THE BLOG
05/08/2014 05:44 pm ET | Updated Jul 08, 2014

Hillary vs. the Media: Real War? Phony War? Or Good Cause?

Andrew Burton via Getty Images

Is it Hillary Clinton against the media? Or is that a phony war? Key operatives around her say she hates the news media. If so, will it matter? And does she have cause?

With the release of her memoir on her days as US secretary of state just a month away, coverage is focusing more on her, as a national magazine sees fit to have Monica Lewinsky opine about her long-ago relationship with Bill Clinton and House Republicans take the spotlight away from San Diego Congressman Darrell Issa's powerful House Oversight Committee by creating a select committee to investigate the Benghazi disaster. But wait, haven't we heard enough about both?


Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked presidential politics, Benghazi, and the mass kidnaping of girls in Nigeria at the Ford Foundation's Philanthropy New York conference on Wednesday.

Yes to the Lewinsky. Not so much on Benghazi. We've heard too much there, but too much of nothing because we still don't know what really went down. Not that I expect a House select committee run by Republicans in an election year to get to the bottom of things.

With Hillary Clinton's memoir of her tenure as US secretary of state hitting next month, she is moving into the next phase of what may be her second run for the presidency. So last week Politico ran a lengthy story about how she "hates" the US news media, citing a lot of comments from and practices of Clinton aides past and present. I haven't seen a pushback against the story. Which doesn't surprise me in the least.

What is Hillary's evident problem with the US news media? Well, in large part, they're the same concerns I have about it. Too much sensation. Too little substance. Too shallow. Too "gotcha." Too much pack "thinking." Too incoherent and lacking in explanation beyond hyper-partisan spin and half-baked blithering. Too much conventional wisdom. And so on.

Some years back, Hillary -- and I'm going to call her that to distinguish from her husband, a fellow you may have heard of, even though I don't really know her -- identified herself as a fan of Al Jazeera English, for which I used to do on-air analysis. Why did she like it so much? Because it provided comprehensive news from around the world, 24/7. Compare and contrast that with what American cable news has devolved into.

In reality, Clinton has gotten a lot better media than she apparently likes to think. Like most of us, she dwells on the negative and discounts much of the positive.

Not that she hasn't seen how essentially trivial pursuits can be blown up by a compliant and complicit media into, well, impeachable offenses.

Of course, she came out of the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandalette looking great. It helped catapult her into a U.S. Senate seat from New York, which then afforded her a near perfect perch from which to run for president herself.

She and her circle of the time like to think that the press was in the tank for then Senator Barack Obama. But that's hardly what they thought before Obama -- and John Edwards, for that matter -- trounced her in the first-in-the-nation Iowa presidential caucuses. I remember asking her campaign chief Terry McAuliffe and her chief strategist Mark Penn on conference calls what they would do if Obama won Iowa, where I'd been Gary Hart's political director for his breakthrough into national contention. They pooh-poohed the idea, insisted it wouldn't happen. When I pushed on the matter, they said that Hillary had the best campaign organization in history, including grassroots operations, and that she would triumph in subsequent caucus and primary states.

In reality, Obama was much better organized in the caucus states, in no small measure because he opposed the invasion of Iraq and Hillary voted to authorize it. And by feinting a big move in the California primary which never came -- thus forcing Bill Clinton to spend precious days defending a state the Clintons had staked out from the '90s on -- Obama gained a Super Tuesday edge which he never relinquished.

Of course the news media fell in love, to a certain degree, with Obama after he won heavily white Iowa. But in 2007, Obama was frequently dismissed by the media, which largely celebrated Hillary's front-runnership. (At the November 2007 CNN debate in Las Vegas in a hall packed with Hillary supporters, which I attended, the panel essentially tamped down early attacks on her by Obama and Edwards.) That's why Penn and McAuliffe thought they could get away with non-serious conference call comments then.

Now Hillary rides another wave of inevitability in the news media.

I attended her March speech at UCLA, where she impressed. Her media coverage was glowing.

But she'd actually made a couple of very questionable statements during her LA visit. Not that anyone took her to task for them.

The day before she spoke at UCLA, where she received the university's highest award, the UCLA Medal, she told a group at a private fundraiser down in Long Beach that Russian President Vladimir Putin is like Adolf Hitler. Er, why? Because he used supposed threats to fellow countrymen to annex Crimea, which was historically part of Russia. What did Hitler, perhaps the most famous fascist and mass murderer in world history, do that was so supposedly similar? He invaded Poland and what was then called Czechoslovakia, citing a threat to ethnic German minorities. Really not at all the same thing, and that's before we get to the dodgy notion of comparing anyone to Hitler.

At UCLA, Hillary clarified things by calling Putin "a tough guy with thin skin" -- something which might, with a change of gender, be said of her -- and went on to say that Russia is moving to "re-sovietize." Whatever that meant.

Actually, the Russian word "soviet" has a specific meaning. But not what Hillary seemed to think. It means "council." In Communism, the soviets referred to workers' councils which were to take power from the old feudal and bourgeois forms of governance that collapsed in World War I.

In reality, of course, they came to be a cover for Communist dictatorship. And the Soviet Union -- the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics -- became the Soviet empire.

So what Hillary is implying is that Putin is trying to put together a 21st century version of the old Communist empire run from Moscow. Whereas Putin, who quite unlike Soviet officials isn't promoting a universalist ideology seeking to inspire revolutionary movements around the world, thinks what he is doing is protecting Russian borders from the expansion and encroachment of NATO. An expansion which the Clintons backed with Russia flat on its back in the '90s even as they entertained then President Boris Yeltsin in the White House. Which in turn helped give rise to the very Russian nationalism that Putin represents. Recall that the Clintons' erstwhile friend Yeltsin made Putin first head of the FSB intelligence and security service and then prime minister of Russia to play the lead role in restoring Russian strength.

