Reporters in Iowa and New Hampshire Go Rogue With Positive Hillary Coverage

By Peter Daou and Tom Watson

There are two media narratives dominating the 2016 presidential race:

1. "Stop Hillary" 

2. Everything else

The first involves a motley assortment of “innerati” (journalists, columnists, pundits, politicians, political operatives, insiders, and opinion makers) whose pathological desire to take down Hillary Clinton permeates 2016 commentary and coverage.

The second includes the GOP/Trump circus as well as an array of urgent issues, from #BlackLivesMatter to climate change, extreme inequality, and the economy.

We founded #HillaryMen to combat #1, the entirely predictable effort to block Hillary from becoming America’s first woman president. Since our June launch, we’ve written extensively about that effort, how it’s funded, and how it manifests in the media.

Whether or not Hillary succeeds in breaking the ultimate gender barrier, the behavior of the U.S. media will be an embarrassing part of the 2016 story. Granted, not all journalists are doing the work of well-funded conservative attack groups. Some are eschewing the usual anti-Hillary talking points and actually chronicling her interaction with voters. These rogue reporters are doing the real journalism of the campaign.

A great example is a story in the Tampa Bay Times by political editor Adam Smith, who hit the road with Hillary in New Hampshire. With a little shoe leather reporting, Smith shows how Hillary connects with voters:

"She brought me to tears. I am a tough, cranky, hard-a-- New Englander, and she touched my heart today," businesswoman Denise Andrews said after attending a town hall meeting in Exeter, N.H. 

"She has so much compassion, and it shows," said middle school teacher Sarah Harris, the mother of that girl close to beating Stage 4 liver cancer. "She's a person, she's a grandmother, she's somebody's mother." 

After hearing her at a town hall meeting in Claremont, 27-year-old educator Matt Torney wondered aloud where Clinton's ice princess image came from. 

"That reputation was started at some point, but it clearly does not come from people who have been in a room with her," he said. "She is so knowledgeable in so many areas, and she connects really well with folks. The longer the campaign goes, the better for her, I think, because more people will see her and get past all that noise."

Smith concludes:

What is striking is that so many people who see Clinton in person say they had a generally negative impression of her beforehand. Hillary Rodham Clinton, 67, has been on the national and international stage almost nonstop for more than two decades, and countless voters still don't know her except as a calculating caricature.

That “calculating caricature” is a direct result of the relentless repetition in the media of carefully crafted anti-Hillary memes. The fact is, Hillary is open, approachable, warm, engaged and quite convincing on the stump. She connects as well as any politician in our lifetimes and frankly, she’s far better at this than many a major party nominee over the past 40 years.

Politico’s report on her reception at the Iowa State Fair illustrates our point:

People encircled balconies in the barn to get a glimpse of her, yelling “look here, Hillary!” or “Hillary, I love you!” And those on the ground who couldn’t see her because of all the bodies held up their phones, angling them such that they could snap a memento. 

“I got a video,” one kid bragged to someone standing next to him. A Secret Service officer joked to POLITICO that he hadn’t even seen Clinton once since her arrival at the fair because of the thick crowd surrounding her.

Clinton supporter Dan Fredericks of Boone, who went up to praise Clinton in peron at the fair for her education policy, said he’s seen a real difference in her this year. 

“She’s doing it. Right here,” he said, pointing down at the ground. “Last time she was kinda up, and Barack Obama was down with the crowds. Now, it’s giving me goosebumps … She’s having a good weekend.” 

By the time she jumped back into the black SUV that whisked her away, Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs had counted 42 pictures that Clinton posed for with fans — many of those were selfies. 

“I’m your biggest fan,” said one sweaty gentleman who jumped to the head of the crowd and draped his arm around her for a photo.

Another Iowa write-up reveals the Hillary behind the Rove-funded and media-perpetuated caricature:

The verdict from the jam-packed auditorium was nearly unanimous: Hillary Clinton crushed her speech at Iowa’s now-famous Democratic Wing Ding Friday night, winning standing ovations from the very Iowans who turned against her the last time she ran for the White House. 

She talked about helping college students drowning in their school debt, nodded to the “Black lives matter” movement, and blasted the right for their latest attempts to defund Planned Parenthood — all while taunting the GOP for their fixation on Benghazi and her email scandal. 

