The back-of-the-bus crowd, which included Aaron Bruns of Fox News, Eloise Harper of ABC, Peter Nicholas of the Los Angeles Times and David Greene of NPR, was delighted at the prospect: “Wait, did she say she would give an avail?” asked one, in disbelief.
Talking about it afterward, one national reporter assigned to the campaign said, “A lot of us in the press corps have pent-up questions and we have no opportunity to ask her, and that frustration builds and then we think the candidate is blocking us. More than that, it prevents us from doing our job the way we need to do it.”
Sometimes there is the feeling that reporters want to attend her events just to recharge their computers. At an event at a small bagel shop in Durham on Jan. 5, Mrs. Clinton spoke to a crowd of undecided young voters. She answered questions in eight-minute intervals and spoke for over an hour.
Reporters sandwiched together in the scrum studied their BlackBerrys and rolled their eyes. One whispered to another sarcastically, “Can you feel the excitement?” Another asked: “Can you please pour some Drano in my mouth?” They began taking bets on who in the audience would fall asleep first. Former CBS Evening News anchor Bob Schieffer said to the rest of the pack: “This event is taking so long we could all grow beards by the end of it.”
When reporters do get the attention they crave, it is often in bursts, and not of the helpful variety. Patrick Healy, The Times’ Hillary beat reporter, explained at a forum at the Times building in November the relentless scrutiny he faces from her press team: He has received instant messages from the campaign over blog posts; he has heard griping from members of Bill Clinton’s administration over story themes. “So she cares a lot about everything—what’s on the blogs, what’s on page 1,” he said at the forum. “She can be very critical.”
Her campaign has made no obvious effort to differentiate the bad old days between the Clintons and the national media—the days of Whitewater, Travelgate and, of course, Monica Lewinsky—and the reporters who now cover her.
“Take a look around—most of the people covering this campaign are 30 years old,” said a veteran beat reporter while pro-Hillary supporters chanted at a rally in a Manchester parking lot on the morning of Jan. 6. (Most of the reporters covering her are under 40, especially from the major newspapers. The [off-air] beat reporters for the networks only get younger—representatives from ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox are all in their 20’s.)
“They don’t know the Clinton White House from the 90’s—they were all in college then,” the reporter said.
But it would be wrong to describe the consequences of the de facto freeze-out as simply reporters getting mad and writing critical things. To hear even the most scrupulous, self-reflective ones tell it, they just haven’t always had a choice.
“We do these process stories instead of critiquing the actor,” the reporter said. “When Chelsea Clinton or Dorothy Rodham show up for an event, we don’t write about them, we write about the process—we write about how Hillary is trying to warm herself up instead of how Hillary is a warm person,” the reporter said. “Maybe her daughter gives her a great sense of comfort, but we don’t know, since no one knows Hillary.”