t any more events for the day—and then they race to Waterloo for an event. Don’t they understand that they need us as much as we need them?”
A cable television news correspondent, likewise anonymous, sarcastically told the London-based outlet: “Maybe by this point next year Hillary’s people will be clamoring for us to interview her as Elizabeth Warren and Martin O’Malley make mincemeat out of her”—a reference to former Maryland governor O’Malley (who is expected to enter the race soon) and Massachusetts Senator Warren (who insists she will not).
This TV journalist added: “But for now dodging the press just comes off as arrogant and imperial. Which is not the model she ought to be trying to emulate. I mean, really: If you hold a campaign party and there are 100 of us flying in to Iowa to cover you, the least you can do is tell us the event exists. We don’t expect you to feed us or mix us martinis. Just don’t make this presidential campaign marathon any harder or more idiotic than it needs to be.”
Democratic media consultant Tad Devine, who is advising the long-shot presidential campaign of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (a liberal Independent and thus far Clinton’s only declared primary opponent), expressed a certain amount of sympathy for Team Hillary’s effort to insulate the front-runner.
“The pros are that you don’t have to answer questions,” Devine told The Daily Beast with a laugh. “But listen, if there’s no access for the press to a candidate for president, I think it will become a real problem. I think it will boil over.”
Devine, who has worked for candidates in every presidential election since Jimmy Carter’s in 1976, described a “Domino Effect” in which angry reporters lead to angry editors, publishers, and television news executives who will decide they’re not getting their money’s worth from the very high expense of covering the campaign.
“When that happens, it will breed a lot of problems, and the people in charge of making the decisions of what stories are covered are going to assign investigative reporters and a whole new depth of scrutiny will begin to occur that otherwise might not have occurred,” Devine said. “And the press—reasonably so, I think—will feel that a lack of access is driven by a desire to hide something.”
Devine continued: “When that happens, campaigns begin to develop a narrative that they don’t want. If you don’t make your candidate accessible to the press, you’re going to create a dynamic which will breed a lot of coverage that is likely to be anything but what you want to communicate…You will be thrown off-message.”
GOP strategist John Weaver, who was an architect of Arizona Senator John McCain’s media-friendly 2000 presidential campaign—featuring the “Straight Talk Express,” the campaign bus in which the voluble maverick held a rolling press conference, day after day—said, “I don’t really know the upside of what the Clinton campaign is doing, to be honest with you.”
Weaver went on: “Maybe tactically they can avoid hard questions now, but they can’t avoid them forever. And a press-friendly campaign is really a voter-friendly campaign—because it’s through the press that voters get information.”
Dodging the news media “does not help her in the long term, because eventually she will face the press, and they’ll be more hostile, and the questions will pile up,” said Weaver, adding that he knows and likes Clinton personally, and that she is smart, funny and “winning.”
“Part of this is just getting into a routine of answering questions, as well. It’s like batting practice,” Weaver said. “The more you do it, the more at ease you are, and the more at ease the people asking questions are, and it becomes part of a normal routine. But if you avoid it, the candidate looks totally on the defensive and the body language is terrible…and they come across that way to voters.”
Noting that Clinton has been a declared candidate for only five weeks, Weaver said: “It’s awfully early to be in a bunker.”
Having spent nearly a month avoiding the reporters assigned to cover her—40,150 minutes, according to The Washington Post’s so-called “Clinton clock”—Clinton relented after Fox News reporter Ed Henry interrupted a staged panel discussion with screened Iowans to ask her to engage with the media. “I might. I have to ponder it. I will put it on my list for due consideration.”
But ultimately she spent five minutes fielding questions about the Clinton Foundation flap, her shifting positions on the war in Iraq, her eye-popping wealth from book advances and speaking gigs, her ex-parte communications about Libya with former White House aide and business consultant Sidney Blumenthal, and, yes, those still-unreleased State Department emails.
Meanwhile, University of Southern California political science professor Robert Shrum, a longtime Democratic strategist, counseled calm, saying aggrieved journalists are nothing new in presidential politics.
“The press has got its nose out of joint,” Shrum said, “but when I look at the polling, I have to say the press may not be happy, but the voters seem fine.”
Shrum continued: “The upside for Hillary is that she has been able to introduce herself and begin this process in a non-imperial way…You can’t do this forever. You’re going to have to do rallies, give speeches, and all those things, but what she’s doing now makes a lot of sense.”
As the campaign heats up, Shrum conceded, she will even have to submit herself to a grilling now and then.