Has Hillary Clinton Actually Been Dodging The Press?

Aug 26, 2016
Originally published on August 27, 2016 1:03 pm

Hillary Clinton has not held a single press conference since the start of 2016, triggering charges that she's trying to duck questions from reporters on the campaign trail.

Clinton and her senior campaign aides say that's absurd. They have pointed repeatedly to what they call the swiftly growing number of interviews she has granted. In late May, for example, Clinton told CNN's Jake Tapper she had already done nearly 300 interviews. Last Sunday, campaign manager Robbie Mook told CBS's John Dickerson, "She's been in more than 300 interviews with reporters this year alone."

A review by NPR of those numbers suggests those claims by the campaign were at once true and somewhat misleading — some were conducted by unlikely questioners, and overall she favored local radio and national TV hits over granting interviews with national reporters covering her on the campaign trail and with print publications.

In preparing an earlier story on Clinton's lack of press conferences, NPR set out to secure a tally of all those interviews from the campaign, as other database searches proved incomplete. In early August, the Clinton campaign agreed to share a tally of all of its interviews from the start of the year through the end of July. NPR sifted through the list, made minor corrections after conferring with the campaign, and analyzed the results.

Among the network's findings:

  • 350 interviews: While she did not keep up with the frantic media pace Donald Trump set for much of the election season, Clinton cannot be said to have ducked public questioning. She had indeed done 350 interviews in the first seven months of the year.
  • Mostly TV: Clinton favored television above all other forms of media. Clinton gave one hundred interviews to national cable and broadcast network news programs in that period and also emphasized brief interviews with local television news stations. She also frequently graced local radio hosts with her calls.
  • Not all journalists: These interviews were not, however, all conducted by reporters or journalists. Nearly a fifth of the total, or 65 interviews, were conducted by people NPR did not classify as journalists or in settings that would be considered journalistic, even using expansive definitions.

Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill, who provided the database to NPR, did not take issue with the network's conclusions when they were shared with him.

The range of those interviews includes some unlikely questioners, such as:

  • Philip Levine, the Democratic mayor of Miami Beach, Fla., who has not only endorsed Clinton but whose company was the landlord for her South Florida campaign office. Levine has a political talk show on Sirius XM satellite radio.
  • Neha Gandhi of Refinery 29, a lifestyle website aimed at millennial women, in conversation with Planned Parenthood chief Cecile Richards.
  • Mr. Chase, host of a midday show on the Detroit R&B station Mix 92.3, who decided to give Clinton an astrological reading: "You're basically a water sign. You have tendencies of Libra. You're great at getting people along and creating harmony."

Then again, a strategy of reaching out to unconventional media outlets is no longer unconventional for politicians. The president whom Clinton hopes to succeed, Barack Obama, appeared on the programs of the comedians Ellen DeGeneres, Zach Galifianakis and Jerry Seinfeld. And Trump granted interviews to the right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and the industry magazine The Hollywood Reporter, among many other outlets.

Other findings:

  • Didn't favor print: Clinton gave 35 interviews to newspapers and magazines, averaging barely one a week, from the Times-Democrat in Orangeburg, S.C., to Essence, to the New York Times.
  • Minority outreach: Clinton turned frequently to broadcasters and targeted publications who reach Latino and African-American voters, both key elements of the Democratic electorate.
  • Kept them short: A spot-check of interviews found most hovered between about three and eight minutes in duration, enough time to be seen on television screens and heard on the air, but short enough time to limit how deeply an interviewer could drill down.

Six years ago, Philippe Reines, an adviser to then-Secretary of State Clinton, emailed Jake Tapper, then with ABC News. Tapper had complained of failing to land an interview with Clinton while two rivals did. "They were 10 minutes each," Reines wrote to Tapper. "You would have wanted at least twice as long and spent half as much on the topic we were pushing."

Jon Delano, the political director for KDKA, CBS' Pittsburgh station, has interviewed Clinton twice this year — once during the height of the state's primary season, and the other time right after the Democratic national convention. His state and his region are considered vital swing state territory.

