Opinion

Polman: Hillary Clinton’s transparency phobia

Author: Dick Polman - August 12, 2016 - Updated: August 12, 2016

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Dick Polman
Dick Polman

Hillary Clinton is riding high, thanks to the latest Trumplosions. But just because she’s winning in the polls, we shouldn’t whitewash her flaws. And here’s one that sticks in my craw:

It has been over 240 days since she last held a press conference.

That’s nearly the length of a full-term pregnancy. That’s the length of a baseball season, from spring training to the World Series. That’s the length of a Grateful Dead concert song on a bootleg CD, or at least it feels that way.

When Clinton and her advisers are asked about this fundamental breach of transparency, they blithely shrug it off. During the recent Democratic Convention, campaign pollster Joel Berenson said, “We’ll have a press conference when we want to have a press conference.” Campaign manager Robby Mook reportedly laughed when the issue was raised, and replied, “We’ll see.” And back in May, when Clinton was asked when she planned to meet the press again, she simply blew off the question: “Oh, I’m sure we will.”

I’m well aware that media complaints about lack of access rank last on the average Joe’s list of concerns. If people believed that Clinton’s stiffing of the traveling press was a black mark on her candidacy, she wouldn’t be increasing her lead over Trump in just about every new poll that’s released. And in the 24/7 digital era, there are all kinds of ways to credibly cover and critique a candidate, even without interactive face time.

But this is a character test, and Clinton is failing it.

I get that she doesn’t “need” to do press conferences, given all the alternative routes to the voter, from Twitter to Flickr to YouTube. And since she’s so well-positioned to win, why risk going off script in the midst of an unscripted media scrum? And hey, she’s hardly the first candidate to seek media exposure purely on her own terms.

I’m done with the caveats. To gain full presidential credibility, she needs to demonstrate a willingness to handle tough and often impertinent questions in a spontaneous environment.

It would be nice, for instance, to hear what she thinks about the flap du jour, the delivery of money long owed to Iran at the same (coincidental?) time that Iran was releasing American prisoners. And reporters should have the chance to question her latest remarks about her private email server. Last Sunday she told Fox News that she’d been “truthful” to the American people when she’d insisted that no classified info had been emailed. But FBI director James Comey told Congress, “There was classified material emailed.”

Clinton’s problem is that she’s just not comfortable in uncontrolled settings. After repeated media beatings dating back a quarter century – some of them justified, many of them disgracefully unfair – she’s guarded and gun shy. This was obvious 17 months ago, when she weathered one of her only press conferences of 2015. The email story had just broken. She scheduled a briefing on very short notice, which limited the number of attendees; she stayed for only 21 minutes; and the questioners were pre-picked by her staff. (Very first question, from Turkish television: “If you were a man today, would all this fuss being made be made?”)

But her ongoing stonewall does her no favors. It’s an impractical posture that accelerates the vicious news cycle. Jack Shafer, the media critic at Politico, says it well: “Her avoidance of the media leads 1) reporters to further distrust her, which 2) leads to more coverage that she regards as negative, which 3) confirms her bias that reporters will never give her a fair shake, so why bother?”

By the way, this situation exposes the right-wing lie about how the so-called “liberal” media is in the tank for Clinton. She and the “liberal” media are locked in mutual distrust. Her press conference famine is Exhibit A.

And, alas, it bodes ill for transparency during a second Clinton presidency.

Dick Polman

Dick Polman

Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a "Writer in Residence" at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at dickpolman7@gmail.com.