The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hillary Clinton promised a new relationship with the media. She was kidding.

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton talked about her "complicated" relationship with the press during a keynote address at this year's Toner Prize Celebration. (Video: The Toner Program in Political Reporting)

"I am all about new beginnings," Hillary Clinton said at event honoring the late New York Times Robin Toner Monday night in Washington. "A new grandchild, another new hairstyle, a new e-mail account. The relationship with the press. So here goes: no more secrecy. No more zone of privacy. After all, what good did that do me?”

Clinton made clear that her change of heart was decidedly tongue in cheek, adding: "Before I go any further, look under your chair, you’ll find a simple non-disclosure agreement my attorneys drew up. Old habits last."


Here's the thing: Clinton shouldn't be joking. She badly needs a new relationship with the press after a 2008 campaign that was marked by the remarkably uncivil daily interactions between her press team and the reporters tasked with covering the campaign. (I am far from blameless in that as a participant in plenty of skirmishes that, in retrospect, were so tiny and meaningless as to not make much of a difference in even the short term.)

And, in her hires for the not-yet-announced-but-come-on-everyone-knows-she's-doing-it presidential campaign there does seem to be an acknowledgment that the press shop needs an entirely different approach. As Peter Nicholas wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal:

Mrs. Clinton’s new campaign is shaping up to be a hybrid of longtime Clinton and Obama political operatives. Tensions are inevitable. But Mrs. Clinton seems to want some sort of rapprochement with the press.
Three of the people she has recently tapped for key spots in her media operation suggest as much. All have strong ties to the press corps; none is known for a combative approach to the media.

He's exactly right.  Jennifer Palmieri, who is expected to be the communications director, has a long history with the national media -- from her time working for John Edwards' presidential bid to her service as a senior press person in the Obama White House. Brian Fallon, expected to be the national press secretary, spent time on Capitol Hill with the irrepressible Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) before going to head press operations at the Justice Department. And Jesse Ferguson, who is expected to play a major role in the Clinton 2016 press shop, comes out of the world of House Democratic politics and is known -- by me and lots of other reporters -- for his reasonableness.

Those hires will likely make some difference in how the Clinton campaign deals with the media. But, the key question is not really the philosophy of the people Clinton has hired when it comes to dealing with the media. It's whether she (and her husband) have actually changed their mind in any meaningful way about their approach to the press.

And, in that regard there's little evidence to suggest that anything like a new beginning is likely.  Hillary Clinton's handling of her news conference addressing the email controversy a few weeks back was guarded and careful -- unwilling to play ball with the media up to and including the decision to stage it at the United Nations -- a less-than-ideal location for the crush of media at the event. And there was that whole following-reporters-to-the-bathroom thing.

Bill Clinton, in a speech last spring at Georgetown, lamented the way the press covers politicians. “If a policymaker is a political leader and is covered primarily by the political press, there is a craving that borders on addictive to have a storyline," he said. "And then once people settle on the storyline, there is a craving that borders on blindness to shoehorn every fact, every development, every thing that happens into the story line, even if it’s not the story.”  And, Hillary Clinton said much the same in a speech at the University of Connecticut around the same time; "A lot of serious news reporting has become more entertainment driven and more opinion-driven as opposed to factual," she said at the time. "People book onto the shows, political figures, commentators who will be controversial who will be provocative because it’s a good show. You might not learn anything but you might be entertained and I think that’s just become an unfortunate pattern that I wish could be broken."

Now, there is truth in the Clinton analysis of the media. The growth of journalists as "brands", the rise of social media and the growth in both the ability to measure traffic and the increasing preeminence of traffic as a definition of journalistic success have altered journalism since even the last time Hillary Clinton ran for president -- and often in not-so-good ways.

But, it's clear that the Clintons are not simply offering a clinical analysis on the media. Their feelings about the press are deeply held and laden with emotion, beliefs forged over more than two decades in the national spotlight. As Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush wrote in an absolutely seminal piece on Hillary Clinton's relationship (or lack thereof) with the media in mid-2014:

While the white-hot anger she once felt toward the media has since hardened into a pessimistic resignation (with a dash of self-pity), she’s convinced another campaign would inevitably invite more bruising scrutiny, as her recent comments suggest. Public life “gives you a sense of being kind of dehumanized as part of the experience,” she lamented a few weeks ago to a Portland, Ore., audience. “You really can’t ever feel like you’re just having a normal day.”
When asked why Clinton hasn’t done more to reach out to reporters over the years, one Clinton campaign veteran began to spin several theories. She was too busy, she was too prone to speaking her mind and the like—then abruptly cut to the chase:
“Look, she hates you. Period. That’s never going to change.”

While "hate" might be overstating things somewhat, it is absolutely clear that Hillary Clinton's disdain for how the media does its collective job isn't going to disappear or even change because she says a few nice words at a dinner or hires a handful of senior press operatives who have a different approach to the media than her past flacks.  Yes, people like Palmieri, Fallon and Ferguson can temper some of the media suspicion in Clintonworld but they will never cure the candidate (or her spouse) of their fundamental dislike and, more importantly, distrust of the press.

Now, distrusting the press isn't exactly disqualifying for a presidential candidate. In fact, bashing the media is one of the most bipartisan applause lines a pol can deliver; I have been in Democratic and Republican audiences in which a little press-bashing elicits huge cheers. And, whining from reporters about access to a candidate or polite treatment from a campaign isn't exactly the sort of stuff that the average voter feels a ton of sympathy for.

And yet, it's hard to dispute that Clinton's relationship with the media played a role in just how difficult -- and disappointing -- that campaign was for her. Clinton has made some moves in the last few weeks that suggest she recognizes that she can't repeat those mistakes this time around. But, campaigns take their lead from the candidate. And Clinton doesn't seem to, really, have adjusted her view of the media in any meaningful way between 2008 and today. That matters.