Hillary Clinton’s supporters often argue that mainstream political reporters are incapable of covering her positively—or even fairly. While it may be true that the political press doesn’t always write exactly what Clinton would like, emails recently obtained by Gawker offer a case study in how her prodigious and sophisticated press operation manipulates reporters into amplifying her desired message—in this case, down to the very word that The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder used to describe an important policy speech.
The emails in question, which were exchanged by Ambinder, then serving as The Atlantic’s politics editor, and Philippe Reines, Clinton’s notoriously combative spokesman and consigliere, turned up thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request we filed in 2012 (and which we are currently suing the State Department over). The same request previously revealed that Politico’s chief White House correspondent, Mike Allen, promised to deliver positive coverage of Chelsea Clinton, and, in a separate exchange, permitted Reines to ghost-write an item about the State Department for Politico’s Playbook newsletter. Ambinder’s emails with Reines demonstrate the same kind of transactional reporting, albeit to a much more legible degree: In them, you can see Reines “blackmailing” Ambinder into describing a Clinton speech as “muscular” in exchange for early access to the transcript. In other words, Ambinder outsourced his editorial judgment about the speech to a member of Clinton’s own staff.
On the morning of July 15, 2009, Ambinder sent Reines a blank email with the subject line, “Do you have a copy of HRC’s speech to share?” His question concerned a speech Clinton planned to give later that day at the Washington, D.C. office of the Council on Foreign Relations, an influential think tank. Three minutes after Ambinder’s initial email, Reines replied with three words: “on two conditions.” After Ambinder responded with “ok,” Reines sent him a list of those conditions:
From: [Philippe Reines]
Sent: Wednesday, July 15 2009 10:06 AM
To: Ambinder, Marc
Subject: Re: Do you have a copy of HRC’s speech to share?
3 [conditions] actually
1) You in your own voice describe them as “muscular”
2) You note that a look at the CFR seating plan shows that all the envoys — from Holbrooke to Mitchell to Ross — will be arrayed in front of her, which in your own clever way you can say certainly not a coincidence and meant to convey something
3) You don’t say you were blackmailed!
One minute later, Ambinder responded:
From: Ambinder, Marc
Sent: Wednesday, July 15, 2009 10:07 AM
To: Philippe Reines
Subject: RE: Do you have a copy of HRC’s speech to share?
Ambinder made good on his word. The opening paragraph of the article he wrote later that day, under the headline “Hillary Clinton’s ‘Smart Power’ Breaks Through,” precisely followed Reines’ instructions:
When you think of President Obama’s foreign policy, think of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That’s the message behind a muscular speech that Clinton is set to deliver today to the Council on Foreign Relations. The staging gives a clue to its purpose: seated in front of Clinton, subordinate to Clinton, in the first row, will be three potentially rival power centers: envoys Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell, and National Security Council senior director Dennis Ross.
Based on other emails released in the same batch we received, Ambinder’s warm feelings toward Clinton may have made him uniquely susceptible to Reines’ editing suggestions. On July 26, 2009, he wrote to Reines to congratulate his boss about her appearance on Meet the Press:
From: Ambinder, Marc
Sent: Sunday, July 26, 2009 12:05 PM
To: Philippe Reines
Subject: she kicked A
On November 29, 2010, he sent along another congratulatory note, apparently in regard to a press conference Clinton had held that day to address the publication of thousands of State Department cables by WikiLeaks:
From: Ambinder, Marc
Sent: Monday, November 29, 2010 12:05 PM
To: Philippe Reines
Subject: This is an awesome presser...
She is PITCH f#$*& PERFECT on this stuff.
The emails quoted above are particularly remarkable given Ambinder’s understanding of Clinton’s press strategy, as he articulated in a column for The Week last year. Predicting how Clinton’s widely documented aversion to reporters would play out in the 2016 presidential race, Ambinder wrote, “The Clinton campaign will use the press instrumentally. ... Good news for us, though: The reporters covering Clinton are going to find ways to draw her out anyway, because they’re really good, they’ll give her no quarter, and they’ll provide a good source of accountability tension [sic] until Walker (or whomever) emerges from the maelstrom.”
