The reporter's job is to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" — a credo that, humorously, was originally written as a smear of the self-righteous nature of journalists. And so the justification for going after a public figure increases in proportion to his or her stature. The bigger the figure, the looser the restraints.
After a quarter of a century on the national stage, there's no more comfortable political figure to afflict than Hillary Clinton. And she's in for a lot of affliction over the next year and half.
That's generally a good way for reporters to go about their business. After all, the more power a person wants in our republic, the more voters should know about her or him. But it's also an essential frame for thinking about the long-toxic relationship between the Clintons and the media, why the coverage of Hillary Clinton differs from coverage of other candidates for the presidency, and whether that difference encourages distortions that will ultimately affect the presidential race.
The Clinton rules are driven by reporters' and editors' desire to score the ultimate prize in contemporary journalism: the scoop that brings down Hillary Clinton and her family's political empire. At least in that way, Republicans and the media have a common interest.
I understand these dynamics well, having co-written a book that demonstrated how Bill and Hillary Clinton used Hillary's time at State to build the family political operation and set up for their fourth presidential campaign. That is to say, I've done a lot of research about the Clintons' relationship with the media, and experienced it firsthand. As an author, I felt that I owed it to myself and the reader to report, investigate, and write with the same mix of curiosity, skepticism, rigor, and compassion that I would use with any other subject. I wanted to sell books, of course. But the easier way to do that — proven over time — is to write as though the Clintons are the purest form of evil. The same holds for daily reporting. Want to drive traffic to a website? Write something nasty about a Clinton, particularly Hillary.
As a reporter, I get sucked into playing by the Clinton rules. This is what I've seen in my colleagues, and in myself.
1) Everything, no matter how ludicrous-sounding, is worthy of a full investigation by federal agencies, Congress, the "vast right-wing conspiracy," and mainstream media outlets
One of my former colleagues, a hard-nosed reporter who has put countless political pelts on his wall, once told me that everyone in public life has something to hide. Who goes down in the flames of scandal? The politicians we decide to go after.
That may not be 100 percent true, but it's true enough. The act of choosing, time and again, to go after the same person has the effect of tainting that person, even when an investigation or reporting turns up nothing nefarious — and it's time not spent digging into his or her adversaries. The original source of alleged malfeasance could come from the other party, within a politician's party, or from the reporter's own observations and industrious digging. But two things are crystal clear: If there's no investigation, there's no scandal. And if there's no scandal, there's no scalp.
The Clintons have been under investigation for about 25 years now. There's little doubt they've produced more information for investigators, lawyers, and journalists about their finances, their business and philanthropic dealings, and their decision-making processes in government than any officials in American history. They've watched countless friends frog-marched into congressional hearings and, in some cases, to jail. They know there's a good chance that any expressed thought will become part of the public record and twisted for political gain.
The most absurd allegations against Hillary Clinton have been bookends on her public career so far: that she had something to do with the suicide of Clinton White House aide Vince Foster, and that she bears responsibility for the terrorist attack that killed US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens.
But in between, there was Travelgate, Filegate, and Whitewater. Some were less legitimate than others. When Clinton surprisingly claimed that she and her husband were "dead broke" when they left the White House, it was because they had spent all of their money to defend themselves against an eight-year barrage of investigations.
It's understandable, then, why the Clintons have a bunker mentality when it comes to transparency. But their paranoia leads them to be secretive, and their secrecy leads Republicans and the press to suspect wrongdoing. That spurs further investigation, which only makes the Clintons more secretive. The paranoia and persistent investigation feed each other in an endless cycle of probe and parry. Along the way, the political class and the public are forced to choose imperfect sides: the power couple that always seems to be hiding something, or a Washington investigation complex that is overly partisan and underwhelming in its ability to prove gross misconduct.
This is, for Republicans, a reasonable strategy. They know that if they keep investigating her, it will do two things: keep the media writing about scandals that might knock her out, and turn off voters who don't want a return to the bloodsport politics of the 1990s. They leak partial stories to reporters hungry for that one great scoop that will give them the biggest political scalp of them all. But they also err in jumping the gun in accusing her of wrongdoing, which allows Clinton to defend herself by pointing at the folly of her adversaries.
2) Every allegation, no matter how ludicrous, is believable until it can be proven completely and utterly false. And even then, it keeps a life of its own in the conservative media world.
In touring the country to promote our book in 2014, my co-author and I were repeatedly lobbied to assert that Clinton is a lesbian. One gentleman pushed the issue during a Q&A at a Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side of Manhattan — one of the few places you might expect that kind of thing to get a rest.
The National Enquirer published a story in April alleging that Clinton wiped her personal email server clean because it contained references to her lesbian lovers.
