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US elections 2016

Chasing the elusive Hillary Clinton

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton hasn’t held a press conference in over 200 days. Why does she keep the news media at an arm’s length? Romina Spina looks for answers.

Two days after Hillary Clinton announced she was running for president in 2016, the television news media made headlines of its own. Millions of Americans watched how reporters literally fell over themselves to chase Clinton's vehicle as it approached a school in Iowa for a campaign event. Journalists were criticized and ridiculed, but the episode served as a vivid reminder of how difficult it would be for them to get access to this particular candidate.

For someone who has been at the center of four presidential campaigns, Clinton keeps a safe distance from the national political media. Her last press conference was in early December, over 200 days ago. This reluctance generated countless articles and commentaries questioning her motives. The Washington Post has a live ticker on its website to count the days and hours that go by without Clinton addressing the press directly.

USA Wahlen Presseraum im Weißen Haus

Hillary Clinton is proving to be elusive at trying to get her message across

Press pool

Even the journalists traveling with the first female nominee face restrictions. Early on, just over a dozen news organizations had formed a press pool to cover Clinton's campaign. It works like the press pool at the White House that covers the president. These outlets share costs and provide their own reporters, who in turn get to ask questions and then report back to members of the pool.

When asked why Clinton didn't engage with reporters, her press secretary Brian Fallon replied that she regularly stopped after events and answered their questions at length. But according to members of the pool, including those from CNN and ABC News, access to Clinton on the campaign trail is fairly limited. Yes, she would answer questions, but only occasionally and for a few minutes only, they wrote on Twitter. Some try by shouting their questions at her before or after an event, and many simply get ignored.

Clinton has been a public figure for nearly four decades. As a former first lady, US senator and secretary of state, she grew to distrust and dislike the news media early on. Over the years, press coverage of her and her family has often been openly hostile and included a string of personal attacks, which she chronicled in her memoir "Living history."

Other experiences with the media also left a mark. In the early 1970s, before her marriage to Bill Clinton, she was a lawyer working with the head of the impeachment inquiry to investigate then-President Richard Nixon. "At the time, she saw first hand how the press brought down Nixon," James Mueller, professor of journalism at the University of North Texas, told DW.

In part, her attitude toward the press also comes down to her personality. Compared to her husband, she can be charming too but is less spontaneous and more careful than him, added Mueller, who has written a book on how the Clintons handle the news media.

These days, whenever the press complains about her unwillingness to talk to reporters, her team likes to point out that she has given hundreds of interviews on the campaign trail since January. What they are less eager to highlight is that these were mainly individual interviews that Clinton gave to journalists she felt she could handle. Press conferences would take away her ability to steer the conversation and put her in a vulnerable position.

"Her appearances are all carefully scripted," said Aaron Sharockman, who heads PolitiFact, a project that fact-checks politicians' statements. He's compared Clinton to her opponent on the Republican side, Donald Trump. The New York billionaire is more accessible to the press and rarely prepares his remarks. Clinton is the opposite and chooses her words with such great care that it's difficult even for fact-checkers to call her out, Sharockman told DW.

Boldkombo Hillary Clinton Donald Trump Emotionen

Compared to Trump, Clinton is seen as evasive and unaccessible

Campaign strategy

She might worry about having to answer tricky questions at a press conference, but given her experience testifying in institutional settings, it's more likely that she doesn't see any benefits in standing in front of dozens of reporters.

What causes bewilderment and deep frustration among journalists is part of a sophisticated strategy designed to play up her qualities while minimizing risks. Clinton and her staff know they are in control and can choose how to connect to voters. In that sense, the digital age has shifted power dynamics.

"Hillary and politicians like her don't need the traditional media anymore to get their message out," said Mueller. The waning influence of television networks allows her to pick which interviews to do, in the format and setting she prefers.

The fact that she won't do press conferences is only relevant to reporters, less so to the wider public. "Voters still see her on [shows like] 'Meet the Press' or 'Saturday Night Live,' so they think she's always in the media," Mueller added.

Clinton quickly adapted to trends and became wildly popular on social media when she was secretary of state. That period coincided with consistently high approval ratings. Her relationship with the press improved too, as the group of reporters who covered her was small and focused on policies rather than politics. There was room for personal interaction, and she was engaging, funny and warm.

Watch video 02:22

It's official: Hillary makes history

This week polls showed that her popularity is now at an all-time low. She is seen as dishonest and untrustworthy. A study by Harvard University's Shorenstein Center also found that compared to her fellow candidates, she got by far the least favorable press coverage. To be sure, Clinton still blames the mainstream media for her crushing defeat to Barack Obama in 2008. If she wins the election in November, her troubled relationship with the press is unlikely to change for the better.

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