On Tuesday, the Associated Press ran a heavily promoted story reporting that “more than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money—either personally or through companies or groups—to the Clinton Foundation.” The story was disseminated widely on social media, including by reporters from other outlets. But that claim—which constituted the opening sentence of the article—and the general tilt of the piece was factually wrong. Its entire premise was built on the kind of tendentious data-shaping that is the bread and butter of opposition researchers, not news outlets.
The next day, Clinton’s campaign manager appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, where he was grilled about Clinton’s notorious reluctance to hold press conferences.
These two episodes aren’t officially related, but together they form a microcosm of Clinton’s famously toxic relationship with the news media. She knows as well as anyone that members of the media will advocate unapologetically for greater access for themselves; but in her mind, near-daily stories about how long it’s been since she’s held a press conference are preferable to whatever feeding frenzy would follow an actual press conference.
There is a cyclical, chicken-egg like quality to the dysfunction, where Clinton’s distrust of the press invites added scrutiny, which at times proves unwarranted, and thus breeds more distrust. As we’re seeing this week, breaking the cycle would require Clinton to do things she’s unwilling to do, and the press to do things it is institutionally incapable of doing. The relationship is beyond repair.
You can reach that conclusion no matter where you begin along this recursive loop, but the easiest way is to imagine Clinton hosting a press conference now or anytime in the recent past.
Press conferences aren’t the only way for Clinton to subject herself to media scrutiny, or to grant access to reporters, but it is probably the best way to guarantee the public’s interest is served. I like press conferences; I’ve participated in hundreds of them. In many cases they serve to flatten and distribute access, so that information isn’t filtered through a single intermediary. In an interview with The New York Times, the only intermediary is The New York Times. At a press conference, smaller outlets, outlets with diverse regional or substantive interests or obsessions, are also represented.
But at the same time, they are the worst way for politicians to remain in control of their own narratives, or of the kinds of stories they want to dignify with their responses. Avoiding them may stem from a desire to avoid scrutiny of wrongdoing, but it can also be based on a sense that the issues capturing the media’s imagination don’t merit high-level input.
During the Democratic National Convention, Donald Trump lashed out at Clinton for, among other things, going months without holding a press conference, alleging “the reason is because there’s no way she can answer questions because the job she has done is so bad.”
At the time, the press had timely questions to ask about hacked DNC emails and the resignation of party chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. But they were also heavily fixated on whether any member of Clinton’s family would allude to the fact that her husband had been unfaithful to her in the prior century.
If Clinton had answered Trump’s call back in late July, this is what she would have been asked to address.
Likewise, if Clinton were to hold a press conference this week, she would face tough questions—about whether it was appropriate for the Clinton Foundation to operate as it did during her years at the State Department—and questions that could resolve lingering inconsistencies between her public statements about her email protocols and those of FBI Director James Comey. But she would also face questions based on the unproven premise that she used the family charity as a pay-to-play front. Questions about myriad quids where there are no quos, and health rumors that have no basis in fact. Even if reporters weren’t interested in these questions, many would feel obligated to raise them anyhow because Trump and other Republicans have made them central to their critique of Clinton in recent days.
That isn’t to say Clinton’s determination to avoid press conferences is good or wise; it’s possible she wouldn’t do one even if she knew it would be the most high-minded affair in the history of journalism. As president, there are times when fielding questions from the press corps is practically unavoidable. Clinton’s always been better liked by peers and the press (and, really, everybody) when serving the public than when she’s in the political fray, and it’s plausible, though unlikely, that if she runs a clean ship and Republicans dissolve into recriminations after the election, her relationship with the media will improve. But the presidency is the most public of offices, and Republicans are as likely to paper over divisions by abusing their oversight authority, seeding conspiracies in the press, as they are to be driven to disarray.
As long as reporters are telegraphing their fixations on trivia and optics, she will scorn them; and reporters won’t willingly shelve those questions to make the proposition of a press conference seem more enticing.