Journalists Meet To Discuss Frustration With Clinton Campaign's Control Over Access And Information

Journalists Meet To Discuss Frustration With Clinton Campaign's Control Over Access And Information
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks to reporters after a round table discussion at Smuttynose Brewery, Friday, May 22, 2015, in Hampton, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks to reporters after a round table discussion at Smuttynose Brewery, Friday, May 22, 2015, in Hampton, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

NEW YORK -- Journalists covering Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign met for nearly two hours in Washington on Monday to discuss concerns about what they believe is inadequate access to cover the Democratic front-runner, according to people who attended.

The grievances discussed at the private gathering, which was held at the Los Angeles Times/Tribune Washington offices, go beyond Clinton’s unwillingness so far to substantively engage with the press, a topic that has already been discussed publicly on cable news and social media. Attendees of the meeting, who were not authorized by their news organizations to speak on the record, charge the Clinton campaign with keeping an excessively tight grip on information, even when it comes to logistical details that don't seem particularly sensitive or revelatory.

Among the problems discussed were the campaign's failure to provide adequate notice prior to events, the lack of a clear standard for whether fundraisers are open or closed press and the reflexive tendency to opt to speak anonymously. The complaints mirror concerns that a number of political journalists have also raised in recent conversations with The Huffington Post.

While the White House Correspondents' Association has worked for greater media access for over a century and elects representatives to present the group's concerns to the administration, there isn't any comparable, established body working on behalf of the campaign press. Monday's meeting, which included about 17 journalists from outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico, Time and McClatchy, was an attempt not only to discuss such concerns, but eventually to present them to the campaign in a unified way.

Attendees discussed the feeling that the campaign hasn't provided enough notice for events, resulting in logistical difficulties for those trying to cover them. It’s still too early in the election cycle for the campaign to be chartering the flights and buses that news organizations, at the cost of thousands of dollars, can sign up for to follow the candidate from stop to stop. For now, reporters are booking commercial flights to reach Clinton’s events, and networks need to make sure satellite trucks and camera equipment make it there on time. The group discussed urging the Clinton campaign to provide information outlining the upcoming week so they can plan accordingly.

Another concern raised, according to attendees, was that the campaign had initially said that fundraisers of more than 100 people would be open to the press through a pool system. Under this arrangement, certain reporters are designated to cover events that cannot accommodate large numbers of journalists, and those reporters then provide information to the larger press corps. But recent Clinton fundraisers have been closed press.

Meeting attendees also expressed dissatisfaction with the ground rules established for a Thursday briefing at the campaign's Brooklyn headquarters that was attended by dozens of news outlets, including The Huffington Post.

CNBC’s John Harwood wrote Friday that reporters who attended the briefing were not allowed to quote top campaign officials directly, even when it came to information that appeared to be basic talking points. Harwood noted that he could not show readers what campaign staffers’ desks looked like because “the post-briefing tour was deemed off-the-record.” (A week earlier, the Nashua Telegraph, a New Hampshire newspaper, similarly mocked the Clinton campaign for holding a conference call in which mundane information was provided under ground rules that those speaking should not be quoted.)

Coincidentally, Monday's meeting wrapped up just before the campaign sent a mass email to journalists with details of an upcoming event. The campaign said the details could only be attributed to a “campaign official,” which prompted New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney to out the sender on Twitter. Such rules for anonymity, Nagourney noted, are not done unilaterally but established between two parties. He also pointed out that the information itself didn't "rise to [the] level" of requiring anonymity.

There was a general consensus at Monday's meeting that the ground rules for the Thursday headquarters briefing were unacceptable. Attendees say they expected that the group will urge the campaign to agree that similar briefings need to be on the record in the future.

When asked about the reporters' complaints and how the campaign is reacting, Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill responded in an email to HuffPost.

“I’d say two things,” he wrote. “First, we want a happy press corps as much as the press corps does. Not in an effort to obtain favorable coverage, but because we're decent humans who want people to be able to plan their lives. It's a long campaign, and we are going to do our best to find equilibrium. Griping on background is not a constructive solution though, and I can't help but point out the irony here."

The group also discussed its system for disseminating pool reports, which The Washington Post criticized Friday for turning some reporters "into second-class journalists in the hunt for Clinton info.”

The pool system, established at the urging of the Clinton campaign but run by campaign reporters, places journalists on a rotation and disseminates reports in real-time to fourteen news organizations. Other organizations, which do not bear the costs of being in the pool, receive the reports at the end of the day.

Though the Post put forth the idea of the system creating two classes of reporters, attendees at Monday’s meeting stressed that the system allows for wider dissemination of traveling pool reports than was possible during Mitt Romney's campaign four years ago. At that time, only reporters physically present for Romney campaign trips received pool reports, and there was no wider dissemination to news organizations not in the rotation.

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