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Hillary Clinton doesn’t need the media, and it’s driving the media crazy

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at an award ceremony for the 2015 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting March 23, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at an award ceremony for the 2015 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting March 23, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The press kvetched about Hillary Clinton declining to take questions for almost a month. They counted up the days like it was the 1979-'80 Iran hostage crisis.

It started with the Washington Post.

(The Washington Post)

Then ABC.

(ABC News)

And others piled on, for 28 days in all.

Finally, on Tuesday, she took a handful of questions from reporters in Iowa. The Clinton camp says she always planned to do that, implying that the media hue and cry had nothing to do with the decision to talk with reporters. Right now, reporters are nearly as irrelevant to Clinton as they are irritated about being treated like vestiges.

Hillary Clinton doesn't need the press.

Maybe she will later on — if she slips in the polls — and that would be an argument for giving them care and feeding now. But the laws of politics are simply different for Clinton than they are for the other presidential candidates.

The rules of the game

Almost all presidential aspirants need the media to build their name ID and their credibility as candidates, to amplify their ideas, and to crush their rivals. Without the amplification of "earned media" — such as newspaper articles and television appearances that they don't pay for — it's hard to convince voters, and early donors, that they are serious contenders for their party's nomination or the presidency.

Candidates could spend years knocking on doors and not get the boost they get from a network television segment. There is, of course, a risk, too. When they mess up in interviews, they often do real damage to themselves before they gain traction with voters. Just ask Jeb Bush about the perils of going on Fox News and talking about the Iraq War. They are usually willing to take the gamble because they can't pass up the potential benefits of media attention.

The media can also be a useful weapon in tearing down other candidates. Whether that comes in the form of opposition research slipped to a reporter or simply from a rival self-destructing, there's great advantage to be gained when the media spotlight is trained on another candidate.

For Clinton, the equation is different. Everyone knows her. She's a credible candidate. She could get breathless coverage for announcing a new policy on the importation of edelweiss. And she doesn't have any serious competition for the Democratic nomination. The guy running against her, Bernie Sanders, has pledged not to go negative. It's hard to make up ground that way. The less Clinton talks to the media, the easier it is for her to make sure all that remains true. There's much less for her to gain from talking to reporters and much more for her to lose.

"Hillary is doing exactly the right thing by focusing directly on voters," said a former Democratic communicator who did not work for her. "As much as reporters wish she would spend her time talking to them, it’s lose-lose: it gives more surface area for negative coverage that could hurt her with voters, and it is an audience that doesn’t get to select the president."

Hating the media

An intense dislike for reporters informed her relationship with the media for many years, as veteran Clinton reporters Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman chronicled in Politico last year. She felt burned by the coverage of Clinton White House scandals and was convinced the media's affection for Barack Obama played a significant role in her defeat in the 2008 presidential primary. She had a better relationship with reporters at the State Department, and longtime Clinton advisers say that owed to their collective focus on substance over style and horse-race politics. They asked questions about topics Clinton wanted to discuss.

Perhaps more than anyone in American politics, Clinton understands the risk of playing with media fire. Within hours of the attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi in 2012, Sunday show bookers reached out to see if she would come on their shows. The immediate answer was no. Susan Rice took her place. In arguing that a spontaneous protest had morphed into an attack, Rice hurt her own credibility. It was the major factor in the Senate's refusal to confirm Rice for secretary of state. She ultimately withdrew from consideration. Clinton knows the media must be treated like any sharp tool: useful and dangerous.

Even so, Clinton and her aides say she's dedicated to forging better bonds with reporters in this campaign — to letting them in a little more.

"I am all about new beginnings," she said at a media award dinner earlier this year. "A new grandchild, another new hairstyle, a new e-mail account. The relationship with the press. So here goes: no more secrecy. No more zone of privacy. After all, what good did that do me?"

Don't expect to learn much

Ben LaBolt, who worked on President Obama's campaigns and in the White House press shop, would not go so far as to say Clinton doesn't need the press. But he said in an email that Clinton's strategy is the right one for right now.

"Secretary Clinton is running like she's in a primary campaign — which, by the way, she is. The way to run that is not by doing a bunch of cable hits and sit-downs with the national papers— it's to communicate directly to voters, in the states that matter," LaBolt said. "There will be some expectation she speak with the press in the regional markets she's competing in — but my guess is that will come in due time."

Without committing to specifics, one campaign official said she'll keep fielding questions on campaign swings like she did on Tuesday.

If that's the case, don't expect to learn much from her interactions with reporters.

The value of Tuesday's press conference for Clinton was in blunting the narrative that she's hiding. She touched on, but did not really address, some of the recent negative storylines about access to the Clintons — by donors with interests before the government and by Sid Blumenthal, the former Clinton aide who was apparently trying to capitalize off of the war in Libya and his relationship with Clinton. Oh, and ditto for the small matter of the emails Clinton destroyed after deciding they didn't belong to the government.

  1. She said of the e-mails that "nobody has a bigger interest in getting them released than I do" and that "they're not mine. They belong to the State Department."
  2. She cast Blumenthal, who sent her memos from Libya, as one of many friends who contacts her on a regular basis about a variety of issues. "When you're in the public eye and when you're in an official position, I think you do have to work to make sure you're not caught in a bubble and you only hear from a certain, small group of people," she said. "I'm going to keep talking to my old friends, whoever they are."
  3. She said she's "proud" of the work the Clinton Foundation does.

It's not clear what value the exchange held for reporters or the public. With the exception of a pretty anodyne analysis of her relationship with Blumenthal, none of it was new. She was on message.

The basic message of her campaign so far has been: It's not about me, it's about you. That means voters, not reporters. And it makes sense — at least for now.

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