Nonetheless, Delano had just three minutes the first time. He asked Clinton about fracking and gun control, issues that matter both to western Pennsylvania voters and to the national electorate, with little opportunity for follow-up questions.

The second time, Delano interviewed Clinton for 8 1/2 minutes, pressing her on what she was willing to do to create jobs in the coal and steel industries.

"The more time you give a local journalist, the more airtime you will receive on that local station," Delano told NPR. "In Secretary Clinton's case, you get a little tap on the shoulder from an aide that basically indicates that your time is up."

The national reporters who trek throughout the country to report on Clinton daily were among the least likely to secure interviews, a sore point for many. Clinton has entertained questions a dozen times in so-called gaggles with the reporters who travel with her. Only in rare moments does she grant them individual interviews.

Clinton also participated in nine town-hall sessions from Jan. 1 to July 31, at which she took questions from journalists and members of the public.

Merrill, the Clinton spokesman, told NPR the campaign remains attentive to campaign reporters' concerns about access and press conferences. Highlighting the interviews, Merrill said, "does not say we do not listen to or take seriously any feedback, particularly from the traveling press corps who know us best."

During one of her longer conversations, with Politico's Glenn Thrush for his podcast in early April, Clinton revealed some of her thinking about the reporters who cover her.

"Once you get to a national press position, like yours and the others that are traveling with me, you're really under, in my impression, a kind of pressure to produce a political story," Clinton told Thrush.

"A headline," Thrush offered.

"That's your job," Clinton said. "A headline, right? I totally get it."

Clinton said by contrast she picked up valuable clues about a region's concerns from talking to local reporters. "They will actually say, 'Well, you know, this is a problem that we're having. What do you think about it?' " Clinton said. "So there's actually a conversation that goes on."

Betsy Fischer Martin, who was executive producer of the NBC Sunday public affairs show Meet the Press for 11 years, says Clinton was always a reluctant guest on her program.

"Notoriously, she hated doing Sunday show interviews," Martin says. "And it was very difficult to get her booked on the show during many periods when she was secretary of state, when she was a U.S. senator, when she was a candidate. It was always a big effort to get her to come on and do a long sit-down interview."

Clinton appeared 22 times on the five major Sunday public affairs shows so far this year, a review of transcripts shows. Trump appeared nearly twice as frequently.

Martin tells NPR she was a bit surprised by how many television interviews Clinton had given. However, Martin noted that Clinton faced a far more difficult than expected challenge in the primary season from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders this spring.

In April, ahead of the Pennsylvania and New York primaries, Clinton called in to Ebro Darden's morning show on Hot 97, a hip-hop radio station in New York City. It was a relatively lengthy conversation — about 15 minutes long. And it afforded her a receptive forum in which to address comments she had made in 1996 as first lady that had recently resurfaced. Clinton had called some young criminals "super-predators." Such talk carries a racial charge for many African-Americans. And Clinton used her time to reassure Darden's listeners that she shared their concerns.

"She does interviews when it suits her," said Martin, who now hosts a podcast for Bloomberg Politics. "When they have a message that they want to get out there, they have a point they want to make, then she will do interviews."

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There has been a lot of criticism of Hillary Clinton for failing to hold press conferences this year. Her last one - back in December. Last night in an interview with CNN, Clinton told Anderson Cooper, "Stay tuned. There'll be a lot of different opportunities for me to talk to the press," end quote.

NPR's David Folkenflik is going to help us take a step back here. He's obtained a database from the campaign of all the interviews Hillary Clinton has done, and she has done hundreds. But that's far from the whole story.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The question comes up a lot. Last Sunday on "Face The Nation," CBS's John Dickerson suggested candidate Clinton was failing to prepare herself to become President Clinton.


JOHN DICKERSON: They're going to need that as a way to communicate with the American people, so why not have a press conference?

FOLKENFLIK: Clinton's campaign manager Robby Mook had a ready reply.


ROBBY MOOK: The real question here is whether Secretary Clinton has been taking questions from reporters, which she absolutely has. We went and counted, and she has been in more than 300 interviews with reporters this year alone. I know she's been on...

