This is why Hillary Clinton doesn’t do press conferences

Hillary Clinton speaks to reporters in July 2016, but it’s not a press conference.
Hillary Clinton speaks to reporters in July 2016, but it’s not a press conference.
Image: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
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Political press conferences are pointless, and mostly about media showboating.

This isn’t something reporters are supposed to admit. We’d all like more chances to see a potential presidential candidate on the hot seat. But these days, at these things, the heat isn’t on. I cringe at press conferences more than I learn from them, because they usually degenerate into shout-fests based on questions that are rarely designed to elicit any new information, but rather a response to the other party’s latest talking point.

“Reporters ask questions not to get information, but to get a reaction,” Susan Milligan wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review last year. “And even with that strategy, they rarely succeed.”

With social media, candidates don’t need to rely on reporters to convey their views. That in turn means that stories that break news are rarely produced by press conference. So why the ongoing obsession with press conferences? Could it have something to do with a need to justify the money being spent by mainstream news organizations to keep reporters on the campaign trail, versus the exclusive content they take away from that investment?

The sanctity of the press conference is now such that the gap between press conferences is now considered a story in and of itself. In particular, many in the media seem miffed at how many days it has been since Hillary Clinton’s “last” press conference, which took place in Iowa on Dec. 4. Apparently the political press doesn’t count Clinton’s Aug. 5 press availability at a National Association of Black Journalists meeting, perhaps because the “right reporters” weren’t there. (Ironically, the Aug. 5 event included an exchange regarding her reticence to hold press conferences.)

Since then, Clinton has done numerous one-on-one interviews with news outlets including the Washington Post, Vox, NBC’s Meet the Press, and CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360°, among others. In those interviews, she’s been asked pointed questions about policy and politics and, yes, her e-mail server and her handling of classified information while at the US State Department.

And yet the fetishization over her scant appearances at press conferences continues. It’s enough to have made us want to go back to the Dec. 4 press conference and see what we were missing.

Turns out, not that much. Indeed, the media seemed to care little about it at the time. Nothing Clinton said merited its own news story, according to a Lexis search of major US news outlets, although quotes from her answers were folded into an AP story and news analyses on the San Bernardino attack, which took place two days before.

The questions put to her reveal why Clinton must not feel she needs to hold many press conferences. (See the full list of questions, and our analysis, below.) Four of the eight questions wasted the time of all involved, and of the remaining four, two were pitifully easy to disarm with non-answers. Only two questions were substantive enough to generate interesting comment. No follow-up questions were asked, underlining how little the answers mattered to the reporters in the room.

And this, it turns out, is one of the better examples of the genre. (For comparison, consider the May press conference at which Republican nominee Donald Trump was asked about the killing of a zoo animal.)

Clinton’s habit of shedding the media is distressing when combined with her penchant for paranoia, but the truth about truth-seeking is that press conferences rarely get the job done. Stories about her server have been unearthed by investigations, data dumps, leaks, and lawsuits; she’s outlined her policies in speeches and been rebutted in debates and one-on-one interviews.

The important stuff isn’t coming from press conferences, as the questions asked at the Dec. 4 press conference show. Here are the questions that were posed to Clinton then, with some commentary.

“Do you think banning gun sales to people on the no-fly list would have prevented any of these massacres [including] San Bernardino?”

Is this a dumb question? Yes. US officials already said the perpetrators were not on any watch list the day before; Clinton had long endorsed preventing gun sales to people on the no-fly list.

Did Clinton answer it? No. “I don’t know exactly what it would have or could have prevented.”

Did anyone follow up? No.

“Do you think the Fed is using the right criteria to assess the health of the job market? And is there anything else they should be doing?  And are we ready for a rate increase?”

Is this a dumb question? No. It’s an important one. Politicians don’t talk enough about the Federal Reserve.

Did Clinton answer it? No. Most US politicians refuse to talk about the Fed, in a nod to the institution’s independence. Clinton is no different: “I’m not going to comment on their decision making.”

Did anyone follow up? No.

“[Are mass shootings] a mental health issue as well?”

Is this a dumb question. Yes.

Did Clinton answer it? Of course. “You’re absolutely right.”

Did anyone follow up? No.

“As a former secretary of state, are you confident enough in the system of checks and balances on that visa waiver program?”

Is this a dumb question? No. The potential for terrorists to take advantage of relaxed travel rules with friendly European countries is worrisome, and Clinton has relevant experience.

Did Clinton answer it? Yes. “If you look at the kinds of crimes that were committed by this woman and her husband, or the 9/11 hijackers, visas are a problem,” she said. “And we have to look at that, see what we need to do to tighten up requirements, do better information-sharing with other countries.”

Did anyone follow up? No. But the Obama information would tighten the rules around visas the following month.

“Could you briefly summarize how you would pay for your proposal to create jobs in the country?”

Is this a dumb question? Yes.

Did Clinton answer it? No. “I can’t briefly summarize, but I will certainly send you a long list, and a lot of it is on my website.”

Did anyone follow up? No. It’s on her website.

“You mentioned combating ISIS online in your speech today.  Have we become too sensitive to civil liberty arguments post-Snowden, given what we saw happened in [San Bernardino]?” 

Is this a dumb question? No.

Did Clinton answer it? Kind of. She referred to the balancing act between liberty and security, before noting that terror groups “run multiple Twitter accounts… I don’t know that we would let that continue if we were dealing with a criminal network. Why should we let it continue if we’re dealing with a terrorist network?”

Did anyone follow up? No.

“Do you regret calling for gun control in the wake of the attack now knowing what you know about the terrorists?”

Is this a dumb question? Yes. At that point, no new information had been revealed about how the terrorists had obtained their weapons.

Did Clinton answer it? Yes. “Not at all. We don’t know how they got that arsenal inside their house.” Later, the public would learn the San Bernardino shooters used legally purchased AR-15 style rifles that they modified in violation of gun-safety laws.

Did anyone follow up? No.

“Madam secretary, do you still have confidence in the mayor in the city where you were born?”

Is this a dumb question? No. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, a longtime Clinton ally, was embroiled in a scandal around his handling of a young black man murdered by police.

Did Clinton answer it? Yes. “I do.”

Did anyone follow up? No.