I hope Hillary does run for president.

First, because it's getting to be damn near past time to have a woman president. Second, because she has some strong leadership characteristics that might just make her an excellent president. And third, because there will be plenty of substance to discuss and debate about her.

I also think that the Hillary vs. the media bit is a good narrative frame for her, no matter its accuracy. It's certainly accurate enough to have some credibility. And then there's the fact that the public doesn't think much of the news media.

This week, in fact, we've seen how it can work for her.

Monica Lewinsky herself surfaced in Vanity Fair with her first person story of the scandal and how it affected her. Though she makes plain that it was a consensual rather than coerced affair with the president, she remains not unsuitably aggrieved.

Some of this could be hurtful to Hillary. But she benefits from having one element of the media bring it up and take it seriously, while another dismisses it. The fact is that it's old news. And it's old news of a sort that makes one wonder why on earth we spent so much time talking about it back in the day.

We also have the return of that hardy perennial of the right, the Benghazi disaster. Hillary was the most prominent champion of having the US join European powers in intervening in Libya, an intervention I supported. But so far, that seems to be the clearest link between her and any cause of the disaster that was to unfold in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.

House Speaker John Boehner, acting to take a promised re-investigation away from controversial San Diego Congressman Darrell Issa and his powerful House Oversight Committee, has instead created a House select committee on Benghazi chaired by South Carolina Congressman Trey Gowdy. The Deep South conservative, who months ago proclaimed his eagerness to subpoena Hillary in the matter, said it again after being named chairman of the probe.

Actually, if Gowdy really wants to know what happened in Benghazi, he would subpoena General David Petraeus, who was director of CIA when the disaster occurred. Naturally, Petraeus wasn't on the list of people Gowdy has vowed lately to subpoena. But, intriguingly, Petraeus was in Gowdy's sights back in 2012, which is to say before he had a House select committee investigation to run.

Once again, at least so far, Hillary seems to be getting the benefit of the doubt from most of the media on Benghazi, viewing it as part of the right-wing propaganda mill. Because her critics are right-wingers and because it's supposedly an old story now.

However, the reality is that, despite all the sturm und drang, we still don't know what really happened in Benghazi when Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed during a wild night of attacks.

We do know that the version put out by the Obama Administration via then UN Ambassador Susan Rice on her now notorious Sunday chat show appearances, was ridiculously wrong. The tragedy did not stem from a protest -- against a hate-Islam video produced by a vicious airhead in the US -- gone south. There was no protest that day in Benghazi. Not that Hillary was particularly involved with this nonsense, mind you.

There was a protest that day in Cairo, where the video had been played relentlessly for days in advance as Islamists whipped up anger against the perfidious Americans and their satanic culture. Later there were protests across the Muslim world, showing just how recklessly irresponsible the "filmmaker" and his foolish "free speech advocate" backers really were. You don't shout fire in a crowded theater and claim the right of free speech. The dangerous fools who bait Islamists are not to be celebrated. Quite the contrary.

All that said, the tragedy in Benghazi stemmed from something very different. And what that is remains unclear.

Stevens, with whom I was acquainted, killed on the anniversary of 9/11, was reportedly in Benghazi to open an American cultural center. Is that why he was targeted? Though he had asked for more security, as the right constantly reminds (even as it hems and haws about cutting funding for State Department security), Stevens loved Libya and the Middle East and North Africa region in general, felt generally comfortable there, and had a habit of traveling well off the beaten path in ways that would frighten the average American. Perhaps the idea of an American cultural center in Benghazi, a fairly Wild West kind of place with many armed people about, was not well advised. Especially around the anniversary of 9/11. Is that why Stevens was targeted?

Or was he even targeted at all?

It may be that all this scrutiny of the State Department, and hence of Hillary, is beside the point. What was said to be the US "consulate" in Benghazi in which Stevens was fatefully and fatally trapped by the, er, "protesters," was primarily a CIA operating base. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/an-alternative-explanation-for-the-benghazi-talking-points-bureaucratic-knife-fight/2013/05/10/22a8df5c-b98d-11e2-b94c-b684dda07add_blog.html The jihadists attacked both the "consulate" and a US "annex" a mile away. Whose "annex" was this? It belonged to another government agency. In other words, it was, in the parlance, OGA (Other Government Agency), common code for CIA. Of the 30 American government personnel evacuated from Benghazi, 23 belonged to CIA and only seven to State.

In fact, there were reportedly far more Americans fighting on the ground that night in Benghazi than disclosed at the time. Their affiliation? CIA.

What were they doing there that would trigger a jihadist attack? That is the jackpot question.

So it may be that Chris Stevens was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, ironic collateral damage. (And very tragic, for Stevens was just the sort of intellectually and culturally engaged and sympathetic diplomat America needs in the Islamic world.)

While there are plenty of rumors, it may well be that CIA was doing exactly what it should be doing in Benghazi. The fact is that sometimes things just go wrong. But leaving it out of the discussion of what caused the Benghazi disaster is like ignoring half the screen while watching a movie.

Hillary probably has something more interesting to say about all this than she said in her earlier congressional appearance on the matter. I have the feeling she will get the opportunity, especially if she does end up running for president.

William Bradley Archive