Hillary Rodham Clinton is smart enough to know that she's got a lousy relationship with the journalists covering her second presidential bid. The question is whether she's willing to fix it.
Clinton took a self-effacing stab at resetting the relationship Monday by joking to a group of Washington journalists, "No more secrecy. No more zone of privacy. After all, what good did that do me?"
Lurking beneath the surface of her lament is nearly four decades of scar tissue. While her coverage in Arkansas and Washington ranged from fawning to viciously unfair, Clinton took the positive attention for granted and internalized the negative. The worst of it festered and grew into a culture of opacity, mendacity, and pugnacity.
On Monday, she joked about the controversy over deleted government emails and her rogue server, a topic taken seriously by journalists. Then she asked without a trace of self-awareness, "So why not a new relationship with the press?" By which she meant: How do I get a new relationship with the press?
As somebody who has covered Bill and Hillary Clinton since the mid-1980s, when she was a popular but polarizing first lady of Arkansas, here's what I would tell her.
Let them get to know you. Check out the picture at the top of this post. It was taken sometime in the 1990s on one of your foreign trips as the first lady. That's me with the jeans, a polo shirt, and a fast-receding hairline. Those are my colleagues in the press corps. You appear to be enjoying yourself.
Fact is, anybody who traveled with you in the 1990s contrasted your friendly, accessible approach overseas to your demeanor and reputation in Washington. Same goes for the State Department press corps, which was appropriately skeptical and respectful.
You need to understand this simple truth: For any leader whose job is the focus of media attention, developing relationships with journalists doesn't entitle you favorable coverage. You're not entitled to anything, actually. But good standing among journalists can get you fairer coverage.
A reporter who knows you carries background and context into his or her storytelling. That works for you.
They won't pull their punches. Good reporters write negative stories about anybody—"no fear or favor," we call it. But some history with you makes it easier for journalists to see you as a human being, which works for you.
As a journalist, I can tell you: It's easy to take a cheap shot at a title—"The Secretary of State," for instance, or "The Democratic Nominee." It's harder to take a cheap shot at a person I know—and whom I know I might see later in the day. It's called the benefit of the doubt. You might be able to earn it.
Don't confirm negative biases.Journalists assigned to your campaign think they know all about you, because you've been around so long and your reputation is so hardened. The rap against you: secretive, dishonest, calculating, and phony.
Avoid saying and doing things that allow them to reach for those biographical tropes.
That's why the emails are such a huge deal: You played to type. Nobody who covers you believes it was "a matter of convenience" to go rogue, because the explanation doesn't square with the facts or common sense.
Do confirm positive biases. There are some facts about journalists in general that play in your favor.
They love access. Give it to them. Overwhelm them with your presence and the presence of your team via on-the-record settings. Use social media and other new media to make John McCain's "Straight Talk Express" press strategy in 2000 look, by comparison, almost cloistered.
They love conflict. Take advantage of any Democratic challenge to get the media focused on a fight rather than you. Take on the entire GOP field if no Democrat has the guts to challenge you this spring.
They love news. Your communications shop should be a fire hose of policy initiatives and process stories, feeding the beast before the beast feeds on you.
They tend to be liberals. Even the most objective reporter doesn't intuitively understand the conservative mindset unless he or she happens to be Republican. This makes the press corps susceptible to negative GOP clichés, especially when Republican actions affirm them.
Don't expect too much. Like I said before, you're entitled to nothing. The political press corps is considerably smaller, less experienced, and more polarized than when you left the White House. You are right to be worried, as you said Monday, that economic and technological forces have made it harder for journalists to do serious journalism.
But you can't control their behavior. Only yours.
You said this Monday: "We need, more than ever smart, fair-minded journalists to challenge our assumptions, push us toward new solutions, and hold all of us accountable." You were right. Don't forget it.
You once called bad reporting rampant and "a bane of all people in political life." Your friend Diane Blair's diaries quote you as saying journalists had only "big egos and no brains." Guilty as charged. Don't forget it.
Go around us. Those economic and technological forces you mentioned did you a favor: They destroyed the Gatekeepers. The last time a Clinton sat in the Oval Office, there were a couple dozen reporters and editors who decided what news was distributed and, more important, what news, gossip, and falsehoods were never distributed.
Now there are 300 million potential reporters and researchers in America, and you can reach them directly. But your ability to influence them requires validation and credibility; they won't listen to you unless they trust you.
That's why the mainstream media still matters.
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