Meanwhile, the conservative media are also convinced Clinton is preparing to wage a war on Christianity if she wins the presidency. But one thing revealed in her State Department emails is that Clinton shared daily religious reflections with her friends.
It's not just the out-of-the-box allegations that keep the media machine spun up. A year before Chelsea Clinton got married, Clinton staffers were kept busy by mainstream journalists who were absolutely sure she had already gone through with secret nuptials.
And, on a more serious note, remember Benghazi flu? Many political opponents and members of the media were unable to accept the idea that Clinton was forced to cancel planned Senate testimony on Benghazi because she'd suffered a concussion. Now, three years later, it seems ridiculous to think that Clinton was making an excuse — she's since testified on both sides of the Hill — or that she suffered, as Karl Rove suggested, brain damage. And if she was making up the concussion to avoid testifying, how did she suffer brain damage from a fake fall?
The conservative media echo chamber, which bounces innuendo from Rush Limbaugh to Fox News and back again, ensures that the most damning story lines — true or not — stay alive. The Benghazi attacks are a perfect example. Terrorists killed four Americans. The conservative echo chamber seems convinced Hillary Clinton is at fault. The reasonable argument to make is that we shouldn't have been in Libya in the first place and the murders were a down-the-chain result of bad policy. But the right wing wants to prove that they happened because of Clinton's actions — or inaction — on security matters.
They've talked about security requests denied for Libya (never mind that the stronger contingent would have been in Tripoli, not Benghazi, and that there's no evidence Clinton herself was aware of the requests), a stand-down order that prevented reinforcements from arriving in Benghazi (never mind that they wouldn't have gotten there until after the fighting was done, and that even a House Republican committee found that there was no such order) and, most of absurd of all, that Clinton knew the attack was coming. This is how Limbaugh put it in May.
The fact is they knew about the Benghazi attack 10 days before it was to happen. They knew who did it.
The freedom of the conservative media to make wild allegations often acts as a bulldozer forcing reporters to check into the charges and, in doing so, repeat them. By the time they've been debunked, they're part of the American public's collective consciousness. Or, as it's been said, a lie gets around the world before the truth gets out of bed.
3) The media assumes that Clinton is acting in bad faith until there's hard evidence otherwise.
One outgrowth of Clinton's terrible relationship with reporters is that journalists often assume she is acting in bad faith. There's good reason for that. Though she's added some new pros to her press staff for this campaign, her operation's stance toward the media was always a reflection of the way Bill Clinton's White House handled journalists.
Back in the mid-1990s, Bill Clinton relied on a series of Machiavellian spin doctors to keep the press at bay. With the Clinton White House, the modus operandi was to stonewall as long as possible, lie if necessary — or just out of habit — and turn questions around on the questioners. After all, Bill Clinton once wagged his finger at a press conference and told reporters, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman ... Ms. Lewinsky." He'd lied in a deposition, too.
So the press has plenty of precedent for believing that when the Clintons aren't forthcoming — and sometimes, even when they are — they're covering something up. And the Clintons, given the history of some-smoke-no-fire investigations launched against them, have plenty of precedent for being mistrustful of the press. The result is a brutally dysfunctional relationship on both sides. The Clintons believe the press acts in bad faith, and the press believes the Clintons' attitudes toward the press are evidence that the Clintons are hiding something.
That attitude carried over to Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign, and to some degree her tenure as Secretary of State. The standard response to a reporter's question is not an answer. It is to ignore the question or to engage in a Socratic debate by asking a question in return. It's clear Clinton doesn't like the media one bit, as Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman reported last year.
When asked why Clinton hasn’t done more to reach out to reporters over the years, one Clinton campaign veteran began to spin several theories. She was too busy, she was too prone to speaking her mind and the like—then abruptly cut to the chase:
"Look, she hates you. Period. That’s never going to change."
At a July Fourth parade this past weekend, Clinton aides used rope to create an impromptu moving barrier for reporters, keeping them away from the candidate and voters. She treated them like cattle, and they responded by putting the video on television for the last three days.
The mistrust among journalists is a problem for Clinton. And as the media is an amplifier for the public, it's also little wonder that so many voters are inclined to believe she's often acting in bad faith. Most Americans say she's not honest and trustworthy.
This view, shared by many reporters and most of the public, makes it much easier to treat Clinton's actions as though they are uniquely sinister. Case in point: She made a ton of money giving paid speeches to people with business before the government. So did Jeb Bush, of course. But until Bush recently released an accounting of some of those speeches, the media had little interest in his dealings. Kudos to Ken Vogel of Politico, who did some digging on that for a story published Thursday.
