One is a media omnivore who hasn’t hesitated to bash the press while simultaneously benefiting from its devoted attention. The other is cautious and wary of the people who cover her — a legacy, perhaps, of nearly a quartercentury of bruising run-ins with the media.
A general election matchup between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, which seems all but inevitable, presents two highly contrasting figures, not just on the issues but in their approach to the journalists who report about them. Each has long been in the media glare — they are among the most-covered people ever to represent their parties — and each has a comet’s tail of “narratives” that both hurt and help them.
Yet even after 10 months of campaigning, some mysteries remain: Will Trump temper his more extreme rhetoric in a bid for independent votes and to unite conservatives behind him? Will Clinton shake off or confront questions about “corruption” — already an emerging Trump line of attack — and her long record of public service?
Fresh off the Indiana primary victory on Tuesday that more or less sealed the Republican nomination for him, Trump was back to his typical media tactics Wednesday morning. He gave interviews over the phone to morning news programs on NBC, ABC, Fox News and MSNBC.
Trump’s willingness to do phone interviews — and the networks’ willingness to let him — was one of the strategies that helped him dominate media attention during the primary season. Some programs, such as “Fox News Sunday” and NBC’s “Meet the Press,” have banned the practice, which prevents viewers from seeing a candidate’s body language and facial reactions. But others have no such qualms; during the March primaries, Trump did 39 of his 63 interviews with the six leading broadcast and cable networks via phone, according to Media Matters for America, the liberal-leaning watchdog group.
Clinton, meanwhile, has engaged with the media more sparingly than Trump and granted interviews only intermittently during the campaign. She rarely holds news conferences, in contrast to Trump, who has done so after several of his primary victories.
Her relative reticence came up during an interview Wednesday with CNN. Asked by anchor Anderson Cooper whether she intended to co-opt some of Trump’s playbook and make herself “more available” to reporters during the general election, Clinton replied: “Well, look, he did it and it worked for him, and I think reporters now have a chance to ask some tougher questions. It’s not enough to call in and give somebody a platform. . . . I think it’s time to get serious. The man is the presumptive nominee, and being a loose cannon doesn’t in any way protect him, I hope, from being asked the hard questions that he should have been asked during the whole primary process.”
Clinton never answered whether she would herself become “more available.”
Although Clinton is the leading Democratic candidate, she, unlike Trump, still faces opposition from within her party. Bernie Sanders has vowed to continue contesting the nomination until the Democratic convention; Sanders defeated Clinton in the Indiana primary on Tuesday.
Clinton “most likely will continue to avoid the press,” said Alexander Marlow, the editor of Breitbart.com, the popular libertarian-conservative news site that has strongly backed Trump. “There are simply too many holes in her candidacy that even a semi-diligent media can exploit. Her strategy seems to be simple: minimize exposure.”
Trump still faces potential opposition from some elements of the conservative media. He was most famously denounced by more than 20 leading conservative intellectuals in a special January issue of the National Review, a pillar of the conservative establishment. Marlow doesn’t believe the conservative media will unite behind Trump in the general election, “but it doesn’t really matter, since no one is listening to them anyway. The Republican electorate summarily rejected” them.
A key factor may be Fox News, the leading cable news network and a powerful voice in Republican politics. Before his campaign-ending loss in Indiana on Tuesday, Ted Cruz complained that Fox News chairman Roger Ailes and his boss, billionaire mogul Rupert Murdoch, had turned Fox News into “the Donald Trump network,” with hours of favorable coverage.
Fox News’s representatives responded that Cruz’s campaign had turned down multiple offers of live interviews, taped interviews and town halls, and that Cruz had still appeared 120 times on the network. “Senator Cruz is wrong,” a Fox News spokesman said in a brief statement.
Neither Trump nor Clinton is likely to change their basic approach much in the general election, predicted Bill Jasso, a professor at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. “But I believe part of the responsibility for making this a more substantive campaign has to be with media,” he said. “They have to be more substantive in their questioning. This has to be more about the issues than all the trash that’s going to be thrown.”
Which is exactly how mainstream media outlets such as the Associated Press will approach Trump vs. Clinton, said David Scott, who edits the wire service’s political coverage. The AP will seek to tell the story of the campaign both from the candidates’ perspective and by reporting on voters, he said. “We’re looking for balance for both candidates. There’s no precise science to it, but I think about it every day. And my predecessor and her predecessors thought about it, too.”