When asked for comment about his correspondence with Reines, Ambinder wrote in an email to Gawker, “I don’t remember much about anything, but I do remember once writing about how powerful FOIA is, especially as a mechanism to hold everyone in power, even journalists, accountable.” When asked to elaborate, he followed up with a longer message:
Philippe and I generally spoke on the phone and followed up by email. The exchange is probably at best an incomplete record of what went down. That said, the transactional nature of such interactions always gave me the willies.... Since I can’t remember the exact exchange I can’t really muster up a defense of the art, and frankly, I don’t really want to. I will say this: whatever happened here reflects my own decisions, and no one else’s.
In a subsequent phone exchange, Ambinder added:
It made me uncomfortable then, and it makes me uncomfortable today. And when I look at that email record, it is a reminder to me of why I moved away from all that. The Atlantic, to their credit, never pushed me to do that, to turn into a scoop factory. In the fullness of time, any journalist or writer who is confronted by the prospect, or gets in the situation where their journalism begins to feel transactional, should listen to their gut feeling and push away from that.
Being scrupulous at all times will not help you get all the scoops, but it will help you sleep at night. At no point at The Atlantic did I ever feel the pressure to make transactional journalism the norm.
Ambinder emphasized that the emails did not capture the totality of his communication with Reines, and said they were not indicative of his normal reporting techniques. When asked if the exchange was typical of the magazine’s reporting and editing process, a spokesperson for The Atlantic told Gawker: “No, this is not typical, and it goes against our standards.”
Reines didn’t respond when we asked if he engaged in similar transactions with other reporters covering the State Department. But on the day of his trade with Ambinder, at least one other journalist used Reines’ preferred adjective—“muscular”—to describe the speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. That reporter was none other than Mike Allen of Politico:
Allen even took note of the seating arrangement, just as Reines had requested of Ambinder:
A look at the CFR’s guest seating chart shows that arrayed in the front row will be top members of her team — the envoys she has called her “force multipliers”: Richard Holbrooke, George Mitchell, Dennis Ross, Philip Goldberg and Stephen Bosworth.
We can’t say for sure that Reines implored Allen to describe Clinton’s speech as “muscular” and emphasize where particular audience members were seated, but that kind of request would hardly be out of the ordinary. As we noted above, Allen allowed Reines to ghost-write an item for his Playbook newsletter; and, in the course of attempting to secure an interview with Chelsea Clinton, told Reines he was prepared to submit interview questions to Clinton’s team in advance for their approval.
Allen referred our questions to Politico’s spokesperson, who told Gawker via email: “Mike’s preview of this speech includes multiple ‘aides say’ qualifiers and is transparent in that it’s based on ‘prepared remarks’ and a ‘seating chart.’” (If Allen and Reines did indeed email about Clinton’s speech, however, we expect to receive a copy of their correspondence in a subsequent batch as the State Department continues to process our request.)
In any case, Reines’ strategy worked out nicely. For an article aggregating Allen’s piece, New York magazine quoted his use of “muscular” in the headline, and even commissioned an illustration of Clinton wearing the arms of a body builder.
The most recent batch of emails revealed another notable sausage-making exchange between Reines and a prominent reporter. In several emails sent in early September 2009, Mark Halperin—then at Time, now at Bloomberg News—appears to have arranged for a computer pre-configured with Microsoft’s Outlook calendaring software to be delivered to Reines’ house in Washington, D.C., so that Reines would be able to open particular documents in his possession, including Hillary Clinton’s travel schedules during the 2008 presidential campaign, and relay their contents to Halperin. In one email, the reporter writes to Reines:
the computer is ready to be delivered. I could have it there in 20-25 minutes
It has a newly downloaded version of Outlook, which has not been installed, because it has to be done linked to an email. I am hoping/assuming you can do that.
Is now a good time to have it brought over? Should it be left with a doorman or left upstairs?
It’s unclear from the exchange whether Reines actually provided any documents to Halperin or simply relayed the information therein. But perhaps the more interesting aspect of Reines and Halperin’s correspondence is that, the day after Halperin had the computer delivered, Reines began asking Halperin whether he and his co-author John Heilemann would include him in Game Change, the book-turned-movie they were writing about the 2008 campaign: “Do I have a big enough role to warrant a role in the movie, a la Jeremy Bash in Recount?” To which Halperin responds: “Well, the first response is, do you want that?” The thread continued:
Reines: “Yes, I want to be an amalgam like he was!”
Halperin: “ok then. the book doesn’t do amalgams. but the movie just might. let me puzzle on that.”
Reines: “There’s gotta be a scene where I hand the phone to CVC: That’s good TV.”
