Can Hillary get away with the Obama model of treating the press like fools?
posted at 12:31 pm on March 8, 2015 by Noah Rothman
Over the weekend, former President Bill Clinton confessed that his organization, The Clinton Foundation, had taken money from unsavory foreign governments in the Middle East. He added, however, that this practice was not only a matter of limited concern for the public, but it could also have positive effects. And not just for the foundation’s bottom line.
“Do we agree with everything they do?” No,” Clinton said of the United Arab Emirates at an event in Miami on Saturday. “Do I agree with all the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia? No.” He failed to make any mention of Algeria, a nation whose conspicuous donations to the Clinton Foundation while Hillary Clinton served as secretary of state was alleged by The New York Times to have directly violated an ethics agreement with the Obama administration.
“I believe we have done a lot more good than Harm,” the 42nd President averred. That’s nice. We may never know for sure.
When it was revealed that the Clintons had quite possibly sold the American government’s influence for hard cash, it was disturbing. When it was discovered that Hillary Clinton’s evasive emailing practices, which violated both law and administration guidelines, prevented those tasked with oversight from ever definitively knowing whether American diplomatic security had been willfully compromised, it became a scandal of the first order.
Clinton’s defenders contend that the former secretary has been as transparent as she is going to be, as though that is a sufficient defense. She released some 55,000 pages of documents to Foggy Bottom for review, keeping only the choicest samples set aside for reasons known only to her. But how can anyone fully and independently verify that Clinton has been fully transparent? “We’re going to have verification by her being believed that she’s going to turn over everything,” Clinton ally Lanny Davis told MSNBC’s Tamron Hall in a contentious segment focused on the email controversy on Friday.
Clap your hands, children, or Tink dies.
So what did Bill Clinton have to say about this week’s revelations regarding his wife’s emails and how they relate to the simultaneously unfolding Clinton Foundation donations scandal? Sadly, that pressing matter went unaddressed. But how could a journalist of any merit have failed to press the former president on this issue when it has become the singular focus of the Beltway press corps and has the capacity to scuttle the former secretary of state’s ambitions? Because Bill Clinton wasn’t talking to a journalist.
“Mr. Clinton’s remarks came at an event at the University of Miami, sponsored by the Clinton Global Initiative University, in which he was interviewed onstage by comedian Larry Wilmore, host of Comedy Central’s ‘The Nightly show,’” New York Times journalist Maggie Haberman reported.
Perhaps as a result of President Barack Obama’s insulting but nevertheless successful “new media strategy,” the Clintons appear inclined to address their critics by subjecting themselves to inquisition only from friendly interlocutors and those who are not and never claimed to be reporters.
This strategy is already generating eye-rolling from seasoned political reporters. “The first (real) interview Hillary conducts as a candidate is going to be one for the ages,” Politico reporter Glenn Thrush observed. “Steve Kroft (again)?”
Why not? This veteran CBS News reporter, who so deftly stage managed a joint interview with both Clinton and Obama so that both appeared warm and gracious toward one another, might be best equipped to defuse this scandal. Once Clinton has outlasted those few in the political media who are not blessed with saintly patience and the nation has moved on to new and more pressing subject matter, only then will the Democratic Party’s presumed 2016 standard-bearer consent to a grilling. Kroft, or whomever Whitehaven taps for this honor, will do what is expected of them; pressing just hard enough on the wound to make the subject issue a theatrical wince, but not so hard as to leave the injury – cauterized by time – bleeding afresh.
At no point, it seems, will the hungry and eager reporters in America’s political press corps grow so irritated by being sidelined by the Democratic Party’s leading politicians that they ever refuse to accept it. The journalistic class, or even a rogue reporter or two, could come out and explicitly accuse Democrats of an unacceptable effort to avoid looking the American public in the eye and explaining themselves. The opposite is more often true. Many cheer Democrats’ “new media” obfuscation as smart politics.
When the 44th President of the United States debased the office he occupies by doing his best insurance salesman impression during a sit-down interview with a woman who bathes in cereal milk and inserts prophylactics in her nostrils, the reviewers glowed.
“Perhaps it’s because the media helped set the bar ridiculously low for this afternoon’s interviews, but in the end, they actually came off as far more substantive than anyone could have predicted,” Mediaite’s Matt Wilstein agreed.
“President Barack Obama has never been shy in expressing his distaste for some of traditional media’s bad habits,” CNN’s Brian Stelter observed. He went on to make the case for why the torch of political journalism will inevitably pass from Gwen Ifill to GloZell.
Along with the stars of YouTube, Obama also spoke to institutions like Vox.com and BuzzFeed – the Steve Krofts of the internet, if you will — in the effort to pitch the Affordable Care Act to young people who will subsidize the care provided to the sick and the elderly. Perhaps Clinton could follow in the president’s footsteps and explain her behavior in listicles or request that her allies craft an explanatory post in which we learn why the Federal Records Act is outmoded and should have been scrapped long ago.
If the press were truly perturbed by the Clinton/Obama “new media strategy,” figures like Lanny Davis and David Brock wouldn’t be able to find a camera. The unconvincing exculpations offered by these and other Clinton surrogates would be deemed insufficient. Journalists would demand that the former secretary of state show herself and answer to the American people for her dangerously careless and possibly malicious actions. Reporters would invite the threats from Philippe Reines and the overwrought insinuations that they and their outlets would be frozen out of a Clinton administration. Her continued silence, it would be implied, is an admission of guilt.
But that kind of behavior from the press is more often than not reserved for Republicans.
Politico Magazine’s Jack Schafer recently elaborated on the Clintons’ media strategy and boldly asserted that Republicans can be expected to “overplay their hands” and become the central focus of the reporting on Hillary’s untoward behavior. But this is a self-fulfilling promise, and it is reflective of a self-marginalizing instinct among the press that has grown more concerned with protecting the powerful than they are with afflicting them. The impulse to deflect attention away from the scandalous and onto those who dare make note of the scandal is a cancer on the institution of political reporting.
Some on the right believe that the Obama/Clinton strategy of elevating vaguely political comedians and YouTube celebrities to the status they presently enjoy is a brilliant one, and Republicans would do well to emulate it. Even if they could get away with that, which they cannot, Republican officeholders would be doing the public a disservice if they tried. A Republican president would be correctly accused by the press of skirting the issues and keeping unserious company, perhaps because his or her career would be undone by giving more time to a serious journalist with a solemn objective.
Hillary Clinton continues to ride out this storm in her bunker, but her husband’s emergence foreshadows yet another Comedy Central presidency. The press watches their traditional roles being coopted and shrugs, but the public should not. Who knows if the country can survive another eight years in which the Fourth Estate devotes all its powers of oversight to keeping the opposition party in check?
An earlier version of this post indicated that Clinton had released 55,000 emails to the State Department for review.