Hillary Clinton doesn’t like the media, and they don’t like her. Both have legitimate reasons for feeling as they do, but there’s no getting around that simple fact. Clinton’s grievances go back two and a half decades, and what has reporters agitated at the moment is that Clinton is making it difficult for them to do their jobs, by not talking much to the them or providing the steady stream of public events out of which they can write stories.
Their frustration is starting to bubble to the surface. New York Times reporter Jason Horowitz, following Clinton in Iowa, wrote a story today about how her campaign is keeping reporters at arm’s length, then tweeted a link to the story with the description: “Queen Hillary and the Everyday Americans of the Round Table distribute alms to the clamoring press.”
But if Clinton is overly concerned about their feelings, it’s hard to tell. Instead, she’s acting as though she isn’t afraid of the press at all.
We’re in the midst of the second media revolution Bill and Hillary Clinton have lived through, both of which changed how politicians relate to reporters. In the first one, which occurred in the 1990s, the media universe expanded and became more partisan, as conservative talk radio became a major force and cable news emerged to cover politics around the clock (Fox News was founded in 1996, in time for the Lewinsky scandal). The incumbent news organizations found themselves pressured by the right, bullied into covering stories they might have paid little attention to and forced to accelerate their news-gathering. Talk radio and cable were perfect for taking allegations against the president — legitimate or otherwise — and forcing them onto the agenda of the “old media” outlets, where they gained legitimacy and shaped the events of the day.
But despite all the scandal fodder his administration (and his private life, and his past) provided, Bill Clinton managed to not only survive but leave office with approval ratings in the 60s.
Fifteen years later, Hillary Clinton is running for president in the midst of another media revolution, one that not only pressures mainstream news organizations and the reporters who populate them, but makes those reporters feel threatened and even marginalized.
Look what has happened since she began running. We’ve already had a couple of supposed scandals — her State Department emails and the Clinton Foundation’s donors — which were given blanket coverage in the mainstream media. And how have Clinton’s fortunes been affected? Barely at all. She’s still leading all her potential general election opponents by eight or nine points.
Don’t forget, in ordinary circumstances, reporters love scandal. Scandal is exciting, it’s dramatic, at its best it’s full of juicy revelations, scrambling politicians, and uncertain outcomes. Clinton scandals, on the other hand, have gotten awfully boring. Some accusation emerges, we learn that Bill or Hillary (or both) did something questionable, Republicans cry that it’s worse than Watergate, the Clintons are less than forthcoming with information, and in the end it turns out to have been a tempest in a teapot. Go through it over and over and it ceases to be interesting, for both reporters and the public.
And while I don’t have any direct evidence for this, I suspect that to at least some degree reporters share conservatives’ frustration that all the Clinton scandals and mini-scandals and pseudo-scandals haven’t taken them down. In a way it’s an affront to the power of the press. When we splash headline after headline about allegations of misbehavior across our papers, when we devote hour after hour on television to the fact that “questions are being raised,” well that’s supposed to make an impact. It’s supposed to drive the politician in question to the depths of ignominy. It’s not supposed to leave them in exactly the same position as they were when it started.
Unlike the last media revolution, the current one may work in Hillary Clinton’s favor. She seems to understand that a snarky article in the New York Times is not going to hurt her, not when she’s already so well-known and there are so many other sources of information competing for voters’ attention. She can reach those voters through local news, through YouTube, through Twitter, through Facebook, and through a hundred other channels. And without a strong primary challenge, she has all the time she wants. If she doesn’t feel like taking reporters’ questions for a couple of weeks at a stretch, she doesn’t have to.
All that, of course, will make the reporters covering her even more perturbed. They’re professionals, but they’re also human beings whose feelings, worries, and resentments inevitably leak through into their work. They already know Clinton is suspicious of them, and they don’t like it when they get shunted to the back of the room, unable to ask what they hope will be tough questions, while Clinton makes dull small-talk with another group of Iowans.
Everything she’s doing communicates to them that they aren’t as important as they once were. It’s bound to get them angry and make them like her even less than they already do, which could make their coverage even harsher. And though like any politician she’d rather have friendlier coverage, at this point it looks like a bargain she’s more than willing to make.