Not really — but that’s not really the point, either. Earlier this week, Gawker uncovered an e-mail exchange between Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic (and now at The Week, where I am also a regular columnist) and Hillary Clinton aide Philippe Reines setting conditions for an advance look at a little-remembered Hillary Clinton speech in 2009. Reines demanded a particular tenor of coverage in exchange for the scoop — and Ambinder apparently agreed:
On the morning of July 15, 2009, Ambinder sent Reines a blank email with the subject line, “Do you have a copy of HRC’s speech to share?” His question concerned a speech Clinton planned to give later that day at the Washington, D.C. office of the Council on Foreign Relations, an influential think tank. Three minutes after Ambinder’s initial email, Reines replied with three words: “on two conditions.” After Ambinder responded with “ok,” Reines sent him a list of those conditions:
3 [conditions] actually
1) You in your own voice describe them as “muscular”
2) You note that a look at the CFR seating plan shows that all the envoys — from Holbrooke to Mitchell to Ross — will be arrayed in front of her, which in your own clever way you can say certainly not a coincidence and meant to convey something
3) You don’t say you were blackmailed!
“Blackmailed” here is clearly a jest. Reines wanted a quid pro quo for access — and Ambinder took the bait, replying with a terse “got it.” Gawker then links to Ambinder’s review of the speech for The Atlantic:
When you think of President Obama’s foreign policy, think of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That’s the message behind a muscular speech that Clinton is set to deliver today to the Council on Foreign Relations. The staging gives a clue to its purpose: seated in front of Clinton, subordinate to Clinton, in the first row, will be three potentially rival power centers: envoys Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell, and National Security Council senior director Dennis Ross.
The Daily Caller did some poking around and found remarkably similar reporting on the event:
Ambinder wasn’t the only person who may have followed demands from Reines. Mike Allen of Politico also used the “muscular” label for Clinton’s speech, and he also made a note of the arrangement of figures like Holbrooke and Ross. Allen taking orders from Reines wouldn’t be a huge shock, as it was recently revealed that Allen allowed Reines to ghostwrite an item in his popular daily Playbook email.
For his part, Ambinder apologized for his decision, and took total responsibility in his response to Gawker. “Since I can’t remember the exact exchange I can’t really muster up a defense of the art, and frankly, I don’t really want to,” he wrote. “I will say this: whatever happened here reflects my own decisions, and no one else’s.” Speaking to J.K. Trotter on the phone, Ambinder further elaborated, “It made me uncomfortable then, and it makes me uncomfortable today. And when I look at that email record, it is a reminder to me of why I moved away from all that. The Atlantic, to their credit, never pushed me to do that, to turn into a scoop factory.” Ambinder learned the lesson the hard way seven years ago, but his political leanings are well known and explicitly offered (Gawker notes his friendly correspondence with Reines on other topics, too).
Political journalists and commentators get lots of input from staffers for candidates and politicians, especially during elections, but at other times as well. Most of those come with requests for anonymity, but it’s pretty rare to have a demand for a particular kind of coverage in exchange for the information. Usually it takes the form of spin: “This really shows the muscularity of John Doe’s foreign policy, doesn’t it?”, with the obvious suggestion as to how the staffer wants it covered. When reporters go out looking for scoops, as Ambinder did here, the power balance shifts a bit, but it’s not incumbent on journalists or commentators to play along with it. Otherwise, one ends up taking dictation rather than offering honest analysis — and running the risk of appearing redundant, as happened in this case, especially when the “scoop” was so insignificant.
The most interesting part of this exchange is how much control the Clinton team attempts to exert over media coverage. How much of that is in play now? Do they still trade scoops for dictated coverage — perhaps in conjunction with the e-mail scandal or potential corruption involving the Clinton Foundation? They might have more valuable scoops to offer journalists in the context of a presidential campaign, and it would be very interesting indeed to see just how far that quid pro quo extends in the media.
Or, to put it more simply …. damn, it feels good to be a Clinton.