The Sunday column from Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times’s public editor, was an interesting and balanced consideration of a topic that will only gain in relevance to political journalism: how should reporters cover candidates who aren’t (yet) candidates? The subject was Hillary Clinton and the Times’s decision to devote the resources of a full-time reporter to cover Clinton–who has not yet announced that she is running for president–as a distinct beat, a full three years before Election Day 2016.
Sullivan quotes academics and media watchers raising the three crucial questions: Will the dedicated Clinton beat serve to pre-anoint her and reinforce the notion that she is inevitable? Is the “permanent campaign” in the public interest? Should the media resist or enable that permanent campaign? The answer to the first question is both obvious and complicated: it depends on the coverage. The answer to the second question, with regard to the press, is: that’s irrelevant. And the answer to the third is: neither.
The concern about covering Hillary Clinton is directly related, however, to the second and third questions. When the media decides that something or someone is or isn’t in the “public interest,” it will inevitably abuse the elasticity of that category. When the media sees itself as responsible for enabling or resisting trends in American politics, it tends to take sides. It is not the fault of the New York Times that the 2016 presidential campaign seems already to be under way.
If the reality is that the campaign is off and running, then the Times’s responsibility is to write about that reality, not pretend it isn’t happening because the paper’s editors or critics don’t like the timeline. What’s more, not covering the campaign could be construed as an enabling all its own; for the press to allow politicians to set their own coverage by employing legal obfuscations or linguistic shenanigans would be to abandon its obligations. Clinton is already benefiting from using her family’s tax-exempt charitable organization as a basic campaign and fundraising infrastructure. She may be well within the bounds of election law to do so, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us aren’t entitled to adhere to observable reality instead of subjecting ourselves to the classic Clintonian spin cycle.
But that doesn’t get the Times completely off the hook. The type and tone of the coverage will matter a great deal. If the media decides to follow Clinton around and perpetuate the personality cult it helped create for Barack Obama, while insulating her from serious investigation–again, as it did with Obama–the press will be doing the public a great disservice. If it can puncture the self-constructed myth Clinton seeks to create and paints an honest portrait of the candidate, it won’t be putting Clinton’s potential rivals–who don’t have wealthy donors at the beck and call of their family foundation–at a disadvantage. It will do so, however, if it acts as Clinton’s traveling press secretary.
There is also a challenge in covering the Clintons that the Times’s reporter, Amy Chozick, will have to grapple with, especially this early in the campaign. Sullivan explains:
Carl Bernstein, the Watergate reporter who wrote the well-regarded biography of Mrs. Clinton “A Woman In Charge,” told me in a phone interview that she is “really difficult to get a reportorial handle on.”
“She’s someone who tries to write her own narrative,” and who, in words from the last chapter of his book, “has a difficult relationship with the truth.” So, The Times’s putting an aggressive reporter on Mrs. Clinton early, he said, is a laudable effort to publish “the best obtainable version of the truth.”
Saying either of the Clintons “has a difficult relationship with the truth” is about the most generous way of characterizing the world of messy relativism and unprincipled triangulation of the Democratic power couple, especially considering the vicious and royal defensiveness with which it is secured. It is not an easy beat to cover because to the Clintons there are only enemies and captives, and Chozick will have no easy task to spend the next three years trying not to be either.
Chozick, to her credit, seems to understand some of these challenges. It may be too much to hope for a complete absence of puff pieces, but those will be more palatable when balanced with articles like the piece Chozick wrote along with Nicholas Confessore last week about a review of the Clinton Foundation’s finances. It found that “For all of its successes, the Clinton Foundation had become a sprawling concern, supervised by a rotating board of old Clinton hands, vulnerable to distraction and threatened by conflicts of interest. It ran multimillion-dollar deficits for several years, despite vast amounts of money flowing in.”
The piece from Chozick and Confessore dug into these and other red flags and the personalities behind them. It shows Chozick was willing to ruffle feathers and make clear from the outset that she is not there simply to republish Clinton press releases. The article also, while ostensibly describing the Clinton Foundation, depicts what a Clinton White House may look like the second time around. It isn’t especially flattering, and it won’t get Chozick a designated seat on the Clinton bandwagon. And it’s not a bad example to set for Chozick’s colleagues.