Hillary's Rope Trick Getting a Bum Rap

The American public has a pretty high level of seething contempt for politicians. However, this is easily matched (if not surpassed) by the level of seething contempt the public also holds for journalists and the news media. I mention these two facts because whenever the media inserts itself into a story (or "becomes the story"), they usually are astonished that the public doesn't see them in the quite the sympathetic light they're aiming for. Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the story of Hillary Clinton's rope trick.

If you haven't heard the story yet, you must not pay much attention to politics or the news in general, because it's been all over the place since last weekend. Hillary Clinton, as presidential candidates are wont to do, participated in a July Fourth parade in a town in an early-primary state. The press was invited to cover the parade. Which they were fully able to do. Instead of Team Hillary positioning groups of the media at static points along the parade route, they even allowed the media to walk in front of Clinton along the parade route. But there was a problem. To keep the journalists and photographers moving, Clinton aides stretched a rope across the street and walked it forward, to prod the journalists to keep up a decent pace. It was, after all, a parade, and nobody likes a parade which repeatedly grinds to a halt.

However reasonable this all sounds, it made for terrible optics. Reporters were "corralled" or "kept away from the candidate" the news stories screamed. The photos show Clinton trying to pay attention to the crowd rather than the media scrum in front of her, but (as far as the media were concerned) Hillary was "roping herself off" or some such nefarious thing.

Now, a photo's worth a thousand words and all of that, and I certainly agree that the pictures were not favorable to Clinton, since they seemed to reinforce the "Hillary has contempt for the public" theme. Look at that photo -- she's an elitist, who thinks she has to be protected from the public! But bad photo-oppery aside, for me the photos only showed what incredible jackasses most political reporters following campaigns truly are.

The most interesting (and most amusing) video clip from the 2016 campaign so far is the one showing the media scrum taking full flight in pursuit of Hillary's "Scooby Van," as it pulled around behind a building she was about to enter. This was, doubtlessly, to get that Pulitzer-winning shot of "Hillary Clinton exits van and enters building." Dozens and dozens of grown men and women running pell-mell to get the most pedestrian of shots only shows the shallow nature of the press scrum itself. And it was precisely that press scrum which was being corralled in last weekend's parade. It wasn't "Clinton roping herself off from the public" -- the public was on the sides of the street, not in front of her. In fact, the rope was there to provide the public with an actual view of (and chance to interact with) Hillary Clinton. Think about it -- if the media hadn't been corralled, they would have (and I say this without a shadow of a doubt) surrounded Clinton and refused to move, and as a direct result the parade would have halted (or, at the very least, been considerably slowed down) and Clinton herself would have been blocked from the view of the public.

The stories the next day (and again I say this without doubt) would have been: "Clinton refused to interact with public during parade" and "Clinton slows small town parade to a halt, upsetting crowd." This is precisely what Team Hillary was trying to avoid. But by doing so, the rope (and the media) became the storyline.

Now, I am no rabid supporter of (or regular apologist for) Hillary Clinton. And I do think the media has a valid point indeed about how Team Clinton manages her press interactions -- she's been an official candidate for months now, and she only this week gave her first sit-down interview with a national media outlet. That's a valid complaint about press access to any presidential candidate. Clinton feeds the frenzy of press scrums (like the one desperately running for a totally banal shot of her) by refusing almost all other casual interactions with the press. If the only shot you can even get is of Hillary walking from a van to a door, then it increases the importance of getting such a shot, in other words. The rope photos seemed, at first glance, to reinforce this theme.

Even with such bad optics, though, Hillary's getting a bum rap. The media were not barred from the event, and they were not relegated to a designated spot along the parade route. Even though dozens of people shouldering television cameras is not a very parade-worthy sight (unless perhaps they broke out into choreographed precision backwards marching), they were still allowed to walk in the middle of the street in front of Hillary Clinton. They had more access then they really deserved, not less. Clinton's aides knew that media scrums follow absolutely no rules of politeness whatsoever, and they tried to avoid delaying the parade for the public. This also allowed Clinton to be clearly seen by the public, and even have a chance to interact with her (shake her hand, yell something rude, whatever). That's why the whole story was a bum rap. It was all about petulant cameramen (and camerawomen) who were denied their sacred opportunity to shove a camera right up Hillary's nostrils, thereby halting the parade and blocking any possible view of her by the spectators. That's precisely what happened, no matter how much the media would like to portray it differently.

Whenever the media "become the story," especially when they're trying for sympathy due to their supposed victimhood, they usually come off looking worse than if they had never tried to make it a story in the first place. Sure, being a reporter is tough and all, especially with a candidate who really doesn't like interacting with you and your fellows. But when the camera turns around and shows the press scrum itself, the public usually isn't very sympathetic in response.

Alexandra Pelosi used the experience of being a reporter assigned to cover George W. Bush's first presidential campaign to create a documentary movie about how campaigns were covered (Journeys With George). Many excellent books have been written about being part of the campaign media scrum (two of the best: Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail '72 and The Boys On The Bus). Bush, in Pelosi's movie, at one point is caught on a live microphone denigrating a reporter in eyebrow-raising terms, but he then turns the joke on its head by presenting all the reporters with baseball jerseys with "Major League Assholes" written on them.

Hillary Clinton's team hasn't shown such anywhere near such dexterity in press relations, but then Hillary Clinton has faced the national media for a lot longer than George W. Bush had when that movie was made. Where Bush responded with humor, Clinton usually responds with exasperation (at times bordering on contempt) towards the media. That's a valid complaint. But whining about a mild inconvenience for photographers which enabled a better parade experience for the public really isn't that big a deal. No matter how bad the pictures look.

 

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