April 21, 2017

As her email mess was growing, Hillary Clinton scheduled the first national TV interview of her campaign with Brianna Keilar of CNN. It went poorly.

But wait. It now turns out that Clinton aide Huma Abedin had meant “Bianna,” not “Brianna” when she disclosed her belated intent to a communications aide. She wanted what she figured would be a non-threatening session with Yahoo! News’ Bianna Golodryga, who happens to be married to a former Bill Clinton aide.

That’s one of many improbable moments captured by journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes in “Shattered,” their account of Clinton’s disastrous campaign and, unavoidably, a reflection on the press.

After a previous book on Clinton, the duo (he of Roll Call, she of The Hill) surely had an inside track to write a solid history of Clinton’s assumed march to the White House. As such, it would probably have a brief shelf life, while giving them a shot at writing a subsequent book on her presidency.

But their presumed attendance at a ribbon cutting became more like a Red Cross analysis of an earthquake response effort. And it all played out amid their own unceasing confusion: they were seeing signs of disarray but most of their colleagues kept reiterating that Donald Trump was a rogue and joke.

Were they themselves somehow out of touch?

Their resulting handiwork has been well-reviewed in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Daily Beast and Rolling Stone, if not quite as well in The Washington Post.

And it all prompts at least a few questions about media miscues, their own doubts and the overall role (if any) of the press in the Clinton downfall. I caught up with them to ask about the coverage of the 2016 campaign, Clinton’s view of the press and what it was like to chronicle her failed White House bid. Here are their answers, sent to me by Allen.

There’s been lots written about media coverage of the campaign. It borders on self-flagellation (at least to me!). Is there something that, looking back, you’d accent, downgrade, upgrade or repeat, given your observations of the campaign when it comes to the press performance?

Voters had a tremendous amount of information about the candidates, their backgrounds and their positions — as well as the subjects they tried to hide from — and that’s because the journalists covering the campaigns did their jobs well. (For crying out loud, David Fahrenthold won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Trump’s foundation.) Trump showed he could get a lot of free coverage from TV, and, while Democrats complained about it, they didn’t do anything to effectively counter it or force the cameras away from him and onto Clinton.

That said, we think some in the media were too quick to prognosticate a Clinton win rather than simply reporting on what each of the candidates were doing down the home stretch.

You do write of confronting a dichotomy between your reporting on problems in the Clinton campaign, on one hand, and the seemingly impregnable conventional wisdom that she was a sure thing. Is there any lesson there?

Follow your reporting. Our sources were telling us all along about a variety of serious problems with the Clinton campaign, and yet we saw that the only available hard data — public polls — showed that she was likely to win. This created what turned out to be a valuable uncertainty about the outcome. We wrote what our sources told us rather than what we thought the narrative would end up being. As a result, we didn’t have to go back and tear up chapters.

That saved us a lot of time and pain. Here’s a funny anecdote: In October, our editor pressed us on some of what we were reporting because what we’d written so far didn’t neatly fit into the arc of a winning campaign — which most folks thought Clinton was running at that point. But we stuck with what we had, and we’re very glad that we did.

Up close, many campaigns look to be disasters. What was the biggest problem you now see with the Clinton campaign?

The candidate wasn’t able to connect with enough voters on the question of what she would do for them with the awesome power of the presidency. That wasn’t the only flaw, but it made it very difficult for Clinton and her campaign to be persuasive.

What was your biggest reporting challenge?

Access. We ended up talking to most of the people we wanted to interview, but there were times — particularly in tense moments during the campaign — where it could be very difficult to connect with the sources we wanted when we wanted. On one level, that’s not surprising for a political team. But Clintonworld is a particularly tough nut to crack, and you have to be willing to persist.

If you could get every single major media outlets top editors together in a room, how much you suggest they cover things differently next time?

Less attention to ephemeral stories — like every last Tweet, no matter how inconsequential — and more emphasis on hard reporting.

Explain Hillary Clinton’s view of the press and how it impacted the race, if at all.

She despises the media. For months, her campaign didn’t make her available to the press at all, and that deprived her of the credibility a candidate builds up by talking to members of the media on a regular basis. The press can help validate — or invalidate — what a candidate is saying, and she didn’t get much of the former for most of the campaign. When she wanted to rehab her image, she talked to late-night and daytime TV hosts rather than the journalists covering her.

Conversely, did the press itself impact the Clinton campaign or were there far larger, if largely missed dynamics in the country that doomed her, regardless of coverage?

We don’t think media coverage was decisive in this election. There was a tremendous populist political shift going on in the country that she told friends she didn’t fully grasp. That was much more of a determinant of Bernie Sanders’ competitiveness and Donald Trump’s ability to win Rust Belt states that usually tilt Democratic.

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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.…
James Warren

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