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In March, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told CNBC that she has been “the most transparent public official in modern times, as far as I know.” Some observers may disagree.
As Election Day nears, there are questions about how accessible a Clinton administration would be to the press and, ultimately, to the American public. Longtime political observers have chronicled Clinton’s turbulent relationship with the media, portraying her as private and controlling of information, and questioning her commitment to real transparency.
Journalists covering the campaign have grown frustrated with Clinton's inaccessibility, specifically highlighting the more than 250 days since she held a formal press conference on Dec. 4, 2015 in Iowa. Further, according to Dan Merica of CNN, in 2016 Clinton had held only 11 press gaggles, or informal interactions with the media, through the end of July. She held another aboard her campaign plane in early September.
The Clinton campaign, however, points out that she has given hundreds of one-on-one interviews to reporters during the campaign. Clinton pollster Joel Benenson told ABC News during the Democratic National Convention, “She has answered hundreds, if not thousands, of questions from reporters in one-on-one interviews. . . . We’ll have a press conference when we want to have a press conference. There’s no problem with that. But the American people hear from her directly every day. They get to ask her questions every day. And she answers questions from journalists.”
Media columnist Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post wrote that although it is probably a smart strategic move for Clinton to avoid press conferences, Clinton owes it to the electorate to speak publicly and answer tough questions. “So, yes, the smart play might be to continue to stonewall. Or continue to offer the carefully selected interviews she’s been doing,” Sullivan wrote. “That’s safe. But it’s not right.”
The Clinton campaign did not respond a request for comment on the story.
Media reporters note that press conferences provide an unscripted, high-pressure setting that allows journalists to ask tough questions.
“It’s important to see how the candidate reacts in a setting like that,” Politico media reporter Hadas Gold said. “It’s really tough having dozens of people in front of you asking questions, all trying to nail you down on something. . . . It’s a much different environment than a one-on-one interview where you have more control over the situation.”
David Cuillier, director of the Journalism School at the University of Arizona and a former president of the Society of Professional Journalists, pointed out that press conferences can expose a candidate to political vulnerabilities.
“All it takes is one slip of the tongue, one off-hand comment, and all of a sudden you’re down a couple of percentage points in the polls,” Cuillier said, adding that nevertheless, press conferences are “an avenue for people to learn about their presidential candidates.”
Clinton’s apparent aversion to press conferences, critics note, highlights her private nature, her tendency to control information, and her political strategy. Many media reporters don’t expect to see a shift in Clinton’s press accessibility should she win the presidency.
“It does let us know how she is going to be if she is elected,” Sullivan told the Reporters Committee. “I don’t think that she is going to, all of a sudden, turn around and say a lot of things that are going to get her into trouble. I think that she is going to be opaque and guarded.”
None of this should be surprising to those who have watched Clinton’s past interactions with the news media.
“I think Hillary Clinton has kept the media at bay for decades, going back to Whitewater and the scandals of the 1990s,” said Michael Calderone, senior media reporter of The Huffington Post. “It isn’t new for her to keep the media back.”
As first lady, Clinton ran up against transparency advocates when the Health Care Reform Task Force she chaired failed to disclose records and meet publicly under the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The Reporters Committee and other media organizations filed an amicus brief seeking access, which was granted in 1994 after a federal judge ruled the task force’s meetings and records be open. Sanctions were later levied against the adminitsration by a federal judge for “misconduct” in responding to the open government action.
The Bill Clinton administration was peppered with the years-long Whitewater investigation, and political and personal scandals that resulted in what has been called a generally “toxic” relationship with the White House press corps.
As senator from New York, Clinton pushed for legislation that would make government more transparent. During her eight years in the Senate, Clinton co-sponsored at least three unsuccessful bills that would have made government more open, including one to ensure greater transparency in the federal contracting process.
During the 2008 presidential primaries, Clinton responded to a Sunshine Week questionnaire about open government issues. “There should be a presumption of openness, and I would instruct my Attorney General to press all agencies to release information if disclosure would do no harm,” she wrote.
But Clinton’s wariness of the news media continued into her tenure at the State Department, although a Politico history of her relationship with the media noted Clinton had a more relaxed relationship with the State Department press corps.
When the The New York Times revealed that she had used a private email server for official communications as secretary of state, Clinton came under fire for a perceived lack of transparency, among other things. Although Clinton asked the State Department to release her work-related e-mails, critics raised questions over the deletion of nearly 31,000 personal emails. The FBI cleared her of any wrongdoing in the matter in early July.
“I think one of the big concerns of reporters, if they’re considering a Clinton presidency, is how much access they’re going to get,” Calderone said. “I think the email controversy shows how reluctant she is to cede any control over information. Even if what Hillary Clinton did wasn’t illegal, it certainly wasn’t transparent.”
When it comes to her tax returns, Clinton boasts a consistent record of making her records public. Although disclosing tax returns is not required by law, Clinton and her husband have made public nearly four decades of tax returns.
But some journalists are concerned that press accessibility and government transparency will be an uphill battle for news media no matter who is elected president.
"I totally predict that whoever is in the White House, it's going to be a tough four years for the press and the public,” Cuillier said. “I don't see the federal government, the executive branch opening up when January comes around.”