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Hillary Clinton’s press conference problem, explained

Hillary Clinton Tapes Appearance On 'Jimmy Kimmel Live' Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In a presidential election cycle when the media has felt unusually free from the conventional constraints of "both sides" reporting, mostly to Donald Trump’s detriment, there is one issue where the mainstream press has been willing to take the gloves off against Hillary Clinton: press conferences.

Specifically, Hillary Clinton does not hold press conferences. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t speak to the press — she’s done lots of interviews — but she doesn’t stand up, on or off camera, in front of the traveling Clinton campaign press corps and take questions in an unscripted setting. She sits down with selected journalists for formal interviews, but doesn’t engage in on the record give-and-take with the slew of campaign reporters whose jobs are to follow her around every day. And you can tell from the subtext of these complaints that she’s not exactly popping by the back of the bus to shoot the breeze off-the-record style, either.

It frustrates the people who cover her on a daily basis. Beyond that, political reporters tend not to view it as an interesting campaign tactic, but instead as a kind of affront to American democracy. USA Today’s David Colton deems it "worthy of concern" on par with Donald Trump’s total lack of financial disclosure.

The dispute over the issue perfectly captures two important sub-themes of contemporary American politics — Clinton’s completely sincere disdain for the media, and journalists’ continued anxiety about how shifting technology is undercutting the role that made journalism a powerful and prestigious profession in the second half of the 20th century.

When was Hillary’s last press conference?

Clinton last did a press conference on December 5, 2015.

That was a long time ago, and members of the media have developed a variety of innovative ways to cover it:

The exact number of days in the count varies, of course, according to exactly how far we are from December 5, 2015.

Interestingly, as recently as August 5, 2016, there was an event at which Hillary Clinton stood before an audience in a room and answered questions that were asked of her by members of the press. The circumstance was a joint session of the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, who were having their conferences in Washington, DC. Clinton and Trump were both invited to address the conference. Trump declined, Clinton accepted, and then Clinton took questions.

The press, however, has decided that Clinton taking questions from the press at the NABJ and NAHJ conference is not the same as having a press conference.

The metaphysics of when a Q&A session with reporters crosses the line to become a press conference is a fascinating subject (I was a philosophy major, so I have some odd fascinations), but on a non-semantic level it’s clear enough that the NABJ/NAHJ event was not the thing that press conference complainers want Clinton to do.

What they want her to do is turn around and face the group of reporters who’ve been traipsing around the country covering her campaign and answer their questions.

Why does this matter?

Well, for starters, it’s unusual. It’s natural and correct for journalists who are paying attention to something to point it out when they notice that something unusual is happening.

Most candidates have done press conferences somewhat regularly, whereas Clinton has done so few that doing one would be a huge media event in and of itself.

"One of the most important things when someone is offering themselves up to represent all of us," Cillizza explained, "is that we get the best sense we can about how that person thinks on his or her feet, how they deal with unwanted or adversarial questions. Those two traits are big parts of doing the job of president in the modern world."

Your mileage may vary with that explanation, but it’s worth keeping in mind that until very recently, holding press conferences was literally part of the job of being president. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, for example, held 24 and 23 press conferences per year respectively.

According to the White House Historical Association, subsequent presidents scaled back the quantity of press conferences, but amped up the drama by holding them in primetime:

In the period following the Kennedy administration, presidents have gradually adapted to high-risk high-reward nature of the on the record press conference. For Presidents Nixon and Reagan, they cut back the number of press conferences they held to approximately one every two months. At the same time, the press conferences they did hold differed from those of their predecessors by holding them at night in prime time in the East Room. That way, the president did indeed get to the public. Before Nixon, no president had held a prime time press conference. Gradually, news organizations were less willing to give over their profitable entertainment time to the news division for ad-free time for presidential news conferences.

George H.W. Bush actually ratcheted up the number of press conferences, but the pattern went into reverse under Bill Clinton’s administration. He held fewer press conferences than Bush, and a larger share of them were "joint appearances" with visiting foreign leaders where objective circumstances and decorum both tend to minimize the quantity of domestic horse race questions that get asked. George W. Bush held fewer press conferences than Clinton, and Obama has had fewer press conferences than Bush.

With press conferences becoming less integral as a tool of presidential communications, it’s natural that you would see candidates for office also downplaying them.

Why doesn’t Hillary Clinton hold press conferences?

All politicians complain about the media and all politicians get adversarial questions from the media, so it can be hard to underscore how genuine the dislike between Clinton and the press is.

