POLITICS

Paging Hillary Clinton And The Media Covering Her: Could You Please Climb Out Of Plato's Cave?

04/12/2015 07:30 am ET | Updated Apr 12, 2015
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Every election cycle can be considered, first and foremost, a monument to hype. With every passing week, the political world is a blizzard of brash predictions, bold pronouncements, and bad advice. This year, your Speculatroners shall convene every Sunday and attempt to decode and defang in a way that will hopefully leave you feeling unharmed and less confused. We hope this helps, but as always, we make no guarantees!

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Former senator and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is set to finally make official her intentions of running for president this Sunday, and on this occasion, we'll note -- as we and everyone else have noted many times before -- that her past will hang over the entire proceedings.

By now, we're familiar with the story. Clinton is part of a "political dynasty," and she'll carry that baggage whether she likes it or not. Her long career, while providing her with plenty of political experience, will nevertheless challenge her to find ways to be "new" at a moment when, we are told, the "people" are ready for "change." And of course, there is Clinton's long and rocky relationship with the media, a tale that's been told and retold in so many different ways that we're genuinely surprised DC Comics hasn't optioned it for a gritty reboot.

This week, New York magazine's Jason Zengerle replowed another one of these old rows in a piece titled "Is Hillary Clinton Any Good At Running For President? (And How Much Does It Matter, Anyway?)" Once again, the past puts the first stamp on the present. After all, Clinton did once do this thing (running for president), and we remember how that thing went (doubleplusungood), and damned if this new thing (running for president again) doesn't remind us of that other thing that previously happened.

There was a little sparring on the Internets over this piece. Gawker's Hamilton Nolan referred to it as "The Platonic Ideal Of Horse Race Journalism," and in case you aren't getting the irony, it's that the Platonic Ideal of horse race journalism is actually something much less than the Platonic Ideal of journalism itself. Trivial nonsense tends to rise up in the news cycle at these times, creating opportunity costs for more substantive explorations of important issues. Per Nolan:

Team A has a new strategy! Team B made a mistake! Team C has a new manager! This style of "horse race journalism" has the effect of completely obscuring the issues underlying these political campaigns. So why do reporters do this? Because it is easy. It is easier to cover campaigns like this, and it requires less thought, and it leaves journalists less prone to being attacked by one side or another, and it is, in general, purely speculative rubbish which cannot be truly refuted. So it is what we get.

Zengerle raised mild objections on Twitter, saying that while he agrees "that horserace journalism is a scourge," it's also "reality" and thus "important to try to understand the ways it does -- and does not -- effect elections [sic]." And in fact, Zengerle's piece makes an honest attempt to explore this, at times reading like it was written to arm its author against the tendencies Nolan reviles.

The truth is that not all horse race journalism is created alike. Some of it is alive in the present moment and displays an understanding, on the author's part, of which things matter and which things do not. And some of it is empty-headed doggerel completely free of any signs of self-awareness. We can recognize the latter version when we see it -- like when 20 reporters assign themselves the task of "guessing" when Clinton's launch date will be, or when the news of Clinton's having procured office space leads journalists to treat Brooklyn as some kind of previously undiscovered Xanadu.

Andrew Gelman at The Washington Post recently pointed out one particular "tell" of bad horse race journalism: Its "wheels" are "greased" with "empty platitudes." Gelman cites a recent New Yorker piece in which David Remnick wrote: "The 2008 Democratic race was not just good sport; it also made Obama and Clinton better."

Gelman's response:

Huh? Where did that come from?

It sounds reasonable, kinda, and it fits in with [Remnick's] expressed desire that Hillary Clinton have serious competition in the 2016 Democratic primaries. But... is that how political reporting has to be done? You have an opinion and then you say fact-free, reasonable-sounding things that line up with that opinion?

Similar platitudes show up in Zengerle's piece. The 2008 race was "the campaign as soap opera"! The 2012 election was "Nate Silver's world." It's possible that Zengerle is offering these fact-free assertions as a way of critiquing them, but it's hard to tell, because these are the kind of sad, lightweight ideas that show up in political reporting like nitrogen shows up in the planet's atmosphere. There's a sort of truth to these assertions, sure, but they tend to feel like placeholder sentences, something that a pundit or a reporter ended up including because they felt like the paragraph had to be a certain length. Rarely do these declarations feel like the product of an engaged, analytical mind.

Moreover, this lorem-ipsum style of political journalism tends to be shaped by the peculiar media obsessions of the moment, rather than by how people are living their actual lives and making actual political choices. This is how Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who will not be running for president, nevertheless gets cast as Clinton's foil. The media believes that "foils" make "candidates" better, and in this case, one needed to be invented. From there, the story runs away with itself -- and it escapes so quickly that no one takes the time to explore why the differences between Clinton and Warren may actually be significant. It's enough for most political reporters to note that Warren is "against the banks" and would "challenge Clinton from the left" and leave it there.

Just because I've centered this discussion on Hillary Clinton doesn't mean that this stuff only happens when she's involved. It happens everywhere and to everybody. Clinton is important here, though, for two reasons. One is, let's face it, trivial: She's newsy at the moment. (See, I'm not immune from this either.) But what's really unique about Clinton is that she, like no other political figure, seems to be particularly locked in an embrace with the political press, somewhere deep inside Plato's cave, informed only by the lights and shadows that each is casting at the other. (The New York Times, probably unintentionally, illustrated this on its most recent Clinton campaign piece by using a photograph, seen here and above, that depicts Clinton encased in dark, amorphous shadows.)

