Presidential Candidates Take on The Media
In addition to their profound policy differences the GOP and Democratic presidential frontrunners are like night and day when it comes to their interactions with the media.
Hillary Clinton — cautious and restrained — would just as soon ignore the media altogether; for Rudy Giuliani, dueling with the media is part of the job, and the fun, of running for President.
Controlling the Beast
True to her reputation for control and discipline Hillary Clinton severely limits opportunities for media to question her. She does not frequent the Sunday talk shows. After the initial round of press interviews in January following her announcement of her candidacy, her network and cable news interviews have been few and far between. According to one Republican’s research, she has done less than two dozen “press avails”– open opportunities for media to question candidates at public appearances — since February, a meager record of slightly more than one a week.
The Clinton cocoon has not been lost on those covering her campaign. New York Times correspondent Don Van Natta Jr., who is the co-author of a new book on Hillary Clinton entitled Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a recent CNN interview: “She’s hypersentitive. She really didn’t want us to do the book. We heard that when we began our reporting that she had angst about the book, and she really went out her way to put road blocks in our way to do the book.”
Her “paranoia of the press,” as one GOP consultant describes it, remains a source of subject of discussion and mystery as to why she shrinks from press exchanges. In February, Jason Horowitz of the New York Observer noted that during a two day swing through New Hampshire she did not take a single question from reporters. Horowitz wrote that the Hillary press team is “unusually aggressive about managing the attention they do get. Her press office is not built for charm and outreach.”
Joshua Green who interviewed Clinton in August 2006 for an extensive article for Atlantic Monthly magazine attributes the limited access in part to the overwhelming demands for interviews, saying he came to appreciate that she simply "cannot accommodate everyone" he concedes. After 5 or 6 months the Clinton press staff finally agreed to his request for an interview (and indeed offered a follow up interview) once it became clear he was writing a substantive piece on her Senate achievements, a topic obviously in her interest to discuss.
Since she came across "smart, ironic, funny and well informed" when they finally did meet Green, like others, still does not understand why her relations with the press "is as adversarial" as it is. He perceives that the goal for Clinton and her press staff "is to maintain an element of control." Green attributes this reticence in large part to Clinton’s experience in the 1992 run for the White House (“I’m not some Tammy Wynette standing by my man”) and the knocks she took over her failed health care reform. In short, Clinton, in Green’s view, may have concluded that the press is “the beast that cannot be controlled” and therefore should be avoided unless necessary.
Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Report takes a similar view, contending that Clinton “may not be in a bubble but she is pretty tightly controlled.” According to Duffy, Clinton’s campaign “knows what it wants to do” and enjoys the luxury of not needing to expose or introduce her to the public. Although Duffy notes that “one of the big criticisms is a lack of spontaneity,” Clinton may nevertheless see little upside in facing the harsh questions of the media.
Media as Rudy’s Sidekick
In contrast to Clinton, the GOP frontrunner, Rudy Giuliani, for years has delighted in going toe to toe with the press. As Mayor, he held daily press avails (which often turned into raucous verbal duels) and engaged the media and callers in a weekly radio show. His campaign estimates that he has done more than 70 press avails since February. Communications Director Katie Levinson says “Taking tough questions from the press is clearly an important part of running for President. Rudy enjoys the back and forth, as he did when he was Mayor. I have to say it’s sometimes fun to watch, too.”
Mike McKeon, former Communications Director for New York Governor Pataki and now Senior Communications Advisor to Giuliani, says there is simply “no comparison” between Clinton’s and Giuliani’s approach to the press. While Clinton’s press team seems designed to shield her from the press, Giuliani’s camp has embraced the view that “no one makes the case better for Rudy than Rudy” according to McKeon. McKeon says that willingness to engage the press is a key part of leadership — the “willingness to stand up to make the case” for your views.
(In response to our inquiry Governor Romney’s Press Secretary Kevin Madden said that Romney does three or four press avails a week, adding up to 40 to 50 since February. John McCain’s campaign also reports daily interactions with the press, notes he is a frequent guest on the Sunday talk shows and tallies up four blogger conference calls.)
Press: The Advantage
Does freewheeling interchange with the press matter to the public or affect the candidates’ prospects? Green thinks “it can matter a great deal. It was of great benefit to John McCain in 2000." Duffy agrees that it matters because “it impacts how they are reported on.” She says: “A candidate who is viewed as secretive raises a level of distrust.” By contrast, candidates who regularly speak in unscripted settings and answer tough questions do get credit, Duffy believes, from voters who appreciate “the honesty and find it refreshing.”
Whether Clinton will pay any price for her remoteness is yet to be seen. Jim Geraghty, who writes National Review Online’s campaign blog, The Hillary Spot, doubts so. He says: “The standard critique of a candidate who refuses lengthy, detailed, sit-down on camera interviews is that they’re empty suits, that they don’t really know their stuff. I don’t think that will carry much weight against Hillary. People think she’s conniving and cold, but not stupid. I doubt she’ll get in trouble for sticking to tightly-scripted events.”
However, readiness and ability to engage the media may be an important consideration for Republican primary voters. As Madden explains, GOP voters have become “much more demanding consumers” and “want to make sure they have the right candidate, the best candidate, the candidate who will endure over the long haul and lead the party by serving as its standard bearer.” Especially in the post-Bush years for Republicans grown weary of an inarticulate president, a candidate’s ability to battle the press and answer tough questions may come as a welcome relief.
So if the race does come down to a New York face off between Clinton and Giuliani, we may be treated to an unusual role reversal — a Democrat trying to evade the media’s glare and a Republican more than happy to joust with the press, and sell himself in the process.