Press Box

More on the Clinton Propaganda Machine

As reported in Howard Kurtz’s new book.

It stands to reason that Howard Kurtz, the reporter who popularized the phrase “the Clinton propaganda machine” by including it in the subtitle of his 1998 book, Spin Cycle, would still be tracking the couple’s devious ways with the press. (See my previous column, “The New Clinton Propaganda Machine.”)

In his new book, Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War, Kurtz captures Hillary Clinton—or at least her campaign—at her wily best as she negotiates the terms of engagement with the network news anchors after announcing her candidacy.

Kurtz writes on Page 367:

On the weekend in early 2007 when Clinton declared her candidacy, her team let the network anchors know that she was willing to pay each of them a house call on Monday. But there was a catch: The interviews would have to be done live to tape, with no possibility of slicing and dicing.When Charlie Gibson heard about the ground rules, he balked. The problem was that in a 3½ minute interview like this, the first question had to be some version of why do you want to be president, and if Clinton went on and on, he would barely have a chance to ask about anything else. And what if Rudy Giuliani or Bill Richardson or any other candidate asked for the same treatment? It would set a terrible precedent.”You’ve got to go back to them,” Gibson told [executive producer] Jon Banner. “We just don’t do that. We don’t do that for the president of the United States.”Gibson stewed about it through Sunday. He thought of calling Brian [Williams] and Katie [Couric] at home and saying, “You guys do what you want, but I’m going to say no, and we should all say no.” But he decided it would be wrong to engage in that kind of collusion.On Monday, Gibson told [ABC News President] David Westin that he was turning down the interview.”I’m going to back you up,” Westin said. “But please understand, you’re putting Good Morning America at a competitive disadvantage.” The morning show was facing a boycott by the Clinton family because ABC’s entertainment division had recently aired a movie, The Path to 9/11, that contained fictional scenes of top Bill Clinton aides undermining efforts against Osama bin Laden. Gibson told Westin that he would think about it.Finally, Gibson said that he would interview Hillary if they could do it live, so that neither side would have a built-in advantage. The Clinton team agreed but said that it would have to be done by satellite because she had to be back in Washington for Senate business.That afternoon, Hillary Clinton went to 30 Rock and sat down with Brian Williams. His first question was whether she had moved up her announcement to follow Obama’s within days. Not at all, Clinton said, they had planned it this way all along. He had trouble believing her answer. And when a Clinton aide later told him that of course they had speeded up their timetable, Williams concluded that she had not told him the truth.Clinton also went to West 57th Street to chat with Katie Couric. They had known each other for years, and posed for pictures. When Couric first got the anchor job, Hillary had quietly passed on some words of advice. Couric obviously identified with another woman looking to break the ultimate glass ceiling. But she was determined to ask the candidate some challenging questions. Clinton was highly intelligent, she felt, and understood the role of journalists.Couric let fly: Wouldn’t another Clinton administration feel like Groundhog Day? Hadn’t the health care plan she pushed as first lady been a disaster? Didn’t even her supporters have doubts about her electability?The senator calmly responded with canned answers.Gibson conducted the most probing interview by far, fueled in part by an air of annoyance about the format restrictions that Clinton had imposed.But it was more than that. He just had a disarming directness that came with age and experience.”You are a strong, credible, female candidate for president of the United States and I mean no disrespect in this, but would you be in this position were it not for your husband?”Clinton seemed taken aback.Would she take a pledge not to raise taxes? Could the country finance the war without raising taxes? Was her vote to authorize the Iraq war a mistake? Clinton regained her footing, but still seemed on the defensive.Gibson asked whether Barack Obama was qualified to be president.Clinton said that he was “a terrific guy” and she looked forward to a good contest.”Well, but that’s something of a dodge,” Gibson said. “In your mind is he qualified to be president?”Clinton ducked again.Gibson may have had just four minutes, but he got the most out of the allotted time.

For reporters, the key to derailing the Clinton propaganda machine is to thrust a stick into its spokes the first chance you get. Hillary—much more so than Bill—is an automaton on the campaign trail, and disrupting her stay-on-message rhythms will cause her machine to topple and crash.


If you missed the prequel to this piece, it’s not too late to go back. If you’ve seen other examples of the Clinton propaganda machine at work, forward them to (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)