Are there 'Clinton rules' that drive unfair media coverage?

[caption id="attachment_361731" align="alignleft" width="201"]With their hats providing only a bit of privacy, the Clintons continued their vacation at Martha's Vineyard, Saturday, Aug. 30, 1997, with President Bill Clinton offering some golfing advice to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Mink Meadows Golf Club in Vineyard Haven, Mass. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) With their hats providing only a bit of privacy, the Clintons continued their vacation at Martha's Vineyard, Saturday, Aug. 30, 1997, with President Bill Clinton offering some golfing advice to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Mink Meadows Golf Club in Vineyard Haven, Mass. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)[/caption]The relationship between Hillary Clinton and the press is complex and contentious. But is there an "unspoken set of 'Clinton rules'" that drives media coverage?

Political writer Jonathan Allen makes such a case in Vox, pegging his thesis to a bungled New York Times story about a federal investigation of her emails as Secretary of State.

Instant criticisms prompted changes in the original story by the paper, a column by the paper's public editor and an editor's note. Nevertheless, some people surely remain befuddled by the email controversy.

"This episode is a particularly illustrative example of how an unspoken set of 'Clinton rules' govern the media's treatment of Clinton and how that ends up distorting the public view of her," writes Allen, co -author of a generally sympathetic book on Hillary Clinton.

In this instance, he finds that "The fallout has followed a familiar pattern: Republicans seize on an inaccurate report — often one they pushed into the media in the first place — and Democrats point to what's wrong in the story to undermine what's right with it. Pretty soon, the narrative emanates out from the original source of the reporting to conservative and liberal television pundits and radio talk-show hosts, ensuring that the details, and the truth, will be casualties of the never-ending political war over Clinton."

A result, he believes, is that one reaches a point where it doesn't really matter whether Hillary Clinton has done anything wrong. "Indeed, the cloud around many big Clinton stories is so thick and toxic that it's hard to get to the bottom of whether she's the perpetrator or victim of bad deeds."

So it really doesn't matter at all if she's sinned or not on a particular matter. The media's "Clinton rules" still drag her down. "If she's consistently the subject of negative stories, it can't help but hurt her standing with a public exhausted by a quarter-century of partisan Clinton wars. And she is constantly the subject of negative stories, some of which would be handled more judiciously if they were about another figure."

Perhaps. And while Allen gets into the questionable area of making sweeping generalizations about "the media," as if it's monolithic, he perhaps got closer to his real thesis in an earlier piece when he argued this:

"It's understandable, then, why the Clintons have a bunker mentality when it comes to transparency. But their paranoia leads them to be secretive, and their secrecy leads Republicans and the press to suspect wrongdoing. That spurs further investigation, which only makes the Clintons more secretive. The paranoia and persistent investigation feed each other in an endless cycle of probe and parry."

Yes, Bill and Hillary Clinton have a history of mistrust and antagonism of many in the press. The exhausting centerpieces were the heated coverage of the Whitewater real estate controversy and the media's at times pro-prosecution bias exhibited during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the move to impeach Bill Clinton while president.

But Allen seems to have developed an inadvertent Clinton version of Stockholm Syndrome, where captives wind up expressing sympathy for their captors. In this case, the captors exhibit many weaknesses. Their hands aren’t clean.

It's implicit in his analysis that Hillary Clinton is, by and large, a victim. Having observed her now for several decades, that's not necessarily true.

There is for both Bill and Hillary a long pattern of thinking they can skate on an edge; be it in politics or their personal and financial lives. It's perhaps exacerbated by their worldwide celebrity and a distinct sense of entitlement after decades of traveling only in private jets and chauffeur driven sedans and limos.

There is, too, a sense of righteousness that seemingly blinds them to their own corner-cutting, evasions and mistruths. They are involved in many honorable endeavors, they seem to be saying, how dare anyone impugn their character!

But her campaign already offers multiple examples of the frustrations she presents. None suggests she wouldn't be a capable president but they remind us of a recurring and slippery pattern: bemoaning the family's post-White House personal finances (the "dead broke" remark), the separate email server, the stunning speech fees for a self-styled friend of the working class, and the morally dubious relationships crafted by the Clinton Foundation with some nations and individuals.

There is more, personified Tuesday by her avoiding answering the basic question of whether she supports the Keystone XL pipeline expansion. After all this time and debate, she's undecided, she told a New Hampshire voter.

It underscored a basic problem with Allen's thesis of Clinton coverage.

Whether it is her non-answer about the Keystone pipeline or her dodges on her emails, she seems to have adopted her husband's regrettable penchant for parsing, made all too vivid when he famously said (about sex with Lewinsky) that it all depends on what the definition of "is" is.

The predicament may be less "Clinton rules" of coverage than a certain lack of candor that can rule the Clintons and frustrate even the most fair-minded journalists.

But, as Bill Clinton biographer David Maraniss pointed out to me, the Clintons' opponents have a history, too, of operating on the edge and overplaying their hand. That tendency can also be true of some---by no means all---in the media.

And, as their rich and at times exhausting history shows, the Clintons can both benefit by that overreaching.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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