Hillary Clinton: wariness of the press

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

One in a series of articles on the First Amendment record and views of
2008 presidential candidates.

When Hillary Clinton became first lady in January 1993, one of her first acts
was to order an end to the routine access to the West Wing that reporters
covering the White House had enjoyed for decades.

And that was just the beginning. She wanted the press corps out of the White
House altogether, banished to the nearby Old Executive Office Building.

The draconian plan did not come to pass, but it stands as a symbol of her —
and her husband’s — long and wary relationship with the press. And it raises the
question, now that the Democratic New York senator is a presidential candidate
in her own right, what her posture will be if she is elected, not just toward
the White House press corps, but toward access and government-secrecy issues in

Newsweek recently reported, for example, that even as Hillary Clinton
has criticized the Bush administration’s “stunning record of secrecy,” the
Clinton Presidential Library has blocked access to important documents relating
to her White House work.

“I don’t think she’ll be anti-First Amendment,” says Richard Benedetto, a
retired White House reporter for USA Today. “She’ll keep a good healthy
dialogue going with the press, I think.”

But, he adds, “If something comes up and she feels the press is to blame, she
won’t hesitate to take them on.”

Benedetto, who now teaches at American University’s school of public affairs,
remembers the Clinton plan to keep the press corps out of the West Wing. “They
wanted to shunt us off,” he said, as controversy after controversy erupted.

In a new biography of Hillary Clinton by Carl Bernstein, A Woman in
key Clinton aide Harold Ickes is quoted as saying of the Clintons,
“They came in very sour and felt the press had mistreated them … . But instead
of reaching a hand out to the press, which they should have … that olive
branch was never extended.”

More than 14 years later, by many accounts, Sen. Clinton still has disdain
for journalists and their prying predilections. But her years in the White
House, in the Senate and now in the presidential campaign have taught her she
needs at least to get along with the press and tolerate its excesses, at least
most of the time, without exacting revenge.

Recent reports suggest she has even tried to improve relations with Matt
Drudge and his rumor-hungry Drudge Report.

“She’s long been practiced in the skill of making nice with ideological
enemies or critics in the press,” Slate media critic Jack Shafer wrote last week
in a piece on her “propaganda machine.” But Shafer also cites reports in
Politico that after Clinton aides complained in advance about a forthcoming
GQ magazine piece on discord in her presidential campaign, the magazine
killed the article.

This velvet glove/iron fist approach to the press mirrors, in some ways, her
mixed record on other First Amendment and access issues, as well.

As a New York senator, for example, she has consistently opposed a
constitutional amendment that would authorize Congress to outlaw flag-burning.
But in 2005, she supported a legislative approach aimed at achieving the same
goal. She endorsed a bill sponsored by Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, that would make
it a crime to destroy or damage a U.S. flag with the primary purpose of inciting
imminent violence, or to steal and damage a flag belonging to the United States
or on United States property. The bill did not pass.

Also in 2005, she called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate a
popular video game, “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” She criticized the
video-game industry as a “silent epidemic” that harms children and exposes them
to graphic pornographic and violent material.

Critical in general of media violence, Clinton has introduced legislation
calling for more research on the impact of the media on children.

In her White House days, when she led the effort to reform the nation’s
health-care system, she drew criticism for holding task-force meetings in
private, in spite of a federal law (the Federal Advisory Committee Act) that
requires advisory committees that include people from outside government to meet
in public. As a senator, she called on President George W. Bush to release more
records relating to Supreme Court nominee John Roberts Jr.’s government

Clinton has also supported campaign-finance measures that First Amendment
supporters criticize for restricting core political speech when it matters most
— shortly before elections.

And she has backed “Net neutrality” legislation, stating last year that “We
must embrace an open and non-discriminatory framework for the Internet of the
21st century.”

She also has a history of disagreeing on First Amendment issues with the man
who might be her Republican opponent in November 2008: former New York City
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

In 1999, Giuliani tried yanking public funding from the Brooklyn Museum
because it was displaying art that he viewed as “sick,” vulgar and

Still first lady at the time, Hillary Clinton was already pondering running
for the Senate as a candidate from New York. So she weighed in on the intense
Brooklyn Museum battle, which Giuliani ultimately lost.

“I share the feeling that I know many New Yorkers have that there are parts
of this exhibit that would be deeply offensive,” she said, according to an Associated Press report. “I would not go to
see this exhibit.” But she added, “It is not appropriate to penalize and punish
an institution such as the Brooklyn Museum.”

Courtney Holliday contributed to this report.

Updated in 2008