Presidential races

Hillary Clinton plays rope-a-dope with the national media

Hillary Clinton’s relationship with the national media is coming under new scrutiny following her campaign’s decision to hold back reporters with a rope at an Independence Day parade in New Hampshire.

Photos of the incident forced Team Hillary to play defense with a press that is constantly at Clinton’s heels and may have contributed to a decision by the Democratic front-runner to give her first national TV interview of the presidential campaign on Tuesday.

{mosads}The interview, with CNN, is unlikely to mark a sea change in Clinton’s media strategy, however.

Given the former secretary of State’s well-known distrust of the Fourth Estate and the myriad ways of speaking directly to voters through Twitter, Facebook and other social media, Clinton has the luxury of going around the press when it suits her.

Other Democrats expect her to do so repeatedly — despite cries from journalists.

“It’s definitely a big advantage to her, and it’s making the media even more angry about her than they already had been,” said Joe Trippi, who served as campaign manager for Howard Dean’s 2004 Democratic presidential campaign.

Polls consistently show low esteem for mass media among the public, so it’s unlikely that shutting out reporters will prove to be a liability with voters. 

In fact, the fragmentation of the media has weakened the broadcast networks and major newspapers, which are increasingly dependent on high-profile candidates such as Clinton for exclusives.

CNN was relentless on Monday in promoting its interview.

“It’s actually sometimes been humorous to watch the reaction of the press to her not feeling she needs them as much as they want to be needed by her,” Trippi said.

Still, there is danger in being seen as “hiding” from the press, which is exactly what conservatives and potential 2016 rivals allege Clinton is doing.

GOP candidate Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, described the rope incident as “outrageous” and insisted that “there would have been a riot” if a Republican contender had tried the same tactic.

Speaking Monday morning on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Clinton’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, defended the use of the rope, arguing that the alternative was allowing the media to interfere with Clinton’s interactions with voters. 

Yet in an interview with Fox News’s Howard Kurtz published the previous day, Palmieri said the campaign had been “paying a price” for the scant access that national outlets had been given to Clinton so far, and that “America will see more of her.”

Some observers say they will believe that when they see it. Clinton’s antagonistic relationship with the media dates back at least as far as her time as first lady, while relations between her 2008 presidential campaign and the press corps that covered it bordered on toxic.

Nor was the rope line the first incident to cast an unflattering light on how the Clintons deal with the press. Last September, Amy Chozick of The New York Times wrote about how an aide had escorted her to the restroom and “waited outside the stall” during the Clinton Global Initiative.  

Even some Democrats acknowledge that Clinton and her campaign can sometimes be too insular for their own good. But given Clinton’s dominance over the Democratic field — and the edge she has over her likely GOP opponents in hypothetical general election match-ups — there appears to be little downside to playing it safe.

“I think they’ve been too cautious,” Trippi said. “But, look, it’s hard to argue with where they are standing versus the Republicans at this stage. It’s easy to be a backseat driver.”

“Even in this day and age, the national press corps does have a significant effect on defining the narratives on a campaign,” said Chris Lehane, who served in the Clinton White House and, later, on then-Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. “It’s good for any campaign to have as professional a relationship with the press corps as possible.”

Both Trippi and Lehane, however, noted the degree to which the nature of political campaigning has been changed by technological shifts, notably the growth in social media. 

The 2004 Dean campaign was regarded as trailblazing in its use of technology, yet as Trippi recalled, “there wasn’t a whole lot of broadband, there was no such thing as YouTube … the iPhone wasn’t launched till 2007. … A lot of the mobile platforms you have now were barely coming into existence even when Obama ran.”

Those innovations hold particular appeal for Clinton, who has the ability to deliver her campaign message unfiltered.

“I think traditional press outlets are experiencing some pains that come with a changing media landscape,” said Democratic strategist David Goodfriend. “The media is going to have to accept there are multiple different ways for politicians to connect with the public. Some misconstrue that as evasive. It’s not.”

For Clinton, the social-media approach has involved the sleek video that accompanied her campaign launch and regular tweeting, including some signed by the candidate herself — and minimal exchanges with the press. 

Writing for The Atlantic on Monday, conservative commentator David Frum contrasted the 39 interviews given by former Florida Gov. and presidential candidate Jeb Bush since the beginning of February with the number given by Clinton: “six…including a paid appearance before the Winnipeg chamber of commerce.”

But some insist that, in this era, that will matter a lot less than the media would like to think.

Reporters once “found themselves as the gatekeepers between candidates and public perception,” Goodfriend said. “That is changing in real time.”

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