Halperin: “agreed, although hard to get your name in the film in said scene.”
Halperin: “we could make you the kennedy character or the mills character. going all postal on the wednesday call.”
Below, you’ll find highlights from the last two rounds of Reines emails we received from the State Department’s FOIA office. (The release from December 31 consisted of only 211 pages, so we consolidated it with the January release.) You can read and search through the rest of the emails on DocumentCloud.
Page 58 — Reines emails Andy Alexander, then the ombudsman of The Washington Post, to complain about sexism in Howard Kurtz’s profile of Chuck Todd: “What does it say when a paper’s ombudsman takes a paper to task for sexist writing and then only days later features a piece laced with so much blatant sexism that it’s laughable (profile of Chuck Todd)?”
Page 75 — After asking, on page 72, for quotes about Politico’s newsroom culture, Jeremy Peters of The New York Times praises Reines’ response (“If a lightbulb is out that’s a story”): “That’s brilliant. You should totally let me use that on the record. … That’s great. Anything else you can recall like that—their greatest hits of non-news—would be great.”
Page 79 — Reines appears to flirt with a Miami-based media personality named Tara Gilani: “How did I look in HD?” To which Gilani responds: “You look/are the same: cocky, smart ass. Don’t take it as a compliment—it’s not.” To which Reines responds: “Oh yeah it is.”
I think it weird — if bill clinton is holding a grudge against me that is really weird I think I may be the only one in media who has never been smarmy towards him or repeated stuff that I have heard from him or hugh or dorothy etc which I know was said off the record because they feel comfortable talking in front of me. I have always carefully drawn the line with the clintons (and others) because I hate the media trying to destroy. I admire people in public service and never do anything rotten to people in govt so it is stunning that bill clinton would hold a grudge against me. I will still be one hundred percent fair with him (bill richardson did something really dirty to me and I have never retaliated — I have continued to do my job fair) but I am curious if it is clinton or matt [Bill Clinton spokesperson Matt McKenna] thinking he is clinton and creating problems.
Pages 227 and 250 — New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick appears to engage in—or deny engaging in—some sort of quote approval protocol with Philippe Reines: “I can’t imagine I imagined a quote approval since I cleared them all, so as I said, I’m puzzled.”
Page 518 through 519 — These pages contain an unusually large redaction, apparently based upon a personal privacy exemption, that appears to concern something Reines ate while aboard a State Department aircraft.
Page 551 — Reines asks ABC News reporter Dana Hughes to “add a line taking a small poke at ‘BuzzFeed and others’ for getting this wrong” to a story Hughes was writing about reports that a swarm of bees had attacked Hillary Clinton and her State Department entourage on a diplomatic trip to Malawi. Reines adds that he would be “very appreciative” of the favor. According to the finished story, Hughes appears to have complied with Reines’ request.
Page 667 — Kimberly Dozier, then at the Associated Press (and now at The Daily Beast), appears to allude an interaction she had with Michael Hastings in an email to Reines: “I just read the exchange you had with another member of the press, who shall remain nameless in this email. I’ll tell you my run-in with the same person, over a drink sometime, if I run into you at State Dept. event.”
Page 740 — Tina Brown emails Reines about an upcoming forum called “The Hero Summit,” scheduled for November 14-15, 2012 and headlined by David Petraeus. However Petraeus does not appear to have attended the event, given that he resigned several days prior to it over his extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell.
Pages 971 through 980 — The State Department redacted the entirety of what appears to be ten pages of email correspondence between Reines and Carolyn Greenspan Rosen, a producer at Entertainment Tonight. The pages are marked with the exemption code “B6,” which is used to justify withhold information that, if disclosed, “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
Page 1082 — Anne Kornblut of The Washington Post emails Reines: “I know you’re on the other side of the earth, but if you get bored in a meeting, want to send me some examples of politico’s most flagrant stupidity or errors?”
Page 1155 — Tara Palmeri of the New York Post writes to Reines about Hillary Clinton’s plans to endorse a candidate in the 2013 New York City mayoral race: “I wanted to reach out to you about Hillary’s status on Weiner. Last time we chatted you said she would likely endorse him for Mayor of New York over Bill de Blasio. In light of recent events, will Hillary still endorse Weiner for Mayor?” To which Reines responds (after asking Palmeri to identify him as a “friend”): “Her support of him remains unchanged.”