In her last scheduled public appearance before embarking on a presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton offered the press corps that will cover her for the next two years an olive branch in one hand and a proverbial yardstick she will judge them with in the other.
The former secretary of state has a famously "complicated” relationship with the media, as she put it, but appeared Monday night at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. to present the Robin Toner prize for journalism. “I am well aware that some of you may be a little surprised to see me here,” Clinton cracked to the room full of Washington political reporters -- the first in a series of jokes at her own expense.
With self-effacing humor and an awareness of her own foibles in dealing with the press, Clinton offered an olive branch to the fourth estate. “I am all about new beginnings. A new granddaughter, another new hairstyle, a new email account. So why not a new relationship with the press?” Clinton asked. “So here goes: no more secrecy. No more zone of privacy. After all, what good did that do me?”
She even offered a pitch-perfect industry joke about college newspapers transitioning to new digital content platforms, including the buzzy new live streaming app Meerkat.
But at the same time, Clinton presented the journalists who are about cover her campaign with a yardstick against which she will measure them in the legacy of Robin Toner.
Toner was the first woman to be named national political correspondent for the New York Times, and covered Clinton in the White House and beyond. Toner died in 2009 and a prestigious award has been presented in her honor since 2010, thanks to the work of her husband, Peter Gosselin, another reporter whom she met covering Clinton’s failed health care reform effort.
“She really set a high standard,” Clinton said of Toner, explaining that the journalist focused on policy over politics. “Journalism that informs our debates, educates our citizens, and makes it possible to base public policy decisions on evidence rather than ideology,” she said.
The former secretary of state and made it clear that Toner was the exception, however, and worried that economic and technological forces have made it even more difficult for journalists to do serious journalism today. And with her praise for Toner and serious journalism, and calls for more journalism awards, Clinton suggested a guide for how she thinks reporters should cover presidential campaigns.
“We need more than ever smart, fair-minded journalists to challenge our assumptions, push us towards new solutions, and hold all of accountable,” Clinton said. That didn’t mean she expects brown nosing. Toner "always put you in the spot," Clinton said, "but in a way that you felt was totally fair. It was a search for understanding.”
The warm words were refreshing from from a politician who once tried to kick reporters out of the White House. Who, in a healthcare forum in 1993 said, the “bane of all people in political life” is “the unfair, unjust, inaccurate reporting that goes on from coast to coast, North to South, East to West.” Who, according her friend Diane Blair’s diaries, thought journalists had only “big egos and no brains.”
Who, as former White House Press secretary Dee Dee Myers told PBS’ Frontline in 2000, had an “intense distrust of the press” that “really affected...the way [Bill Clinton] viewed it.”
Who avoided the press during her 2008 campaign until she started losing and hired spokespeople who seemed to relish being rough with reporters. Who, just last year, speaking speaking in Connecticut, said that “with professional tweaking and some creativity, we could address some of the issues we know are plaguing journalism today.”
At the same time, the Washington press corps has hardly been blameless. It relentlessly and often baselessly hounded the then-first lady in her White House daus, pursuing scandal after scandal that ended up evaporating. And in 2008, it seemed enthralled with a fresh-faced Barack Obama over Clinton.
But now, with a new generation of reporters covering her and the lessons of both her negative 2008 experience and her more positive experiences with the State Department press corps, Clinton seems ready for a “reset.”
For her upcoming presidential bid, the Democrat he has hired a new team of senior spokespeople, none of whom had top jobs in her 2008 campaign and all of whom are well respected by the reporters that worked with them in their previous jobs.
Even with the warmer tones, the common thread running through Clinton’s media criticism from the 1990s to today is a desire for substantive policy coverage over the shallowness of day-to-day horse race coverage.
During her speech Monday, Clinton took a momentary break from her joking to discuss health care reform, an issue Toner covered, as if daring testing reporters to cover the substance of her remarks instead of focusing on her joke she had just about Meerkat.
Monday marked the fifth anniversary of the Affordable Care Act, which Clinton celebrated earlier in the day with a tweet that included a photo of her embracing Obama from the day the law passed the House. She also quietly met with the Obama earlier in the afternoon, which was only announced to reporters after she left the White House. No details of the meeting were given.
We need reporters “explaining what’s at stake” with health care reform, she said.
“Now I don’t want to get carried away here,” she continued. “Those of us on the other side are not always going to be happy with whatever it is you do. But we understand -- in our more rational moments -- that is your job. And we and our democracy depend on you.”
With both sides wary, the question now is whether this “reset” goes better than one she attempted with a different adversarial power.