Battleground Media 2016: Under Pressure for a Presser

This story is the first in a three-part series, Battleground Media 2016. This series covers the Presidential candidates’ relationships with the media. Part two in the series will focus on Donald Trump and part three will look at Jill Stein and Gary Johnson.

It has been 272 days since Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for President, has held a formal press conference. With her poll numbers still far outpacing her rival’s, her campaign shows no sign of changing course.

The controversy surrounding Clinton’s lack of press conferences is “reporters’ lazy way of appearing aggressive” according to Robert Entman, a professor at The George Washington University whose latest book—Scandal and Silence: Media Responses to Presidential Misconduct—focuses on news media’s frequent pursuit of scandal.

The closest Secretary Clinton has come to a formal press conference, or presser as it’s known colloquially, was on August 5th, when she answered questions at a gathering of minority journalists, though the nature of the event didn’t qualify it as a press conference in the eyes of most journalists. The format of the event included two journalists who acted as moderators at a joint conference of the National Association of Black Journalists and National Association of Hispanic Journalists—in contrast to a traditional press conference format with no moderation and a pool of wide-ranging publications.

While the candidate has made herself available for over 350 interviews this year and takes questions in a gaggle format from her traveling press, her campaign remains unwilling to organize a formal question and answer session with members of the press.

“[Journalists] don’t have to do any real reporting on real issues, or on Clinton’s policy plans. Instead, they can keep pestering the staff over and over on the same symbolic matter, questions that convey the general press stereotype that Clinton is hiding important misdeeds, that she’s untrustworthy and so forth,” said Entman who teaches political communication at George Washington’s School of Media and Public Affairs.

Entman views media criticism of Clinton’s press relations as a red herring, noting that while the media focuses on Clinton’s press relations, they largely ignore her policy positions and issues of substance.

“[Clinton’s untrustworthiness] has been conveyed thousands of times—it’s not new news. Meanwhile, I’d bet not 1 in 1,000 Americans knows her health care proposal or tax proposal or how they compare to Trump’s,” said Entman.

A recent Morning Consult poll seems to agree with Entman’s assessment of the issue. The poll found that 51 percent of respondents noted that her decision to avoid a press conference would not affect their vote, with only 27 percent saying it will make them less likely to vote for her.

Despite the general public’s apparent disinterest in the issue, some experts believe that does not make it any less important.

“In general, the public doesn’t care about such press issues, and never really has, but probably less so today when there is low public esteem of the news media, according to the polls. But that doesn’t make it unimportant because it goes to how the press does its job,” said Albert May, a former political reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Washington correspondent for the Raleigh News and Observer.

Secretary Clinton’s avoidance of pressers is not a new phenomenon for the candidate, who has long had a complicated relationship with media exposure and political reporters.

“Hillary Clinton has long had an arms-length relationship with the mainstream political press, going back to the 1992 campaign, which I covered,” said May, who is also a professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.

Clinton’s distant relationship to the press is most apparent in her interactions with her traveling press, who do not travel on the same plane as the candidate. Instead, they travel on a separate campaign press plane, a departure from custom that May finds concerning.

“There has been a growing problem with access to candidates by the traveling press corps, particularly in the general election when the stakes are so high and the press corps is at maximum size,” said May.

While Clinton’s campaign has shown no signs of changing course in its interactions with the national political press, some experts argue that it may be in their advantage to do so.

“I do think the Clinton strategy is self-defeating and only sours her relationship with the traveling press, but I doubt if she’ll sacrifice many votes specifically on that issue,” said May.

While experts like May and Entman disagree over the importance of Clinton participating in press conferences, they—along with the public—seem to agree that it will have an insignificant impact on her chances come November 8.

The Democratic National Committee, through a high-ranking official, declined to comment for this story. At press, the Clinton campaign had not yet responded to our request for comment.

Update: Politico exclusively reported on Thursday, September 1st that Senator Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate, has said their campaign will establish a “protective pool” to travel on the same plane as Kaine as soon as next week, though it remains unclear if the same is true of Secretary Clinton.

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