By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 28, 2007
Two stories, both about politicians named Clinton, collided recently at one of the nation's most prominent magazines, raising questions about journalistic integrity and hardball political tactics.
GQ killed a 7,000-word article about infighting among aides to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, a move that came after the magazine began work on a cover story on the philanthropic efforts of Bill Clinton. The final decision was made after a spokesman for the Clinton camp told GQ that running the piece on Hillary would endanger the piece on Bill.
GQ Editor Jim Nelson insisted in an interview that the two events were not directly linked. "Hillary didn't kill the piece; I killed the piece," he said. While the author, Joshua Green, is a "terrific reporter," he said, "the story didn't end up fully satisfying. . . . I guarantee and promise you, if I'd have had a great Hillary piece, I would have run it."
Green said the spiking had nothing to do with his work. "GQ told me it was a great story and a hell of a reporting job, but they didn't want to jeopardize the Clinton-in-Africa piece," he said. "GQ told me the Clintons were unhappy and threatened to revoke access to Bill Clinton if the Hillary story ran."
The incident, first reported by Politico.com's Ben Smith, reflects the kind of pressure tactics that are not unusual in political campaigns but may be practiced with unprecedented aggressiveness by the tightly controlled Clinton media operation. It also demonstrates how the former president's star power -- he is a media magnet riding a wave of favorable publicity -- can be employed on his wife's behalf.
The freelance article was submitted to GQ by Green, a meticulous and well-regarded Atlantic Monthly writer but not a popular figure in what insiders call Hillaryland. In a cover story for the Atlantic last year, Green portrayed her as a "diligent" New York senator who skillfully forged alliances with detractors but also a cautious politician with "no big ideas."
Green's article for GQ dealt with the history of conflicts in the coterie of staff surrounding Clinton. It focused in particular on complaints about her campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, and questions about the compensation of communications director Howard Wolfson. This spring, as final editing was being done on a second draft of the Green piece for the August issue, Nelson commissioned a "Man of the Year" story for the December issue on Bill Clinton and his charitable foundation.
Jay Carson, a Clinton campaign spokesman, tried to spike the Green article in June with a call to his editor at GQ, Joel Lovell. Carson made no explicit threat, say sources familiar with the incident who would not speak for attribution about private negotiations. Instead, he told Lovell that it would be a tough sell to persuade the former president to cooperate -- and grant the magazine one of the limited seats on his upcoming flight to Africa -- if GQ published a critical story about his wife. Carson declined to comment.
Such linkage is a favorite tactic of Hollywood publicists, who often attempt to get unfavorable stories killed by dangling the possibility of access to a bigger celebrity in their stable. And it is hardly unusual for presidential campaigns to cooperate with positive pieces and push back against potential stories they perceive as negative. The Carson call caused considerable hand-wringing at the New York-based magazine, where editors did not want to be viewed as caving in to Clinton pressure. Nelson was not enthusiastic about the Green article after some flashier details could not be confirmed. Green, told that the story had been spiked because of the Bill Clinton project, decided to use the information in a future Atlantic piece rather than publicly protest.
Nelson said he "tried to judge that piece on its own standards" and added: "Josh did as good a job on this story as anyone could do. It's obviously a tough story to report, and he took it as far as he could."