Clinton Campaign Defends Press Restrictions
On the heels of a controversial press restriction in which reporters found themselves roped in as they followed Hillary Clinton over the July 4th weekend, one senior-level staffer has a simple message for those who lament the testy relationship: Voters need access to her, too.
The campaign faced criticism from journalists and Republicans alike over the weekend when staffers used a rope to confine reporters during an Independence Day parade in Gorham, N.H.
“It’s a page from the Clinton White House playbook on press wrangling,” veteran CBS White House reporter Mark Knoller wrote on Twitter of the incident. “They used the rope technique on the [White House] press pool.”
Democrats chimed in, arguing the optics are not good for the campaign. “I love Hillary Clinton, but this is the worst visual metaphor,” Van Jones, a liberal commentator and former adviser to President Obama, said Sunday on CNN. The campaign says it brought out the rope to ensure that members of the press do not prevent Clinton from interacting with voters.
“We try to allow as much access as possible, but my view is it can’t get in the way of her being able to campaign,” Clinton’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, said Monday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” In the past, Palmieri added, the scene was too “chaotic” when journalists covering similar events were unhindered.
The incident underscored Clinton’s difficult relationship with members of the media, who at times have gone weeks without having the opportunity to ask the Democratic frontrunner a question. Republicans say the constraints on the press feed into the narrative that Clinton is secretive, lacks transparency, and refuses to answer questions about her email practices or controversial donations to her family’s charitable foundation.
It also provided fodder for conservative groups and officials, who took advantage of the unflattering moment. Trackers from the opposition research super PAC America Rising were able to capture video of the reporters and cameramen in front of Clinton, including an instance when a camera-wielding reporter attempted, to little avail, to circumvent the rope and get a better glimpse of the candidate. The New Hampshire Republican Party called the episode a “sad joke,” touting the openness of their party’s candidates who were marching in other parades around the Granite State.
“While the GOP may want to spin a good yarn on this, let’s not get tied up in knots,” Nick Merrill, the campaign’s traveling press secretary, said in a statement. “We wanted to accommodate the press, allow her to greet voters, and allow the press to be right there in the parade with her as opposed to preset locations. And that’s what we did.”
Palmieri, a former White House communications director under President Obama, downplayed the importance of the press, saying voters in the “first in the nation” primary state deserve more attention than reporters. Much to the chagrin of the national media, the campaign has placed a greater emphasis on face-to-face voter interactions. However, Palmieri acknowledged the pitfalls of that strategy, and signaled a potential shift in their approach.
“I also understand that we pay a price with the press when we don’t do interviews and we do smaller events that don’t have the access that a larger event may allow, but this is part of our calculus about how we’re building a campaign that’s built to last,” she said Monday. Avoiding interviews with high-profile journalists on a national stage was a strategy crafted by Clinton’s advisers to avoid potentially unscripted moments.
That tactic may have run its course. After Palmieri told Howard Kurtz of Fox News on Sunday that “America will see more of her” in the form of interviews with the national press, CNN announced Monday afternoon it scored the first national television interview with Clinton.
On her broader campaign tactics, Clinton was asked on Friday if she plans to employ a similar approach as Obama in forming relationships with statewide volunteers during his 2008 and 2012 campaigns. “Sure, absolutely, absolutely. I mean, I’m already doing that. I’m doing calls and meetings and campaign videos,” she told reporters.
Clinton also said she learned from her unsuccessful 2008 effort the importance of using her campaign’s organizers to her advantage for events and other public appearances. “I want to hear from people and I also want to connect them to the campaign,” she said Friday. “And I feel like it’s really working.”
Keeping the press on a tight leash is a longstanding norm for reporters covering the Clinton family. At last year’s Clinton Global Initiative gathering, a staffer escorted a New York Times reporter to the bathroom. While campaigning with her husband in 1992, Clinton said the press, along with business leaders and others, was “confused” about its role in an ever-changing society.
“The press right now doesn’t know what it’s doing in terms of its role and responsibility,” she said. “It’s trying very hard to work that out.”
Last month, the campaign blocked access to the designated pool reporter, barring him from covering Clinton’s New Hampshire campaign stops in an episode that, according to the pool, was “unacceptable” and has still gone unexplained.