FOLKENFLIK: And just to be clear, that phrasing wasn't accidental. Mook said it again.


MOOK: I don't think it's fair to say that someone is shying away from tough questions when they've taken over 300 interviews from reporters.

FOLKENFLIK: The total is at once true and yet, maybe somewhat misleading, as it includes a lot of very different kinds of interviews. Let's give you a taste. Clinton has granted interviews to NBC's top news anchor Lester Holt.


LESTER HOLT: President Obama has spent eight years on this and hasn't been able to move the needle. How will you move the needle on race relations?

FOLKENFLIK: CBS Late Night host Stephen Colbert.


STEPHEN COLBERT: Thank you for meeting me in the Carnegie Deli...


COLBERT: ...Where they serve, you know, sandwiches as big as a baby's head.

FOLKENFLIK: And Mr. Chase, the host of a midday show on Mix 92.3, a Detroit R&B station.


MR. CHASE: Your birthday's October 26, right?

CLINTON: Yes, sir.

MR. CHASE: You're basically a water sign. You have tendencies of Libra. You're great at getting people along and creating harmony, but the only thing...

FOLKENFLIK: As I said, it's a pretty broad range. NPR has reviewed and verified the list, which required only minor corrections. From January 1 through the end of July, Clinton has indeed participated in more than 350 interviews. She's also done nine town halls at which she took questions from journalists and members of the public.

Clinton has largely disdained big newspapers. She gave 100 interviews to major television networks in person, by satellite or by phone. Donald Trump has given far more, especially before he cut back this summer. Yet, Betsy Fischer Martin says she was a bit surprised by how many Clinton had done, as it's not her strong suit. Martin is the former executive producer of NBC's Sunday public affairs show, "Meet The Press."

BETSY FISCHER MARTIN: I know notoriously, she hated doing Sunday show interviews. And it was very difficult to get her booked on the show during many periods when she was secretary of state, when she was a U.S. senator, when she was a candidate. It was always a big effort to get her to come on and do a long sit-down interview.

FOLKENFLIK: Martin notes that Clinton was having an unexpectedly hard time dispatching Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries.

FISCHER MARTIN: I mean, here's the deal with her, though. She does interviews when it suits her. When they have a message that they want to get out there, they have a point they want to make, then she will do interviews.

FOLKENFLIK: Many of this year's interviews were clustered around key points in the election season - major primaries, the Justice Department's decision not to prosecute her over her handling of emails while secretary of state, the Democratic National Convention, too. Clinton has entertained questions a dozen times in so-called gaggles with the reporters who travel with her. In rare moments, she grants them individual interviews. It's only for five or 10 minutes a piece. Ten minutes sounds like an eternity to Jon Delano. He's the political director of KDKA, the CBS TV station in Pittsburgh.

JON DELANO: The real limitation is on time.

FOLKENFLIK: Delano has interviewed Clinton twice this year - the first time, just for a few minutes.

DELANO: The candidates sometimes give very long-winded answers to questions, and, therefore, you get one or two or three questions in there. And in my case, I like doing follow-up questions.

FOLKENFLIK: Clinton granted 110 local radio interviews. Many to stations serving African-American and Latino listeners, including Mr. Chase the Detroit DJ or this one from Univision Radio.


INO GOMEZ: La senora, secretaria - Madame Secretary Hillary Clinton. Are you there, Mrs. Clinton?

FOLKENFLIK: That's Ino Gomez on "Good Day New York."


CLINTON: I am so happy to be talking to you. I think I have been interviewed on your station about six times, and I'm thrilled to be talking to you again.

GOMEZ: Terrific. All of New York - all of Hispanic New York is listening right now.

FOLKENFLIK: Though sympathetic, Gomez asked questions with both local and national relevance about immigration, Puerto Rico's fiscal crisis and the nation's new relationship with Cuba, so it's a mix. More than 300 interviews? Yes. More than 300 chances for people to ask revealing questions? Absolutely. More than 300 interviews with journalists? In some cases. That depends on your definition. Tonight, I'll drill down on Clinton's interview strategy for a month in the heat of this year's primary season. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.