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It sure seemed like a story tailor-made for the news media: the first woman in history with a serious shot at the White House. But something happened with Hillary Clinton's relationship with the press, and it wasn't just Barack Obama. Now, Hillary Clinton's bid appears to be in its final stages, and NPR's David Folkenflik explores how the media dealt with Clinton's pioneering candidacy.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Let's start with the coverage of the so-called cackle. Throughout the campaign, Clinton's often responded with raucous laughter to questions that made her uncomfortable - this one from a press conference.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Democratic Presidential Candidate): I mean, how many angels dance on the head of a pin?

FOLKENFLIK: Back last September, the New York Times reported on the phenomenon, stating it seemed, quote, "particularly calculated" after a question on health care.

Mr. RICHARD STEVENSON (Political Editor, New York Times): Her laugh became a pronounced part of her theatrical repertoire there for a while, and therefore needed to be noted in some way.

FOLKENFLIK: Richard Stevenson is political editor of the New York Times. He says Senator Clinton's ability to connect with others is fair game as she seeks the presidency.

Mr. STEVENSON: We tried to do it in a way that didn't equate it with her position on Iraq or anything. But this is part of the balancing act that I think we're all grappling with here, which is, you know, how do you write about somebody who, in one essential way, is different from anybody who's ever done this before?

FOLKENFLIK: Sure, there's one essential way: She's a woman, which, as Stevenson says, is new terrain for both the country and for the media. But there's also that other question. Dee Dee Myers was White House spokeswoman for Bill Clinton and has given money towards Hillary Clinton's bid, but her sister is a senior official in the Obama campaign. Meyers says the coverage is complicated by the following fact...

Ms. DEE DEE MYERS (Former White House Spokeswoman, Clinton Administration): We've never had a candidate whose spouse was president of the United States. We've never had a candidate who was first lady. Some of that, you can't get away from the relationship between that and gender.

FOLKENFLIK: In fact, as NBC political director Chuck Todd says, the press had to register that as a central element of her pitch to voters.

Mr. CHUCK TODD (Political Director, NBC): You only can cover the campaign that's in front of you. And the fact is, the campaign that was in front of us was one that was being presented as somebody running for Bill Clinton's third term.

FOLKENFLIK: And, oh, what a spouse he is. Because of the scandal that sprang from Bill Clinton's infidelity during his presidency, nearly everything that might be private about candidate Hillary Clinton has been considered fair game. Clinton herself has had a rough-and-tumble relationship with the press for nearly two decades, but Chuck Todd says it's wrong to think it treats her all that differently.

Mr. TODD: The assumption is all politicians are lying and all politicians are being inauthentic until proven otherwise.

FOLKENFLIK: But journalists and pundits do constantly describe Clinton in different terms than they would her male rivals. In the following clip, Fox News pollster Frank Luntz was asking voters what kind of campaign they wanted Obama and Clinton to wage.

Mr. FRANK LUNTZ (Pollster, Fox News): How many of you want them to really argue? Raise your hands. And how many of you want them to make love to each other?

FOLKENFLIK: Just try imagining John McCain and Mike Huckabee in that scenario, or Joe Biden in these remarks by conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

Mr. RUSH LIMBAUGH (Conservative Radio Talk Show Host): This is Clinton's testicle lock box. It is big enough for the entire Democrat hierarchy - not just some people in the media.

FOLKENFLIK: On the other side of the spectrum, MSNBC's Chris Matthews famously said Clinton was only a senator and plausible presidential candidate because of her humiliation during her husband's presidency. Clinton supporter Susan Estrich was campaign manager for Michael Dukakis back in 1988. She says Clinton's struggle with her image evokes women CEOs who strive to be feminine -but not too feminine - and capable, but not overly assertive.

Ms. SUSAN ESTRICH (Former Campaign Manager, Michael Dukakis): I think that's why there's been so much attention to Hillary's clothes and to Hillary's cleavage and to Hillary's husband and to Hillary's marriage and to Hillary's motherhood and her own daughter.

FOLKENFLIK: No one interviewed for this story thought the media's coverage of Clinton's historic bid determined its outcome. They all pointed to her campaign's failure to anticipate and combat Obama's strength, particularly in states with early caucuses. But Dee Dee Myers, a frequent commentator for NBC, says the media seems blind to its own behavior.

Ms. MEYERS: Have we had male candidates with funny laughs? Almost certainly. Have they gotten as much attention? Absolutely not. Did the Times write about that, the cackle, because people were talking about it? Arguably, that's true. But it just reflects a sexist strain in society, that sort of the things that are acceptable in men are not acceptable in women.

FOLKENFLIK: When Clinton showed emotion this winter, she earned the scorn of many media observers, such as the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol on Fox News.

Mr. BILL KRISTOL (The Weekly Standard, Fox News): I don't believe it was genuine. I think no Clinton cries without calculating first.

FOLKENFLIK: Calculating. Many voters, and women in particular, recoil at that word. Clinton had sought to recast herself as a champion of the working class, the underdog, as she battles on, despite numbers that say she can't win. It's been a strategy thrust on her by circumstances, including the interplay between her ambitions and the media.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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