US Elections 2016: Covering the candidates

Anatomy of a media conspiracy

Reporters covering the Trump campaign hovering on the sidelines as the Republican candidate visited the grave of former US president Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty Ford, at the Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, last month. One adva
Reporters covering the Trump campaign hovering on the sidelines as the Republican candidate visited the grave of former US president Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty Ford, at the Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, last month. One advantage of writing about Mr Donald Trump, says NYT reporter Mark Leibovich, is that he "does give you plenty to work with".PHOTO: REUTERS

New York Times journalist Mark Leibovich found himself and his profile of Hillary Clinton (facing page) in controversy when leaked e-mails suggested she met off the record with this 'sympathetic' reporter who 'obeyed' requests on what to leave out. In this article, he explains what it was like covering the Clinton campaign and the background for the profile.

Look, Mum, there I am in WikiLeaks. Right there among the rest of the media sellouts, Clinton shills and biased tools of the MSM (mainstream media) who are apparently bent on destroying Donald J. Trump. Sarah Palin tweeted about me, Trump himself derided my actions in a stump speech and I'm pretty sure Bill O'Reilly just called on me to resign, if I'm reading the barrage of Twitter mentions correctly - and it is a barrage (or was before I stopped reading Twitter).

This is all because of those "damn e-mails", as Bernie Sanders would say, although he was referring to a different bunch of damn e-mails. These belonged to John Podesta, the Clinton campaign chairman whose hacked e-mails WikiLeaks has been releasing in daily batches over the past few days.

In all, the e-mails offer a glimpse into the Clinton campaign as the crucible of control-freakishness you would expect. Pretty much any reporter who has covered this enterprise can attest to its stinginess with information and access to the candidate. Official interviews between reporters and campaign aides tend to be aggressively monitored and ground-ruled. Hillary Clinton recently broke an ignominious streak of 275 consecutive days without holding a formal news conference. As I detail in an upcoming article, an argument broke out aboard the Clinton plane between campaign aides and the press corps over whether it was okay for reporters to tweet the candidate's apparent preference for Vladimir Putin as a dinner companion over Donald Trump (as revealed in a note scrawled on a clementine).

But the leaked e-mails make for instructive reading nonetheless, though they can be rather uncomfortable if you happen to be the author and recipient of a few of them.

By way of background: In July of last year, I embarked on a profile of the former secretary of state a few months after she began seeking the Democratic nomination. True to form, her campaign was nervous and hypercontrolling from the outset, a point I fleshed out in the story. I described, among other things, the experience of visiting Clinton's Brooklyn headquarters and receiving, before I arrived, an e-mail request from a press aide requesting that I keep "the office itself" off the record. In other words, they wanted me not to relay anything that I saw inside the entire 40,000 sq ft space, as if I were being granted access to a top-secret Pentagon bunker or something. It was a ridiculous request that I refused.

I also said no initially when the campaign said I could interview Secretary Clinton but only on the condition that we do it off the record. Reporters speak off the record to politicians all the time, but this was an unusual provision and felt slightly weird: a major candidate for the presidency agreeing to speak to a reporter on the condition that readers not be privy? It would be one thing if the campaign had also agreed to an on-the-record discussion, but it had not. I pleaded my case over a few weeks, but Clinton's staff was not budging. I discussed the dilemma with my bosses - the principle at stake versus the payoff of what I could learn in an off-the-record setting.

Politicians in fact go "off the record" with reporters with some frequency. As soon as the reporter grants the off-the-record provision, he is effectively allowing "veto power" over that material. That part of the conversation remains private unless he or she says otherwise. That's the "nifty-shifty trick" Palin was referring to.

OFF-THE-RECORD

I agreed to an off-the-record interview finally. At the very least, I figured I could pitch Clinton directly on doing an actual interview without any mediation from her army of agonisers.

Clinton and I spoke for about 45 minutes in a conference room of the Omni Mount Washington resort in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. She is, as advertised, "funny and thoughtful in one-on-one and small-group settings" (even the Clinton cliches are cliches at this point). Donors pay top dollar for the opportunity to experience this "funny and thoughtful Hillary in one-on-one and small-group settings". I paid only with annoyance and a few pounds of dignity.

Still, it was a good discussion, and I learnt some things. Clinton touched on various topics, from the long-term psychological effects of the Internet on young people, to the challenges of running for president as a woman, to how her experience seeking the presidency this time differed from 2008.

After our conversation, I asked her aides if they would allow me to put any of our discussion on the record. It was their prerogative to decide, given the off-the-record provision to which I had agreed. I sent large portions of the Clinton transcript in an e-mail to Jennifer Palmieri, the campaign communications director. "These exchanges were pretty interesting," I wrote. "Would love the option to use."

Ideally Palmieri would have reviewed portions of the interview - about 2,000 words - and come back with a simple "Fine, use what you want". There was nothing damning or embarrassing in there, at least that I could tell.