Trump is a great contrast. He complains, constantly, about press coverage he doesn’t like. In doing so, he also betrays detailed knowledge of the ups and downs of different publications, the ratings of different television shows, and the key personalities associated with various networks. Trump hates bad press but he loves the media. That’s why he knows so much about it.

Obama, too, has a studied and frequently expressed disdain for the rhythms of day-to-day political reporting. But it’s the disdain of an informed consumer. He is projecting an air of snobbery about the press, suggesting that he has good taste in his political journalism and favored authors who really get it. He hates the media in the way that everyone who works in the media hates it — he hates what he hates because he really loves what he loves.

Clinton hates political reporting in the way that normal Americans hate it. Only 27 percent of Americans tell Gallup that they have a favorable impression of the standards of ethics and honesty among journalists. Clinton is clearly not in that 27 percent.

This likely makes her indisposed to cater to journalists’ idiosyncratic whims, including their love of press conferences. But it particularly matters due to the peculiar nature of a press conference. If you do a press conference, you are going to get some tough questions. And if you are getting some tough questions, you are going to take some evasive actions to avoid being excessively frank about certain matters.

Pulling it off requires a certain spirit of fun. You need to enjoy the back and forth, recognize that it’s all in the game, and have grudging admiration and mutual respect on both sides.

With Clinton, that’s not present. So when she has held press conferences they haven’t gone very well. Since she’s currently winning the election, holding a press conference is pretty much all downside, so she doesn’t want to do one. The more she delays holding a press conference the more it becomes a point of pride in the press corps that Clinton is hiding from their razor-sharp wits, and the more everyone will be aiming to bring her down when she does hold one. That becomes another reason not to do it, and the problem only gets worse over time.

Should Hillary Clinton hold a press conference?

Unless her campaign is going to come out with a clear and definitive statement that she will never hold a press conference, she should probably just rip the Band-Aid off and do it. In fact, she should probably take advantage of the fact that it’s still a long way from Election Day to just do a bunch of them.

Sometimes it’s just better to go along and take the path of least resistance.

Courting the favor of the establishment media isn’t nearly as important as it used to be, but it’s still somewhat important. And whether press conferences are important or not, it’s clear that journalists think they are important and want her to have some. The cost-benefit of throwing the press a bone — or seven — probably works out.

That said, it seems unlikely to me that press conferences are, on the merits, really good ways for people to learn about Hillary Clinton or any other prominent politician.

Part of this is that I think "hardball" questions are generally overrated by journalists, who tend to like to get into little mini-arguments with candidates that don’t reveal anything and just leave everyone retreating to their corners at the end of the day. The nature of the press conference format essentially pits reporters into competition with one another to ask the most noteworthy question, which encourages excessive focus on hardballs and obvious topics rather than deeper probing on neglected issues.

In a one-on-one interview, by contrast, the reporter is guaranteed screen time and has the incentive to help craft a conversation that’s interesting. And, indeed, Clinton has done hundreds of interviews with all kinds of different media outlets. Nobody is exactly suffering from an information void with regard to Clinton and her views on a wide range of matters.

A press conference — or a dozen press conferences — would be interesting sport, but the odds of meaningfully changing our understanding of her are miniscule.

What should reporters ask Clinton at a press conference?

Bill and Hillary Clinton’s decision to drastically scale-back the Clinton Foundation’s fundraising and activities naturally lends itself to a range of "tough" questions about what took them so long. If this kind of fundraising activity is going to present problematic conflicts of interest when she is in the White House, then why weren’t the conflicts present when she was "merely" a likely candidate for the presidency? I bet she doesn’t have a good answer for that one!

If it were me, though, I would ask her about San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams’s recent declaration that the Federal Reserve needs a new approach to fighting recessions — either running a higher rate of inflation during non-recession periods, or else abandoning inflation targeting altogether in favor of what’s called NGDP level targeting.

This is a topic that has attracted zero attention during the campaign, but whether the Fed adopts his ideas or not will directly touch the lives of every single American. And with two open seats on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, the next president will have an immediate chance to have an impact on the subject.

I’d like to know what Clinton thinks about this. And in the likely case that she hasn’t thought about it at all (she’s busy and it’s pretty obscure), I’d like to see her ability to artfully admit that she hasn’t. I don’t really believe that jousting with adversarial questioners is an important part of being president, but coping with unfamiliar issues in a responsible way certainly is.