MADELEINE BRAND, host:
President Bush spoke today before the news media. He's an often tense relationship with the press, as has at least one of the candidates looking to replace him - Senator Hillary Clinton.
At this week's debate she seemed frustrated by how the media is covering her campaign.
(Soundbite of debate)
Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): I seem to get the first question all the time. And I don't mind. I - you know, I'll be happy to field them, but I do find it curious - and anybody saw "Saturday Night Live," you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow. I just find it kind of curious that I keep getting the first question on all of these issues.
BRAND: We're joined now by Evan Thomas. He's assistant managing editor of Newsweek. He covered Bill Clinton's White House in the 1990s and recently wrote about the tension between the Clintons and the media.
Evan Thomas, welcome to DAY TO DAY.
Mr. EVAN THOMAS (Newsweek): Hi.
BRAND: Hi. Well, do you think it's a fair accusation that Hillary Clinton is making, that the media is unfair to her and is treating Barack Obama, her opponent, with kid gloves?
Mr. THOMAS: I'm not sure they're being unfair to her. I do think she has a beef that the media treatment of Obama's been pretty friendly. It's hard to measure these things. But reporters have a tendency to fall in love. And I would say that collectively we've fallen in love with Obama.
BRAND: Well, let's talk more about the history of the Clintons' relationship with the media, because it was incredibly fractious. But do you think it was more fractious than any other relationship between the press and a president?
Mr. THOMAS: No, and I think this gets overlooked. I mean, it wasn't good, but the relationship between the president of the United States and the media is always terrible. It has been since John F. Kennedy. The Nixon White House, horrible. Carter White House, horrible. Reagan, we - the press thought that Reagan was a nincompoop for the first four years. Bush 41 wasn't great, immediately declined under Clinton. It's become horrible under Bush. You just - you cannot find counter examples.
BRAND: You write that the way the candidates treat the press, especially the traveling press, can be revealing. What can that tell us about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama?
Mr. THOMAS: The traveling press bitterly complained about Clinton's treatment for a long time, that they were being pushed aside and cut out and all that. Then access improved a great deal after Iowa, but it was sort of too late. Obama, curiously, has not given the press a lot of access. And usually the rule is if you shut the press out, they're going to whine and complain and blame you for it. Obama's, interestingly, been able to get away with it. And it's not that the Obama press operation is hostile. It's not. It's just more that it's indifferent to reporters.
BRAND: Indifferent meaning what exactly?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, you know, they're not constantly working them and embracing them and feeding them and spinning them. They just kind of - reporters who are out on the Obama campaign just kind of bounce along. And the problem with the Clinton campaign is they've not only tried to spin them, but they've also tried to punish them. If you write something nasty about the Clinton campaign you really hear from it from them. They're possibly over-sensitive. I say that reluctantly, because I think if I was in their shoes I'd be pretty sensitive to what the press did too.
BRAND: And what about her tactic? It seems that she's really ramped her - the criticism of the press in the last week or so, that she is getting unfair treatment, that for instance there was an article over the weekend in the New York Times suggesting that her campaign is imploding, and then her campaign flooded the paper with letters and calls for a retraction and that kind of thing.
Mr. THOMAS: Yeah.
BRAND What about that tactic on her part?
Mr. THOMAS: I don't think it's a winning tactic. It is sort of standard Clinton war room orthodoxy that you hit back hard. But I think at this stage it makes it her seem like a victim.
BRAND: It becomes circular, because then the press reports that it is sort of a defensive, weak maneuver, and it...
Mr. THOMAS: Right. You're in a fight with a pretty mean dog. I mean, not too be too atavistic here, but if you show your neck to a mean dog, they're going to lunge at it. And there is a kind of admission of weakness, which in a way can embolden the press to be even tougher. So it seems to be kind of a losing strategy to me.
BRAND: And then you have John McCain, who has a completely different tactic. He seems to love the press and invites them onto his bus and hangs out with them and everything's revealed.
Mr. THOMAS: Well, at least until about last Thursday, when this non-sex scandal came out. Yes, it's been his M.O. for many, many years. I mean the 2000 campaign and - I mean, he was just an extremely accessible senator. If you wanted to have a lunch with John McCain, you could have lunch with John McCain. You can overstate this. He's a shrewd guy, and it's not like he's baring his inner sole. There's a certain amount of caginess in these exchanges. But relatively speaking, for politicians to be as open McCain, very unusual, and it won him a lot of press support.
BRAND: So what will that mean in terms of coverage during a general election if Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, truthfully, I'm not sure, because things change in a general election. I think that - I doubt that Obama's going to be all that accessible, and I think that some of the luster will wear off. The press - as the night follows the day, it's a law of physics, the press will turn on you.
With McCain, you know, over the weekend McCain was not back there on the plane yakking it up with reporters and teasing and joking. He was necessarily aloof and didn't want to talk about this non-sex scandal. It is McCain's essential character to be playful and open, so I suspect that'll come back. But maybe not. Maybe as a presidential candidate they'll feel that they just can't expose him to the press.
BRAND: Evan Thomas is assistant managing editor of Newsweek magazine. Thanks for joining us.
Mr. THOMAS: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.