Later this afternoon, Hillary Clinton will give a press conference to answer questions about the controversy over her use of email at the State Department. This is obviously something she didn’t want to do, but she felt she had no choice.
The real question for her now is not whether she can get this particular issue behind her, because I’m sure she can. It’s whether she can fundamentally change a toxic relationship with the political press that threatens her entire campaign.
Every politician is distrustful of the media, and every one remembers stories reporters got wrong or times they thought they were treated unfairly. But it’s different with Hillary Clinton. As one anonymous former aide told Politico last year, speaking of reporters in general, “Look, she hates you. Period. That’s never going to change.”
Those personal feelings aren’t surprising. For over two decades now, we’ve seen a recurring pattern. Some accusation about Bill or Hillary Clinton emerges, and the news media practically explode with energy. Though the facts are murky at first, the blanket coverage is justified on the grounds that the story “fits into a narrative” about the Clintons and scandals — in other words, it isn’t necessarily because the story justifies the coverage on its own terms, but because of stories that have been written before. Then there are lengthy investigations and explorations, and in the end, it turns out the Clintons did little if anything wrong, or at the very least the accusations were wildly overblown. That final accounting is given at best a cursory mention, despite all the breathless coverage that came before it.
Every case is a bit different, but this was how things usually went both during Bill Clinton’s presidency and after. So it’s understandable that Hillary Clinton would distrust the media (and it’s particularly bizarre to see conservatives claiming that the liberal media is trying to help Clinton by covering up the email story, which those conservatives would never have known about had it not been broken by the New York Times — just like so many other controversies). But there’s a hard reality she has to face: when it comes to her, the media aren’t likely to change, especially not on their own.
This email story is about as clear evidence as you could ask for. Is it a legitimate news story? Yes it is. Should reporters be asking about it? Yes they should — that’s their job. But if you stepped back and looked at all the coverage, you’d think that her emails were going to show that she personally ordered the 9/11 attacks, created the Ebola virus, killed Jimmy Hoffa, and wrote the screenplay for “Battlefield Earth.” A Google News search for articles mentioning “Hillary Clinton emails” in the last week produces 77,800 results. It’s possible that the emails will turn out to contain blockbuster information that justifies all that coverage, but I doubt it.
The question Hillary Clinton now confronts is this: Okay, so your distrust of the media is well-earned. Now what do you do? When you’re faced with an emerging story like this one, do you follow the same pattern you have in the past, which usually involved trying to keep information as closely held as possible and avoiding answering questions? Because that didn’t work too well. It usually ended up dragging the story out far longer than it deserved, as reporters became convinced you were hiding something sinister.
We now face the prospect of another year and a half of this: an endless parade of micro-scandals and faux scandals, every time justified on the basis of “the narrative,” all of them given more oxygen by the way Clinton and those around her react.
Can Clinton change this dynamic? Only if she engages in a wholesale reimagining of her relationship to the press.
Clinton has to put aside what she perceives as the wrongs the media have inflicted upon her in the past, whether it’s the coverage of Whitewater or the good press Barack Obama got in 2008, and make the decision that she will no longer consider herself at war with those who cover her. Because when you obviously feel that way, they respond in kind.
Clinton can start with this at today’s news conference. She should answer every question there is about the emails, fully and unequivocally, and maybe even admit that if she had to do it over again, she’d do some things differently. (As David Corn notes, reporters find the Clintons’ tendency to deny that they ever made even the tiniest mistake exasperating.) Today’s interaction with the press should set a precedent, one in which openness and accessibility are the default setting, not something she will consent to only under duress.