Hillary Beats the Press: 'Thank You, Ma'am, May I Have Another?'

Michael Crowley’s New Republic piece on our masochistic press – how Hillary brutalizes them and they love her anyway – begins with how Team Clinton disliked a New York Times puff piece on Barack Obama playing hoops: "If grumbling about a basketball story seems excessive, it's also typical of the Clinton media machine. Reporters who have covered the hyper-vigilant campaign say that no detail or editorial spin is too minor to draw a rebuke. Even seasoned political journalists describe reporting on Hillary as a torturous experience." [UPDATE: FNC's Brit Hume on Tuesday night highlighted Crowley's take. See below.] He also writes:

Despite all the grumbling, however, the press has showered Hillary with strikingly positive coverage. "It's one of the few times I've seen journalists respect someone for beating the hell out of them," says a veteran Democratic media operative. The media has paved a smooth road for signature campaign moments like Hillary's campaign launch and her health care plan rollout and has dutifully advanced campaign-promoted themes like Hillary's "experience" and expertise in military affairs. This is all the more striking in light of the press's past treatment of Clinton -- particularly during her husband's White House years -- including endless stories about her personal ethics, frostiness, and alleged Lady Macbeth persona.

It's enough to make you suspect that breeding fear and paranoia within the press corps is itself part of the Clinton campaign's strategy. And, if that sounds familiar, it may be because the Clinton machine, say reporters and pro-Hillary Democrats, is emulating nothing less than the model of the Bush White House, which has treated the press with thinly veiled contempt and minimal cooperation. "The Bush administration changed the rules," as one scribe puts it -- and the Clintonites like the way they look. (To be sure, no one accuses the Clinton team of outright lying to the press, as the Bushies have done, or of crossing other ethical lines. And reporters say other press shops -- notably those of Rudy Giuliani and John Edwards -- are also highly combative.)

Now this is where Crowley goes off the rails. There is no doubt that Team Bush has been a tough nut to crack on access, and it's also true that maintaining a fairly leakproof White House can signal "press hatred." (So can carrying a copy of Bernie Goldberg's bias for photographers.) Bush's press office certainly calls reporters and complains about coverage. But to suggest the Clintons are aping Bushies is insulting to the Clintons, who were beating the national press like a drum fifteen years ago. Bill went around in 1992 strangely insisting "no candidate in history" was as demeaned as he was, and he even condemned the "knee-jerk liberal press" in his first days in the White House.

It's also quite hyperbolic to decry "endless" stories about Hillary's ethics. That simply isn't accurate, even as rhetoric. Crowley found reporters were frightened to complain, even anonymously:

Though few dare offer specifics for the record--"They're too smart," one furtively confides. "They'll figure out who I am"--privately, they recount excruciating battles to secure basic facts. Innocent queries are met with deep suspicion. Only surgically precise questioning yields relevant answers. Hillary's aides don't hesitate to use access as a blunt instrument, as when they killed off a negative GQ story on the campaign by threatening to stop cooperating with a separate Bill Clinton story the magazine had in the works. Reporters' jabs and errors are long remembered, and no hour is too odd for an angry phone call. Clinton aides are especially swift to bypass reporters and complain to top editors. "They're frightening!" says one reporter who has covered Clinton. "They don't see [reporting] as a healthy part of the process. They view this as a ruthless kill-or-be-killed game."

Isn't it bizarre how a spate of bombing American targets couldn't get the Clinton administration to view the emerging al-Qaeda threat as a "kill-or-be-killed" game in their last go-round, but they inspire killer metaphors when dealing with American reporters?

But why do the media love to be hounded so? Why wouldn't all the complaining lead them to put down their cream-puff pans? One theory circulating inside the Beltway is that liberal reporters want a brutal Democratic nominee, someone who won't wait three weeks to engage a "Swift Boat" campaign like John Kerry did. The experience of seeing Hillary in brutal primary mode makes them like her better, makes them think that she won't take the "Republican noise machine" and the "vast right-wing conspiracy" lying down.

[UPDATE: In his Tuesday night “Grapevine” segment, FNC's Brit Hume highlighted Crowley's assessment:

Planted questions apparently are not the only way the Hillary Clinton campaign has sought to influence media coverage. Michael Crowley writes in The New Republic that the Clinton campaign uses frequent rebukes, late-night complaint phone calls and the withholding of access as tools to control reporters. Crowley writes, quote: "Even seasoned political journalists describe reporting on Hillary as a torturous experience...Privately, they recount excruciating battles to secure basic facts. Innocent queries are met with deep suspicion. Only surgically precise questioning yields relevant answers.” Quote: “Despite all the grumbling, however, the press has showered Hillary with strikingly positive coverage. 'It's one of the few times I've seen journalists respect someone for beating the hell out of them,' says a veteran Democratic media operative."]

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis