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Hillary Clinton: wariness of the press

By Tony Mauro
First Amendment Center legal correspondent
10.30.07

One in a series of articles on the First Amendment record and views of 2008 presidential candidates.

When Hillary Clinton became first lady in January 1993, one of her first acts was to order an end to the routine access to the West Wing that reporters covering the White House had enjoyed for decades.

And that was just the beginning. She wanted the press corps out of the White House altogether, banished to the nearby Old Executive Office Building.

The draconian plan did not come to pass, but it stands as a symbol of her — and her husband’s — long and wary relationship with the press. And it raises the question, now that the Democratic New York senator is a presidential candidate in her own right, what her posture will be if she is elected, not just toward the White House press corps, but toward access and government-secrecy issues in general.

Newsweek recently reported, for example, that even as Hillary Clinton has criticized the Bush administration’s “stunning record of secrecy,” the Clinton Presidential Library has blocked access to important documents relating to her White House work.

“I don’t think she’ll be anti-First Amendment,” says Richard Benedetto, a retired White House reporter for USA Today. “She’ll keep a good healthy dialogue going with the press, I think.”

But, he adds, “If something comes up and she feels the press is to blame, she won’t hesitate to take them on.”

Benedetto, who now teaches at American University’s school of public affairs, remembers the Clinton plan to keep the press corps out of the West Wing. “They wanted to shunt us off,” he said, as controversy after controversy erupted.

In a new biography of Hillary Clinton by Carl Bernstein, A Woman in Charge, key Clinton aide Harold Ickes is quoted as saying of the Clintons, “They came in very sour and felt the press had mistreated them ... . But instead of reaching a hand out to the press, which they should have ... that olive branch was never extended.”

More than 14 years later, by many accounts, Sen. Clinton still has disdain for journalists and their prying predilections. But her years in the White House, in the Senate and now in the presidential campaign have taught her she needs at least to get along with the press and tolerate its excesses, at least most of the time, without exacting revenge.

Recent reports suggest she has even tried to improve relations with Matt Drudge and his rumor-hungry Drudge Report.

“She’s long been practiced in the skill of making nice with ideological enemies or critics in the press,” Slate media critic Jack Shafer wrote last week in a piece on her “propaganda machine.” But Shafer also cites reports in Politico that after Clinton aides complained in advance about a forthcoming GQ magazine piece on discord in her presidential campaign, the magazine killed the article.

This velvet glove/iron fist approach to the press mirrors, in some ways, her mixed record on other First Amendment and access issues, as well.

As a New York senator, for example, she has consistently opposed a constitutional amendment that would authorize Congress to outlaw flag-burning. But in 2005, she supported a legislative approach aimed at achieving the same goal. She endorsed a bill sponsored by Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, that would make it a crime to destroy or damage a U.S. flag with the primary purpose of inciting imminent violence, or to steal and damage a flag belonging to the United States or on United States property. The bill did not pass.

Also in 2005, she called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate a popular video game, “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” She criticized the video-game industry as a “silent epidemic” that harms children and exposes them to graphic pornographic and violent material.

Critical in general of media violence, Clinton has introduced legislation calling for more research on the impact of the media on children.

In her White House days, when she led the effort to reform the nation’s health-care system, she drew criticism for holding task-force meetings in private, in spite of a federal law (the Federal Advisory Committee Act) that requires advisory committees that include people from outside government to meet in public. As a senator, she called on President George W. Bush to release more records relating to Supreme Court nominee John Roberts Jr.’s government service.

Clinton has also supported campaign-finance measures that First Amendment supporters criticize for restricting core political speech when it matters most — shortly before elections.

And she has backed “Net neutrality” legislation, stating last year that “We must embrace an open and non-discriminatory framework for the Internet of the 21st century.”

She also has a history of disagreeing on First Amendment issues with the man who might be her Republican opponent in November 2008: former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

In 1999, Giuliani tried yanking public funding from the Brooklyn Museum because it was displaying art that he viewed as “sick,” vulgar and anti-Catholic.

Still first lady at the time, Hillary Clinton was already pondering running for the Senate as a candidate from New York. So she weighed in on the intense Brooklyn Museum battle, which Giuliani ultimately lost.

“I share the feeling that I know many New Yorkers have that there are parts of this exhibit that would be deeply offensive,” she said, according to an Associated Press report. “I would not go to see this exhibit.” But she added, “It is not appropriate to penalize and punish an institution such as the Brooklyn Museum.”

Courtney Holliday contributed to this report.

Updated in 2008


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Presidential candidates & the First Amendment


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