the national interest

Why the Clintons Can’t Handle the Media

Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

All politicians resent the media, but few can match the mixture of incomprehension, terror, and bitter recrimination mustered by Bill and Hillary Clinton toward the Fourth Estate. Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman have a long, well-turned overview of the Clinton media obsession. The main “news” of the piece — that Clinton fears and detests media scrutiny so much that she may decide not to go through a campaign at all — should probably be disregarded. Still, the depths of the pathology are such that it seems likely to torment the Clintons throughout their campaign and Hillary’s prospective presidency.

It is probably true that the Clintons have suffered more than most at the hands of vacuous pack journalism. But their predicament is far from unique. (Nothing they endured matches the vindictive delight reporters took in turning, for instance, Al Gore and Dan Quayle into punch lines.) They seem to lack any mechanism to distinguish (1) pure media hit jobs; (2) legitimate reporting into actual cases of dishonesty or failure by the Clintons; and (3) instances in which Clintonian paranoia creates the appearance of guilt. They all blend together in an endless narrative of victimhood. “Look, she hates you. Period,” a Clintonite tells Thrush and Haberman. “That’s never going to change.

Photo: Kevin Lamarque/AFP/Getty Images

The Clintons have embraced a series of sociological explanations for the hostility of the political press. Those of us who remember the 1990s recall that Clinton used to elaborately desconstruct the psyche of Howell Raines, then–New York Times editor. Clinton believed that Raines somehow resented him as a fellow white Southerner who had succeeded.

Hillary Clinton has leaned heavily on the explanatory power of sexism, to which she and her husband continue to attribute their 2008 primary defeat. Her ally, David Brock, has publicly expounded upon misogyny in the news media, and both Clintons have publicly endorsed his analysis.

Various fears of changing media technology likewise weave in and out. Former Clinton adviser Philippe Reines tells Thrush and Haberman:

The emphasis has completely shifted away from quality, to quantity and speed, and it’s come at the expense of accuracy and fairness … Every single reporter I sit with bemoans the pressure to produce more and produce it faster, and acknowledges both come at the expense of fundamental editorial standards like getting it right.

The nostalgia is hard to understand, given that the old journalism cycle that still prevailed at the beginning of the Clinton presidency — driven by newspaper reporters writing a single story for filing at night, and an evening television-news broadcast — yielded some of the most hostile reporting of the Clintons’ entire career. A 1995 internal administration memo, attempting to make sense of their obsession, reported, “evidence exists that Republican staffers surf the internet, interacting with extremists in order to exchange the ideas and information.

The various streams of thought trickling through the Clintons’ brains do not converge upon any coherent strategy for dealing with the media. Occasionally, Clinton staffers lash out in pointless rituals of abuse. (Reines responded to questions from BuzzFeed like so: “Thank you for the opportunity to answer BuLLfeed’s inane questions. I typically don’t respond to BuLLfeed inquiries, but given the extra special inanity BuLLfeed put into today’s inquiry, I’ve answered each of BuLLfeed’s inane questions with as much specificity as possible.” The more pervasive response is sullen resignation.

The Clintons’ embrace of Sidney Blumenthal, the journalist turned shadowy operative who joined the administration in the 1990s, may be the most disturbing manifestation of their obsession. Fellow Clinton staffers called him “Rasputin,” a nickname that may reveal even more than intended. Like Rasputin, Blumenthal was brought into the palace to diagnose a baffling and uncurable malady — Blumenthal’s status as former journalist lent his dark insights into the trade a special legitimacy — but proceeded only to make them worse. By the 2008 campaign, Blumenthal was circulating exactly the sort of wild, right-wing slanders, this time directed against Barack Obama, that he had decried when conservatives used them against the Clintons a decade before.

The eternal conundrum of the news media is that politicians can never really win. The elected official’s idea of success is the absence of negative coverage. But that is not a condition reporters find desirable or even tolerable. Reporters who fail to produce critical coverage are failures. Politicians can shape and mitigate criticism, but banishing it altogether is impossible. Political reporters feast upon real failures (like the bungled launch of or imagined ones (like the IRS targeting of Obama’s enemies, which turned out not to exist.)

The political media is shallow, pack-minded, and almost entirely lacking in memory or context. It is a problem for politicians to manage. Turning that problem into a narcissistic saga of personalized grievance is a way of making it unmanageable.