I agree with pretty much everything my fellow libs have been saying about Hillary Clinton and the press coverage she receives. Yep, as Paul Krugman wrote, there is a presumption of corruption surrounding Clinton, while Donald Trump, who lies whenever he speaks and whose foundation is a Ponzi scheme compared to the Clintons’, is being graded on a ridiculously generous curve. Yep, headlines suggest that foundation donors may have received preferential treatment, when the underlying facts in the case of that Lebanese-Nigerian businessman showed that he got no preferential treatment whatsoever.
And so on and so on and so on.
It’s all true. The most astonishing aspect of all this to me isn’t so much the tone of the Clinton coverage as the comparative absence of tough Trump coverage. As Paul Waldman observed in The Washington Post, something comes out about the Clinton Foundation, it’s wall-to-wall for two days, even if there’s no proof that anything happened. Similar Trump stories seem to fade away a lot faster.
Then we have surreal moments like Monday’s coughing “fit.” NBC took a lot of heat on Twitter for posting that footage. I can’t honestly say that if Trump had coughed eight or 10 times they wouldn’t have shown it. But what I can say is that whatever flunky was manning the news desk on a holiday was undoubtedly influenced to think that this was “news” because of the talk—all of it irresponsible lies based on no evidence whatsoever—from Trump and Fox and Breitbart about Clinton’s health. Disgraceful.
If someone came over from Ulaanbaatar and spent a week digesting the media coverage of this campaign, they’d come away thinking that it was Clinton who’s the threat to the republic (and who may not last any longer in office than William Henry Harrison), while Trump is a guy who says some crazy things but is basically entertaining.
And yet—and this is part most of my fellow libs don’t say—Clinton isn’t powerless in all this. She has agency. She has a job to do here. The press doesn’t like her. Fine, that’s the way it is.
But that doesn’t mean you fuel the dislike. It means you take steps to minimize it. That means not handing them any clubs to bang you over the head with, and instead handing them clubs to hit the other guy over the head with.
You have to understand how the press, especially the political press, works. Most people think the press creates narratives, but generally speaking, it does not. It follows narratives set in place by political actors. The Clinton Foundation narrative, for example, is the creation of Judicial Watch and the Republicans who hop all over it whenever the group shoves out a press release. The Benghazi narrative was created by congressional Republicans and a few ex-military types. If people are willing to stand up there and say stuff, the press is going to report it. That’s what “news” is, and it’s why even lies can be “news.”
That’s how Trump barreled his way through the primary. He made news all the time. Of course he lied serially, but “objective” news reporting—and this is a real crisis with no easy answers—is ill-positioned to call a lie a lie. Whether he said he saw Muslims in New Jersey celebrating on 9/11 or heard that Rafael Cruz helped kill Kennedy, reporters reported it. They followed the narrative he created.
Clinton can, and must, create narratives for the press to follow. She wants Pam Bondi to be the story? Fine. High time. It would appear that Trump has been caught paying what is essentially a bribe and then lying about it. But the press just isn’t going to write that story en masse without a prod. You can judge that if you want. I’m just telling you that that’s the way it works.
One of the reasons the polls tightened recently is that Clinton was largely off the trail, not firing many shots at Trump. So if Clinton wants Bondi and Trump University to be an issue, then the course of action is very simple: Make it an issue! Raise it on the trail. She did that yesterday, and she got some decent coverage out of it.
Make a tough attack ad and run it in Florida. Run ads about what a scam Trump University was, too. It’s been a while since that was in the news, and people forget. Have surrogates fan out and talk about it. Once she and her people start talking about it, the media will.
I’ve long thought that Trump stiffing contractors is a great line of attack—small businesspeople, hauled into a Trump Organization office and told by some stooge that they’ll need to accept 30 cents on the dollar, take it or leave it. It’s an easy-to-grasp narrative, clear good guys and bad guys. Requires no thinking!
But again—she has to raise it. The press isn’t going to push this as an issue on its own initiative. The Clinton team did make a very good video about this earlier in the summer, but it’s been forgotten now, and now is crunch time. And I’m not saying this is the best attack. They do polls and focus groups for that. But the thing to do is find Trump’s Achilles' heels and drive spears into them so forcefully that the press has to write it and write it.
The other aspect of all this—taking clubs out of the press’s hands—is important too. Clinton does have this long history of not trusting the media. Again, fine, even say it’s understandable. But the way to counter negative narratives isn’t to go hide. Hiding just makes the reporters irritable. I’m not breaking out my violin here, and it ain’t the coal mines; but covering a campaign is a crap job. You stand around for hours every day waiting for planes or buses. Then you get on them to get somewhere where you stand around for a few more hours. Then you hear a speech you’ve heard a hundred times. You eat horrible food. The wifi breaks down. Glib aides give you spin all day. It sucks.
All you want is some face time with the actual candidate. It’s just human nature. And Clinton gave a press conference, finally, on her new plane on Tuesday, when she talked about Bondi. As far as I noticed, the sky didn’t cave in.
I’m not saying here anything the Clinton team doesn’t know. They did all this very adroitly in New York in 2000. I covered that race, waiting the tedious hours for the buses to roll, eating the garbage food. They did a good job of defining Rick Lazio and pushing narratives he had to respond to. And as she warmed to the press, she’d come back to our bus for the 30-minute jaunt from Seneca Falls to Auburn or wherever and take questions. It probably did improve her coverage marginally since at least people could have actual quotes from Hillary Clinton in their stories on a more regular basis.
People think the media is a big boulder. In fact, it’s a pile of clay. Candidates can shape it and prod it in their preferred direction to a surprising extent. Clinton just needs to get back out on the hustings and throw some punches. We’ll see who the real tough guy is. Cough cough.