Sept. 25, 2007 -- For the small band of reporters who regularly cover Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign, the dirty little secret is this: They rarely -- if ever -- get to speak to the candidate herself.
Clinton, D-N.Y., is running perhaps the most media-controlled -- and media-obsessed -- campaign in presidential history. Her aides carefully screen access to the candidate, generally avoid news conferences on the campaign trail and have been known to throw around the Clintons' considerable weight to block negative stories and influence coverage of the candidate they're protecting and promoting.
Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary to President Bush during his 2000 campaign and first years in the White House, said the Clinton campaign has taken a hallmark of the Bush White House -- carefully controlled media access -- to another level.
"Hillary is no Bill when it comes to discipline -- she has some," Fleischer said. "But it's more than just discipline." During his 2000 run, "George Bush did press [availabilities] just about every day, and he was always disciplined.
"Hillary is also disciplined," Fleischer continued, "but she keeps her distance from the press probably because she doesn't like them." "She sees all downside in access. As a front-runner with a 20-point margin, the press can hurt her more than help her."
A Window Into the Clinton Campaign
The latest episode to emerge, reported Monday by Politico, offers a window into how the campaign uses perhaps its biggest asset -- former President Bill Clinton -- to protect Sen. Clinton's reputation.
According to Politico, Clinton aides convinced GQ's editors to spike an unflattering piece about the campaign's inner workings by threatening the magazine's access to the former president, who is the subject of a planned cover story.
GQ representatives have confirmed that they killed a planned story on the Clinton campaign, though they refuse to comment on their reasons. Clinton campaign officials declined to comment on the incident, and communications director Howard Wolfson said the campaign would not discuss its overall relationship with the press.
Clinton aides say privately that while they certainly grant less access than some other campaigns -- particularly those of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former Democratic North Carolina Sen. John Edwards -- reporters also grumble about not getting regular contact with Clinton's main rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
They point out that Clinton schedules interviews with local reporters during most of her trips, as is typical of candidates during a presidential campaign.
Campaigns Take Media Into Their Own Hands
All campaigns seek to mold media coverage. The Clinton campaign's tightly controlled access, her aides argue, is simply a function of modern campaigning, where every public utterance is subject to a Youtube.com posting, and candidates have new ways of reaching voters directly.
Gone are the freewheeling days of 1992, they say, when Bill Clinton spent endless hours chatting up reporters in the back of his campaign bus. This year's Clinton campaign is much more likely to generate positive press coverage -- and ultimately reach voters -- with a Web video of its own, such as the one that featured Bill and Hillary in a spoof of the final episode of "The Sopranos."
Other campaigns also shield the candidates from the press when possible. Obama and former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., seldom grant interviews to national media members who travel with them, though both hold campaign news conferences more regularly than Clinton.
Former Republican Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee launched his candidacy by eschewing most mainstream media outlets. He chose to appear on "The Tonight Show" instead of participating in a Republican debate earlier this month, and he has granted interviews primarily to friendly outlets such as Fox News Channel and conservative talk-radio hosts.
But Clinton stands alone in following a tight script that limits her exposure to tough questions or embarrassing scrutiny. From the moment she announced her candidacy -- with a Web video filmed in her home, rolled out on a Saturday to take maximum advantage of the news cycles -- her advisers have sought to make sure that her "conversation" with the American people goes according to plan.
Reporters say requests for interviews with Clinton are often ignored. The press office often berates reporters and editors for stories it considers unfair or incomplete. In the Senate and on the campaign trail, her Secret Service contingent sometimes serves as an informal shield to protect her from off-the-cuff exchanges with reporters.
In addition to Web videos, the campaign often releases news via a new Web site -- HillaryHub.com -- that serves as a Drudge Report-style clearinghouse for positive dispatches about her candidacy.
After refusing to appear on the Sunday-morning political talk shows throughout her campaign, the Clinton campaign appeared on all five of them on the same day this past weekend -- when they had good news (her long-awaited health care plan) to promote.
Bearing the Scars of Scandals Past
Clinton's communications team bears the scars of scandals past. The core group of Clinton aides experienced the ups and downs of media coverage as White House officials, and know how to be vicious when necessary.
"These people went through Whitewater and impeachment," said one Democrat with close ties to the Clintons. "They know how to be tough bastards when they need to be."
Clinton's team knows that it has two huge commodities -- Bill and Hillary -- who command so much media attention that they can dictate the terms of their engagement with the press.
"They play to win," Chris Lehane, a former Clinton White House aide, who was Al Gore's spokesman during his 2000 presidential run, said of Clinton's campaign team. "She can dominate the rest of the field by her ability to occupy more media real estate than everyone else combined. And you have another person who can do the same thing for them. That gives them an enormous tactical advantage."
Lehane cited the health care rollout -- where Clinton dominated news coverage for more than a week -- as an example of the campaign's strategy working. All the TV networks put Clinton on the air Sunday, even though they tend to prefer exclusive guests.
Though some compare Clinton's campaign to the tight media control exerted by President Bush, Bush's first campaign -- in 2000 -- allowed wide media access. The then-governor of Texas often chatted up reporters on the back of his campaign plane.
The Pre-Rose Garden Strategy
It was only after he won the 2000 election that Bush began to retreat from open access with reporters -- mostly because he realized he didn't need them as much as he did as a candidate.
"You don't need to do Q and A's with reporters to generate coverage when you're president," said Fleischer, the president's former press secretary.
Tobe Berkovitz, dean of Boston University's College of Communication, said the strategy is likely to work until or unless the press rebels -- not likely, given the persistent media interest in all things Clinton.
"It's the pre-Rose Garden Rose Garden strategy," Berkovitz said. "Why should they do anything differently? They're incumbents and they're stars, and you put those things together, and you have a recipe for controlling the media."
Limiting media access can detract from a candidacy. In 2000, the Republican National Committee printed T-shirts for reporters mocking the fact that Gore was going weeks without holding press conferences: "I tried to ask Al Gore a question, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt."
Lehane said that such messages made it hard to combat perceptions that Gore was "smart but unlikable." But he noted that none of the other Democratic candidates are making open, freewheeling access a campaign signature, like McCain did in the Republican primaries in 2000.
Treatment of the media could change if Clinton wins the nomination and is up against a Republican who will draw the sort of wide coverage any major party nominee does, Lehane said. But there are so many new ways of reaching voters that the Clinton campaign may not need to change course, he said.
"When they want to communicate things directly, they can transcend the traditional modes of communication," Lehane said.