Press Box

The New Clinton Propaganda Machine

Watch it rev up.

Bill and Hillary Clinton

Politicians don’t call it dissembling, deceiving, or lying. They call it media management, and no administration has practiced this black art better in recent times than that of President Bill Clinton. In his 1998 book, Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post describes how, after the disastrous first half of the first term, the Clintonites learned how to stage and contain the news by “alternately seducing, misleading, and sometimes intimidating the press.”

Kurtz continues:

[W]hat the White House press operatives did was to launder the news—to scrub it of dark scandal stains, remove unsightly splotches of controversy, erase greasy dabs of contradictions, and present it to the country crisp and sparkling white.

These lessons weren’t lost on Hillary Clinton, in part because she taught many of them after having endured what she considered two years of press hell. As “co-president,” she already held a “distrust of the press … even deeper than her husband’s” when she arrived in Washington, Kurtz writes. And she acted on it. Shortly after Clinton took office, she proposed evicting the White House press corps from the West Wing and resettling them in the Old Executive Office Building, he reports.

She nursed grudges against specific publications, freezing them out. When the press criticized her—inevitable given her centrality in the White House—she withdrew even more. She thought that the Whitewater affair “had turned her into red meat” and that the Washington Post and its editor, Leonard Downie Jr., were out to get her.

The Clintons learned the importance of knowing how to take a punch, but more essentially, they learned how to change the subject and how to selectively use the White House megaphone to drown out negative stories. Clinton chucked mini-initiatives into the media air, where they worked like chaff to flummox the news radar of the press corps. He and his spokesmen stayed on message to control the agenda, sidetracking unwanted questions with quick, disdainful responses. The goal was to “manage the news, to package the presidency in a way that people would buy the product,” Kurtz writes.

The Hillary Clinton propaganda machine employs none of the engineers who worked for her husband, but it applies the same techniques, as well as some held over from her Little Rock days. For example, earlier this week the New York Times reported the skill with which Hillary Clinton’s campaign has co-opted its former “nemesis,” Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report.

The Times calls Clinton’s relationship with Drudge, along with her courting of Rupert Murdoch, examples of her pragmatism. But she’s long been practiced in the skill of making nice with ideological enemies or critics in the press. While still in Arkansas, she courted tough-minded columnist John Robert Starr. In her new book about the Clintons, For Love of Politics, Sally Bedell Smith quotes writer Gene Lyons as saying that “Hillary was assigned to neutralize Starr by schmoozing.” Although she didn’t care for the task, says Lyons, “[s]he would call every day and chat, pat him on the head.” Yet even then, she talked of despising the press.

She still knows how to pair the velvet glove with the iron, as journalist Joshua Green learned last month. Green had a story about infighting within the Hillary Clinton campaign in the queue at GQ magazine, one that couldn’t have made her people happy. The Clinton camp told GQ to kill it or lose access to Bill Clinton, scheduled for the December cover, as Ben Smith writes in Politico. He continues:

The spiked GQ story … shows how the Clinton campaign has been able to use its access to the most important commodity in media—celebrity, and in fact two bona fide celebrities—to shape not just what gets written about the candidate, but also what doesn’t. …

Clinton was always touchy about whom she’d let write about her, Kurtz reports, and she remains so. In August, Daphne Merkin wrote in the New York Times that Clinton had twice turned her down for an interview, for the Times piece and earlier for an Elle magazine cover story. “Her press office told Elle that they were uncomfortable with a writer with my level of ‘psychological insight’ and wanted another writer assigned to the piece—which, in the event, never happened,” Merkin writes.

When Clinton can’t control who writes about her, her team does its best to marginalize whatever negative take gets published. In the President Clinton era, his defenders used the boilerplate that a critical piece contained no news or was just old news to stifle reports. Sen. Clinton’s people relied on this technique in May to bat down two new biographies of her. “The news here is that it took three reporters nearly a decade to find no news,” Clinton aide Howard Wolfson told the Washington Post. Clinton’s Senate spokesman Philippe Reines said, “Is it possible to be quoted yawning?” adding that if past books on Clinton were “cash for trash,” he added, “these books are nothing more than cash for rehash.”

Propaganda machines do their best—or worst, depending on your view—when the object of their obfuscations are beat reporters, the men and women who depend on regular access to the individual or institution to file daily stories. As Smith notes in his Politico story, the Clinton campaign has used its leverage to extract concessions out of the TV networks. He writes:

At the time Clinton launched her campaign, the networks’ hunger for interviews had her all over the morning and evening news broadcasts of every network—after her aides negotiated agreements limiting producers’ abilities to edit the interviews.

To remain effective, a propaganda machine must moderate its manipulations for two reasons. If it pushes the beat reporters around too much, its meddling becomes the story and damages the machine. Or it reduces the relevance of the beat reporters to the point that readers and viewers rely more on nonbeat reporters the machine has no influence over.

Addendum: Don’t miss “More on the Clinton Propaganda Machine.”


Potential titles for the next Hillary Clinton biography: Machine Dreams; The Time Machine; The Age of Spiritual Machines; and The Ghost in the Machine. Send your suggestions 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.)