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Clinton's media tensions renewed by email furor

Clinton's media tensions renewed by email furor
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Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhy does Bernie Sanders want to quash Elon Musk's dreams? Republican legislators target private sector election grants How Democrats can defy the odds in 2022 MORE’s presidential campaign is blaming the media for fomenting the controversy over her use of a private email server. But, in doing so, it is writing yet another chapter in the story of the former secretary of State’s tumultuous relationship with the press. 

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On Wednesday morning, the campaign’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, told MSNBC’s Luke Russert that “it’s worth repeating what Hillary said as she was walking away from the press conference, which is: The press has a lot of questions about the emails but voters don’t.” 

Palmieri was referring to the news conference Clinton had given the previous day in Nevada, which was widely seen as very unhelpful to her cause, given her evident irritation with reporters’ questions.  

Her testy responses to Ed Henry of Fox News were particularly striking, with her scornful reply to whether the server had been wiped — “What, like with a cloth or something?” — going viral on social media. 

Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications, called the “cloth” response “beyond pathetic.” 

He added, “You would think that an old pro like Hillary would have been prepared for intensive questioning about the emails. ... What is wrong with your preparations team that they let her end up on the receiving end of a really bad press conference?”  

The overall tone of that encounter underlined a return of the tensions between Clinton and the media that have been seen throughout her political career. 

During her losing 2008 quest for the Democratic nomination, the toxic atmosphere between her campaign and the reporters covering it was an open secret.  

At one point during that bid, former President Bill Clinton gave voice to his irritation, blasting the media for facilitating a “fairly tale” about the candidacy of then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).  

Back during the Clinton administration, it was Hillary Clinton who famously claimed to have identified a “vast right-wing conspiracy” targeting her husband and herself. During Bill Clinton’s first run for the White House, in 1992, he pioneered the use of a campaign “war room” to push back swiftly and aggressively at coverage that was not to his team’s liking. 

Veterans of that war room are now — more than 20 years later — singing the same song about unfair media coverage of Hillary Clinton.  

James Carville, a top aide to Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, complained on Wednesday that the whole furor over Hillary’s email server and the supposed Democratic panic around it was “mostly stupid media people talking to stupid media people” and that it was ultimately “not going to amount to a hill of beans.” 

Carville, speaking on MSNBC, added, “This is foolishness. I’m having to come out of my vacation to deal with this kind of stupidity that these people are putting out.” 

But some outside observers are not persuaded that this kind of rhetoric is effective, especially as the controversy shows no sign of abating. 

“Hillary has always had a prickly relationship with the press and it just doesn’t always fly right,” Berkovitz said. “It’s not like you are an unknown-commodity candidate and all of a sudden the press is beating up on you. She’s been around since the start of the 90s. To play the ‘the press is being mean and unfair’ trope isn’t going to work for her.” 

The Clinton team has enjoyed some victories, notably in pushing back on a New York Times story last month that initially suggested, apparently erroneously, that a criminal inquiry was being sought into whether the former secretary herself had “mishandled sensitive government information.” 

But a lingering question concerns what Clinton can actually do to tamp down the overall controversy. Republicans have a vested interest in keeping it going and Clinton may have played into their hands by delaying the release of the now-infamous server to the FBI more than five months after its existence first became public. 

The idea of doing a high-profile interview is made more problematic by the enmity between Clinton and the media. Such an encounter would also be dominated by questions over the email matter, with the risk that a single fumbled answer from the candidate would give the story fresh legs.

The standard advice of public relations professionals about managing a crisis — get all the information out as fast as possible — is further complicated by the legal inquiries that are now underway. Clinton herself will testify before a congressional committee during a hearing in October about the fatal 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya. 

“You don’t have to be Clarence Darrow to figure out that she is constrained in her responses by the hearings that are coming up,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic strategist who has worked with Clinton in the past but is not doing so in this campaign. “It is very hard for her to be much more forthcoming, because she is really in a terrible position: She wants to reply but she can’t reply and ... so her staff has got to try to put the story in some context.” 

Those contextualizing efforts can have their moments of awkwardness, too. Palmieri, asked by John Heilemann of Bloomberg about Clinton’s use of private email in a Wednesday afternoon interview, replied, “She didn’t really think it through.” 

In a conference call also on Wednesday afternoon, Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon was quoted trying to clarify the issue of whether classified material came across Clinton’s server by saying she was “the passive recipient of unwitting information that subsequently became classified.” 

That may prove to be true, but it is hardly the kind of snappy response that makes for easy or effective communication. 

Meanwhile, the Clinton-media tensions seem only likely to intensify. 

“She’s topical and she’s interesting,” Sheinkopf said, “but being interesting is not necessarily good.”