Over at The New Republic, Elspeth Reeve has written an utterly wonderful exploration of this, noting that the media's perennial demand for Hillary Clinton to be more "authentic" always backfires on everyone, because the media doesn't really understand what "authenticity" is, and whenever Clinton actually evinces any of it, the media recoils in disgust and confusion.

I fear that this whole "Hillary has got to be new!" thing is the same soup, just reheated. What evidence is there, after all, that political reporters understand "new"? How do they define what is and what isn't a cutting-edge policy idea? When President Barack Obama talked at great length about climate change during his second inaugural address, political pundits called it "bold." But for people who'd already been involved in the science of climate change and the policy prescriptions to combat it, talking about climate change was anything but "bold." It just seemed bold to the media, because it hadn't been what they expected.

Reeve lists a number of occasions when Clinton's expressions of authenticity caused a backlash, but the one that sticks out in my mind is what Reeve refers to as Clinton's "most famous feminist moment," this sound bite from 1992: "I suppose I could've stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life."

As Reeve notes, "history has mostly forgotten that Clinton was responding to Jerry Brown’s claim that her law firm benefited from Arkansas state business, and not speaking about stay-at-home moms." That's probably because Clinton got pilloried for saying this. It was authentically her, speaking a truth that was authentically felt by an untold number of women, but the media treated it as if she'd leached something radioactive into the groundwater. As The Boston Globe's Joan Wickersham recalled back in January 2013:

She got slammed. The cookie-baking reference was seized upon as evidence not just that Hillary wasn’t a stay-at-home mom, but that she had contempt for women who had made this choice. (What she really had contempt for was the assumption that, for a politician’s wife, this was the only choice.)

The press and the public chose to misunderstand her, and they made her atone. “Family Circle” magazine ran a contest pitting Hillary Clinton’s cookie recipe against Barbara Bush’s. Barbara, with her usual patrician who-the-hell-cares? insouciance, turned in a recipe essentially copied from the back of the chocolate-chip package. Hillary’s entry was hipper: modernized with oatmeal. It was a canny, good-humored response to a situation both ludicrous and covertly hostile. Here was a supremely talented and accomplished woman who had made a verbal blunder, and we punished her by making her put on an apron. I’m embarrassed now to see that I copied down the recipe. (Although the cookies, as I remember, were excellent.)

This is an actual, objectively crazy thing that really happened. And there's no guarantee that minds won't be similarly lost in this election cycle. That's why Reeve offers this advice:

To become more “authentic,” Hillary must become even more fake, set us at ease by playing to all the dumb tropes of the popular portrait of the everywoman -- one who is devoted to slopwave food (premium juice, premium oatmeal, kale slurry) but is a little embarrassed about it. A wacky career gal who is unlucky in ... something. Clinton should consider tripping publicly, perhaps while eating yogurt. Then laugh really loud, but not inauthentically loud. The only thing worse than being fake in politics is being real.

That is 100 percent correct.

But I can't just beat the media about the head, here. This cuts both ways. Clinton and her camp have nurtured their own grievances with the media to such a degree that their every move now seems to be hyper-informed by the cameras. They're like a jumpy cat that's convinced itself that any minute now, someone's going to tromp on its tail because they love to watch it yelp.

Take, for example, all of the news leading up to Clinton's announcement. It's been prefaced by breaking stories of new staff hires, the fundamental message being that there will be a more sunny, optimistic campaign disposition and a complete image makeover coming down the pike. We're also told that the launch will be noteworthy in its intimate approach to voters, and that it will intentionally de-emphasize the woman at the center. As CNN's Jeff Zeleny and Dan Merica describe it:

As she and a coterie of advisers prepare to launch her presidential campaign, their work is guided by a new set of humble principles: No big crowds. Few soaring rallies. Less mention of her own ambitions. And extinguish the air of inevitability propelling her candidacy.

That's all fine and dandy, but you have to understand that this story only exists because the Clinton campaign took pains to provide it. So mindful of their old story, they are now telling the story about how they intend to tell a new story. Every campaign puts a lot of effort into spin, of course. But it seems like in Clinton's case, there's a great deal of fear that the media is so informed by everything that's come before that this current moment will go unremarked upon if Clinton's team doesn't intercede.

Clinton can't possibly run for president if she's constantly looking over her shoulder, watching for the gremlins of the past. She will face a lot of tough questions from people focused on the present, who will be trying to do right by the public they serve. It's going to be important for Clinton to be able to distinguish what matters now, and not to reflexively assume that every difficult moment that arises is steeped in some ancient enmity.

Clinton's history, her successes and her failures are, of course, fair game for anyone seeking to assay her chances of winning this election, and what sort of president she might be. All of the changes to her campaign staff, and the themes she's targeting as she formally enters the race, demonstrate that she's as aware as everyone else that it has to be this way. The thing that needs to happen, if we're going to avoid an onslaught of the thoughtless "rubbish" Nolan warned about, is not for the parties involved here to give passes to one another, but rather for them to make a game effort to stay focused on what matters to people right now. It's time for everyone to step away from the shadowplay in the cavern's depths and ascend back into the world.

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