“Republicans want to stack the deck even more for those at the top — you saw this in the Republican debate the other night,” she said, her voice building as the crowd cheered. “Seventeen candidates and not one of them said a single word about how to address the rising costs of college … about equal pay for woman. Or quality preschool for our kids … No solution to sky rocketing prescription drug costs. No commitment to end mass incarceration, or to say loudly and clearly: ‘Yes, Black lives matter!’”

The crowd went wild, and even some of her critics warmed to her.

Working venues like New Hampshire diners, South Carolina church suppers, Nevada meeting halls, and the Iowa Fair is not just about pressing the flesh, eating pork on a stick, admiring butter cows and posing for photo ops. It’s about connecting with the lives of real voters in a way that no poll captures. The big lie about Hillary is that she does this with a forced grin.

But the evidence is to the contrary.

Hillary connects. Voters love her.

After all, being America’s most admired woman 17 times in 18 years doesn’t happen by accident.

Former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin – the state’s most prominent Democrat and a liberal statesman of national importance – endorsed Hillary and succinctly captured why people gravitate to her:

I have had the privilege of knowing Hillary Clinton for a long time. She and I share many of the same deeply-held beliefs. We believe everyone should be able to find well-paying jobs, that every child should receive the best education possible, that the elderly should be able to retire with dignity and security, and that everyone should have access to quality and affordable healthcare. From ensuring universal access to pre-kindergarten to building a clean-energy economy, a common thread runs through all of these plans — the idea of expanding opportunity.

Hillary Clinton’s commitment to public service stems from the same values. Her mother, Dorothy, was abandoned by her parents and sent to live with relatives who did not want her. By age 14, she was working to support herself just to get by. Guided by her mother’s experience, Hillary has devoted her career to championing the needs of children. She has been a tireless advocate for women and families since I first met her. As First Lady of the United States she was instrumental in advancing the idea that health care should be a right and not a privilege. As my colleague in the Senate and as Secretary of State, she made women’s rights and economic opportunity central to American foreign policy. Hillary has never forgotten who she is fighting for.

UPDATE: Like clockwork, reporters for BuzzFeed and the New York Times manage to find a negative angle on Hillary's highly successful retail events in IA and NH. Apparently it's Hillary's fault that she can't shake every hand and speak to every voter. Where other candidates would be lauded for drawing crowds, it's framed as a sign that Hillary is too famous and detached. "Aloof" is the term of choice for the Times. BuzzFeed manages to insert the word "fail" into the headline: How Voters Try, Fail, And Sometimes Succeed To Talk To Hillary Clinton.

This goes to our argument that the most damaging reporting for Hillary is the insidious process story

To the casual reader, it may not be entirely obvious how damaging this type of reporting is for Hillary's candidacy. But in aggregate, articles like this that appear regularly in major media outlets paint a portrait of a scheming, unprincipled politician. That portrait is often reflected back in polls and interviews – and ultimately at the ballot box. 

In industry parlance, this is a "process" story, highlighting not the facts or the specifics of the policy but the behind-the-scenes details of how the candidate arrived at it. It is meant to showcase the reporter’s access to insider information, revealing the strategic decision-making process behind a campaign.

Process stories – and the potent anti-Hillary frames they deliver – were one of the single most effective weapons against Hillary in 2008, painting a nefarious image that she was unable to alter or escape. Although Hillary is subjected to the most vitriolic language imaginable, the majority of negative coverage she endures comes in this form: a seemingly innocuous news article, editorial or blog post that manages, paragraph after paragraph, to deliver character-destroying frames.

Spin is a predictable and perennial aspect of politics, but when the media can't write a straight story about a Hillary event without filtering it through a negative lens, it's the voters getting cheated, not Hillary.

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Peter Daou and Tom Watson founded #HillaryMen to provide actionable analysis of the 2016 campaign focusing on the gender barrier in U.S. politics. Peter is a former senior digital adviser to Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative. He is a veteran of two presidential campaigns (Kerry '04 and Clinton '08). Tom is an author and Columbia University lecturer who advises companies and non-profits on social activism.