The imbalance in assumptions about Clinton's motivations is another way in which the Clinton code has a distorting effect on the public perception of her. And it, too, is self-perpetuating: It leads Clinton to assume the press is biased against her, which leads her to treat the press poorly, which leads more reporters to assume she's trying to hide something from them.
4) Everything is newsworthy because the Clintons are the equivalent of America's royal family
When Clinton keynoted an annual fundraiser for David Axelrod's epilepsy charity in June 2013, several major news outlets sent reporters to cover the speech. That was more than three years before the 2016 election. Every word, every gesture, every facial expression is scrutinized.
Video of Clinton ordering a burrito bowl at a Chipotle became the first viral image of her campaign. Reporters gave fodder to late-night comedians earlier this year when they made a mad dash to catch up as her campaign van rolled by.
This coverage of every last detail, of course, isn't a one-way street. It wasn't until a reporter was tipped off to the Chipotle visit that anyone knew about it. She craves the attention even more than she detests it.
But that, too, has a distorting effect. As with the royal family in London, normally private moments become part of a public narrative: her husband's affair, her daughter's wedding, the birth of her granddaughter.
All the attention has the effect of making Clinton seem, to the casual observer, hungrier for press than even the average politician. And there's no doubt that part of the love/hate relationship is an intense desire to attract and manipulate coverage. But Clinton understands that sometimes it's better not to be in the spotlight.
The best example of that was when she declined requests to appear on Sunday political talk shows right after the Benghazi attacks. Susan Rice, then the ambassador to the UN and now Obama's national security adviser, leaped at the chance to stand in for Clinton. Those appearances ended up costing Rice the nomination to succeed Clinton as secretary of state when many senators concluded she had lied about the origin and nature of the attacks.
The press has such fascination with the Clintons that the coverage would be there whether Hillary Clinton wanted it or not.
5) Everything she does is fake and calculated for maximum political benefit
For someone who lost a big lead in the 2008 presidential primary and is ceding ground to Bernie Sanders right now, Clinton is given a lot of credit for her political acumen. Her detractors see in every move, including the birth of her granddaughter, a grandly conceived and executed political calculation.
Clinton’s flaunting of her grandchild is one of the most transparently cynical and sentimental acts of a major American politician that I can recall. We have had presidents who have been parents, and we have had presidents who have been grandparents. But a campaign based on grandparental solidarity? A novelty.
And Clinton plays into that by using the positives in her life for political gain.
That doesn't make her different from other candidates for the presidency — it makes her just like them. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talked about his grandmothers, his mom, his wife, and his kids when he launched his bid for the presidency last week. Was that calculated to send messages about Christie to the public? Of course!
The best example, though, was the tear — the one that rolled down Clinton's cheek as she campaigned in New Hampshire after having come in third in the Iowa caucuses in 2008.
The New York Times's Maureen Dowd pilloried her for what Dowd saw as a window into the dark part of Clinton's soul.
There was a poignancy about the moment, seeing Hillary crack with exhaustion from decades of yearning to be the principal rather than the plus-one. But there was a whiff of Nixonian self-pity about her choking up. What was moving her so deeply was her recognition that the country was failing to grasp how much it needs her. In a weirdly narcissistic way, she was crying for us. But it was grimly typical of her that what finally made her break down was the prospect of losing.
As Spencer Tracy said to Katharine Hepburn in "Adam’s Rib," "Here we go again, the old juice. Guaranteed heart melter. A few female tears, stronger than any acid."
How far political journalism has come from castigating Ed Muskie for crying to accusing Clinton of calculating that tears would help her win. She's not that good at politics.
What the Clinton rules mean for the election
I take a dim view of the idea that journalists successfully anoint political winners. The media might have been in the bag for Barack Obama, but he didn't win because he got positive coverage. He won because he had better strategy, a better message, and better skills at delivering that message — in the 2008 primary and in the two general elections he won.
That said, the media can definitely weigh down — and even destroy — a candidate. The emphasis on a candidate's flaws — real or perceived — comes at the cost of the candidate's ability to focus his or her message and at the cost of negative attention to the other candidates. This is a problem for Clinton, and it seems unlikely to go away.
Hillary Clinton is comfortable enough to be a target for a lot of journalistic affliction and powerful enough that no one needs to comfort her from that affliction. But these double standards are an important factor to keep in mind when judging her against her rivals for the presidency. Whether they're fair or not, the Clinton rules distort the public's perception of Hillary Clinton.
Correction: This story has been corrected to remove an erroneous reference to the source of the original report on the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The Drudge Report first broke news that Newsweek had decided to hold a story about the affair.