Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Hill kill

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, apparently believing the poll numbers of recent weeks that give her a commanding lead over her Democratic rivals in the 2008 presidential campaign, has finally started to throw her pantsuited weight around. Flush with some privately maintained sense of her inevitability as the nominee, Clinton this week committed what we’d call a big-time strategic error – probably pissing off the press she needs as an ally, and revealing, in some ways, just how out of touch with today’s tools of communication she really is.

A story on the senator planned for publication in GQ –a piece about infighting within the campaign, written by Atlantic Monthly writer Josh Green -- was killed at her request, or, more appropriately, at the request of honchos and handlers in her orbit, who managed to extract a nasty quid pro quo: access to sources for a planned forthcoming GQ story on her hubby, former President Bill Clinton, would be denied if the Hillary story went through as planned.

“Despite internal protests, GQ editor Jim Nelson met the Clinton campaign’s demands, which had been delivered by Bill Clinton’s spokesman, Jay Carson, several sources familiar with the conversations said,” reported Ben Smith of The Politico, on Tuesday.

Now to some extent, this kind of thing is done all the time in the echo canyon of modern media. Networks finagle appearances from some newsmaker or another on the strength of a new book and a good pitch. Talk-show hosts make future decisions about guests based on press arising from those guests’ recent appearances somewhere else.

But this has happened before. The Clinton campaign’s move on GQ is only the latest bid to control what’s reported, and what’s not reported, about her campaign’s workings.

The Politico’s Smith reported: "Clinton’s team is also unusually aggressive in moving to smother potentially damaging storylines, as last spring when … aides took aim at an unflattering book by [New York Times] writers Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr.”

“The campaign’s transaction with GQ opens a curtain on the Clinton campaign’s hard-nosed media strategy, which is far closer in its unromantic view of the press to the campaigns of George W. Bush than to that of Bill Clinton’s free-wheeling 1992 campaign,” Smith reported Tuesday.

The Clinton campaign had no immediate comment – who would? – and will no doubt be about finding a way to ignore the whole deal, the better to submerge it in the relentless news cycle. But however they spin it, it’s an obvious screwup in strategy, especially the strategies that call for maintaining some kind of upbeat, if adversary, relationship with the press. Journalists don’t like to be manipulated, or have the appearance of their work manipulated by the sources of the stories they're writing. This is the kind of action that’s likely to affect, to one degree or another, the campaign’s relationship with a press corps now more prone to distrust her, or at least trust her and pronouncements from her campaign staff a little less.

And ironically, Hillary’s little pre-emptive strike may not have done her any good. This move by the campaign seems to presume that, by acting to kill a story in one magazine, said story is dead and buried. That strategy would have been largely successful not that many years ago, in the era of the primacy of print media. Now, though, well … it’s a different world. The rise of the Internet and the rapidly emerging role of bloggers in the national discourse change everything.

It’s a very safe bet that Josh Green, who wrote the Hillary story for GQ will pocket the handsome kill fee arranged in the writer’s contract, regain his control of the story and place that story somewhere else. Maybe in his own magazine. Or maybe – maybe even probably – on a Web site, one of the mavericks in the vast and viral, wild and woolly blogosphere. The Drudge Report or the Huffington Post, the Politico or the Daily Kos – who knows? And making matters worse: When it does show up online, the story will almost certainly have a bigger readership, in part because of its previous suppression, than it would have if it’d run as originally planned in GQ.

This episode hasn’t been Hillary’s finest hour. She’s opened herself up to some blowback from the press assigned to cover her 24/7, and (despite the online announcement of her candidacy) she’s opened the door to criticism of being thin-skinned, a bit paranoid and less than savvy -- if not utterly clueless -- about the way we communicate now: Faster than ever before, with more publishing options than ever before, less fearful of a senator’s media clout, and more confident of our own.

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