Hillary Clinton Was Probably Hiding Her Emails From the Media, So They Became a Big Media Story

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton checks her PDA upon departure in a military C-17 plane from Malta bound for Tripoli, on October 18, 2011.
Photo: Kevin Lamarque/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this week, the New York Times revealed that Hillary Rodham Clinton relied exclusively on a private email address while she was secretary of State. And nobody really seems to know why.   

The story sheds a lot of light on Clinton’s habits, but not her motivations. Was she trying to preserve continuity with her old accounts? Was it somehow easier to manage her email on a nongovernmental device? Was she trying to avoid Freedom of Information Act requests, congressional investigations, and leaks? Given the void of information, that is the predominant explanatory narrative out there at the moment, especially in conservative circles. “What was Hillary Clinton trying to hide?” asks a petition being circulated by the Republican Party. “Demand that Hillary release all of her State Department emails.” Potential 2016 competitor Jeb Bush tweeted a taunt about her transparency, too. 

For their part, Clinton’s backers argue that there might be a lot more smoke than fire. It’s not clear that Clinton violated any federal rules or regulations with her use of a private email address, for one. And it’s not clear that Clinton had anything to hide, let alone that she skirted federal rules to try to hide it. “Thanks to millions of dollars in federal investigations, we now know concretely that Hillary Clinton, following precedent, used a personal email address just as Secretaries of State before her did,” argues Correct the Record, a group devoted to batting down bad news about the candidate. “If following the standard protocols of your predecessors is itself news, then it would have been two years ago when first reported.” 

Correct the Record argues the story is just another unfair, overheated, overwrought controversy manufactured by the media. And not that she’s talking, but my guess is that if she did, Clinton would say the same thing. She hates the press. She distrusts the press. She has said so much herself. “Innocent comments or jests erupt into controversies within seconds of being reported on the news wires,” she wrote in her biography Living History, as noted by Ken Auletta in The New Yorker. “Rumors become the story du jour.” In a 1993 diary entry, her friend Diane Blair said that Clinton described the press as having “big egos and no brains.” And, my friends in the campaign press acknowledge, she surrounds herself with aides and advisers who think the same. 

So perhaps in part to avoid some bad press, she used a private email account. But inevitably the existence of that private email account broke out. And inevitably the press ended up being bad. It’s conjecture at this point. But I think we’ve seen other cases of that self-reinforcing media dynamic play out again and again in Clintonland. Take this passage from Auletta’s story: 

Reporters on the 2008 campaign complained that Clinton was remote and came across as scripted and inauthentic. Reines bridles at the suggestion that Clinton or her handlers contributed to the problem. “Why, because she only spent ninety seconds with them when she brought them bagels to the back of the bus? And if she spent nine minutes the coverage would have been fair? That’s apparently the takeaway: because she didn’t spend enough time with them and their bagels, they couldn’t be fair.” He insisted that “she spent a tremendous amount of time with the press, formally, informally, off the record,” and added that it’s not easy “to pal around with hundreds of people.”

Or take this passage from a deeply reported Politico takeout on Clinton’s distaste for us ink-stained wretches

For much of her career, she has remained publicly unwilling (and, former advisers say, at times even privately incapable) of differentiating between malicious, coordinated political attacks and the legitimate scouring of her record undertaken by responsible reporters. In 1996, she laid down this marker in a letter to her best friend, Diane Blair, according to recently released papers. “I’m not stupid; I know I should do more to suck up to the press, I know it confuses people when I change my hairdos,” Blair quoted Clinton as saying, after Blair suggested she “fake” a “friendly” attitude toward the media. “I know I should pretend not to have any opinions—but I’m just not going to. I’m used to winning and I intend to win on my own terms.”

Clinton has gradually learned how to fake it. But to this day she’s surrounded herself with media conspiracy theorists who remain some of her favorite confidants, urged wealthy allies to bankroll independent organizations tasked with knee-capping reporters perceived as unfriendly, withdrawn into a gilded shell when attacked and rolled her eyes at several generations of aides who suggested she reach out to journalists rather than just disdaining them. Not even being nice to her in print has been a guarantor of access; reporters likely to write positive stories have been screened as ruthlessly as perceived enemies, dismissed as time-sucking sycophants or pretend-friends.

Of course, Clinton’s defensive standoffishness with the press makes more than a little sense. There’s the obvious, persistent sexism. There’s the tenacious, amply funded right-wing media devoted to pulling her down. There are her opponents on the left. There are all the scandals — so many scandals — that she has lived through. Nevertheless, there’s a certain form of self-sabotage where you act in fear of a certain outcome, and in doing so guarantee that very outcome. I’m sure that psychologists or the Germans have a word for it. You hate being alone so you pester all your friends to hang out, and end up with fewer things on the calendar. You despise being fat, so you go on that lemonade diet, fall apart in a day, and end up gaining five pounds. You loathe the idea of your personal correspondence getting out to a press you consider pathological, so you jury-rig a private email account and end up in the midst of a massive media cluster anyway. 

For Clinton, the worst part might be that there’s no good press without more press, which means talking to the press — the very same press skewering her at the moment.