I heard nothing for a few days. Palmieri shared my e-mail with others in the campaign, including Podesta, apparently. Finally, after consulting with Clinton herself, Palmieri said they would agree to put two sections of the interview on the record. One of them was an icebreaker exchange between Clinton and me in which I mentioned that I had just seen a moose on the side of the New Hampshire road. This elicited an animated response from Clinton about how she herself had encountered lots of moose up-close when she worked in Alaska one summer during college. Simple enough, right? Well, not quite. Palmieri demanded that I not include an aside that Clinton made in the midst of her moose monologue - about Sarah Palin.

Now it can be told. "I always got a big kick out of Sarah Palin with all of her 'We're cooking up some moose stew here'," Clinton told me. She did not seem to be belittling the former Alaska governor in any way, though I should also point out - and this does not come through in the transcript - that Clinton uttered her "we're cooking up some moose stew here" line with a passable Palin impersonation. I have no idea why Clinton would not want this Palin aside in the article, though I'm guessing she did not want to invite a public back-and-forth with Palin, as can happen.

As it turns out, one of the "newsier" takeaways from the WikiLeaks trove involved the Palin remark. "NY Times' Mark Leibovich Obeyed Request to Cut Palin Joke From Hillary Interview," said a headline in Breitbart, the adamantly pro-Trump news site.

Putting aside that it wasn't really a joke, the word "obeyed" here goes to the essence of the criticism, mockery and vitriol I've been receiving from the right.

"Hillary, let's make a deal!" Palin tweeted. "I'll swap ya - my special moose chili recipe for your nifty- shifty trick that lets you edit media coverage of yourself."

Or as Trump put it at a rally in Florida, The Times granted Clinton "veto power over her quotes in a story", he said. "Nobody ever called and said, 'Mr Trump, we've written this story, would you give us a little feedback?' "

This is obviously not what happened in my case, but given the sausage-grinding revealed in the leaked back-and-forth, I can see how the uninitiated might get that impression.

Politicians in fact go "off the record" with reporters with some frequency. As soon as the reporter grants the off-the-record provision, he is effectively allowing "veto power" over that material. That part of the conversation remains private unless he or she says otherwise. That's the "nifty-shifty trick" Palin was referring to.

Trump, for his part, goes off the record with reporters all the time. Last September, I spent several hours over a period of a few weeks with the Donald himself for an article in this magazine. On several occasions, in the midst of our conversations, Trump would go off the record - usually with good reason. This was fine, understandable and, yes, the price of "doing business", to adapt an unfortunate phrase that Palmieri used to sign off on our last WikiLeaked e-mail ("Pleasure doing business!"). I wish Palmieri had not used those exact words, but there are in fact collusive aspects to these relationships. Political profiles are, by definition, an awkward dance that involves competing agendas, mutual cynicism and, in many cases, negotiation. It can involve great levels of trust and distrust at the same time.

TRUMP AND THE MEDIA

I've written a few hundred of these profiles over the years, and each dynamic is complicated for its own particular reasons. Looking back, I realise that Trump's campaign was a relative pleasure to deal with compared with the coiled thicket of Clintonia. His was a simple and nimble operation, consisting at the time of just himself and his communications director, Hope Hicks. Decisions came fast and without obvious hand-wringing, usually from the candidate himself. Trump was more than generous with his time, access and willingness to say provocative things. He was the anti-Hillary in this regard, just as Clinton is the anti-Trump in other regards.

But Trump was hardly unplugged or unaware. A lot of the stuff he said to me that he declared to be "off the record" was potentially harmful to him. He was fully conscious of where lines were, who he did not want to be disparaging publicly and of what could bring needless offence. He trusted me to honour this agreement, and of course I did, and will continue to.

If I had asked Trump, after the fact, whether I could put some of that material "on the record", it would have been his right to say no, to exercise his veto power. As it turned out, there might have been one or two off-the-record things I asked him if I could use in our final conversations, but I don't recall exactly. Another advantage of writing about Trump: He does give you plenty to work with.

For as media-friendly as he was, Trump has been equally hostile to the "unfair" and "dishonest" press - increasingly so, and to a point where it's reaching an unnervingly fevered pitch. "Without the press, Hillary Clinton would be nothing," Trump railed at a rally. The Times and The Washington Post are mere "cogs for a corrupt political machine", he said. These are days of many cogs in Trump's America - everything from the Republican officials who Trump says have abandoned him to the United States Justice Department to the women accusing him of sexual harassment. But the media is first among cogs, probably the first entity Trump will blame if he doesn't win.

"The corrupt establishment knows we are a great threat to their criminal enterprise," Trump has said. We are all part of the enterprise, "doing business" together. We know all the secret handshakes and nifty-shifty tricks. The darkest of days could lie ahead for America, Trump warns, and only he has veto power to stop them.

NYTIMES MAGAZINE

• Mark Leibovich is the chief national correspondent for the magazine.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 23, 2016, with the headline 'Anatomy of a media conspiracy'. Print Edition | Subscribe