When Hillary Clinton was informed by her campaign manager Robby Mook that she had lost the 2016 election, she said, “They were never going to let me be president.” In an essay adapted from her new book, Chasing Hillary, New York Times reporter Amy Chozick traces the story of how she came to realize that by “they,” Clinton also meant reporters like her. “They were Facebook algorithms and data breaches. They were Fake News drummed up by Vladimir Putin’s digital army. They were shadowy hackers who stole her campaign chairman’s emails hoping to weaken our democracy with Mr. Podesta’s risotto recipe,” she wrote. “And they were The Times and me and all the other journalists who covered those stolen emails.” In what sounds like an apology to Clinton, Chozick suggests that the attention she and her colleagues devoted to those emails was misguided, writing that colleagues who accused her of being nothing but “a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence” were “right.”
Chozick’s book represents a partial attempt at reconciliation in one of the great feuds in modern American politics. The Clintons and the Times have been caught in a cycle of mutual disdain and mistrust for decades, and it has had far-reaching political consequences.
It’s not clear when the feud began, but the Times has been publishing hard-hitting and controversial journalism on the Clintons since at least the Whitewater scandal in the early 1990s—followed by the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the late ’90s, the “Clinton Cash” story in 2015, and the Clinton campaign emails in 2016. To Clintonites, there is a clear pattern of bias. The Times has responded by suggesting that the Clintons are paranoid or trying to quash legitimate news to protect their image.
When Bill Clinton first ran for president in 1992, New York Times editor Howell Raines complained about “the extraordinary burst of journalistic fawning” that the candidate had received. As Lloyd Grove of The Daily Beast reported in 2015, a “popular Clintonite theory” was that Raines—who, like Bill Clinton, hailed from the South—was jealous of the politician. Raines responded by telling Groves, “I think it’s absolutely false and indeed paranoid to think that the institution is hard-wired against the Clintons and, frankly, to trace it back to me.”
Grove points to another theory, promoted by Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal, that the Times “has long been trying to redeem itself with Clinton scandal coverage after the institutionally traumatizing humiliation of being beaten by the Post on the Watergate scandal.” The result, by Blumenthal’s account, was that the Times vastly overstated the Whitewater scandal, which eventually led to Ken Starr’s investigation and Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1999.
“If the Whitewater story seemed obscure and endlessly unresolved to readers of The New York Times, that was partly because numerous attempts to clarify the facts were resisted for years,” Blumenthal wrote in a 2003 letter to The New York Review of Books. “History will inquire into the Times editor’s responsibility and decisions in perpetuating a false yet momentous version of the so-called Whitewater story.”
The Times has always denied these accusations. In 2015, executive editor Dean Baquet told the Beast, “If you look at this reasonably, there is no institutional animus toward the Clintons. I don’t buy it, I say this with all due respect to the Clintons, but politicians as a rule like to deflect criticism by blaming the press.”
To be sure, Hillary Clinton in particular has had a strained relationship with the media as a whole, not just the Times. “Chozick describes Clinton’s press shop (which she calls ‘The Guys’) as an anonymous gang of manipulative, unresponsive and vaguely menacing apparatchiks,” Charlotte Alter notes in her review of Chasing Hillary, “who alternate between denying her interview requests (47 in total, by her count), bullying her in retaliation for perceived negative coverage (‘You’ve got a target on your back,’ one of them tells her) and exploiting her insecurities about keeping up with her (often male) colleagues. The campaign quarantined the press on a separate bus and, later, a separate plane, often without even an accompanying flack to answer basic questions.”
But it’s plausible that the Times’s treatment of the Clintons in the ’90s caused her to become more cautious with all reporters. Moreover, the Clintons know that no other American paper has the influence and prestige of Times, so it’s especially damaging when the paper helps to, say, mainstream a conspiracy theory about the Clintons.
In 2010, the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States—an inter-agency government committee that included Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state—approved a deal allowing Russia’s nuclear agency to acquire a controlling stake in Canada’s Uranium One. Investors of that company had donated to the Clinton Foundation, leading some conservatives to allege a quid pro quo (for which there is no evidence). As Nancy LeTourneau recounts in The Washington Monthly, “Steve Bannon’s Government Accountability Institute commissioned Peter Schweizer to write the book Clinton Cash. Prior to publication, they gave it to the New York Times, which published that article in April 2015 featuring the Uranium One deal, with spurious ties to the Clinton Foundation.” Thus, the Trumpian theme of “Crooked Hillary” was made plausible to many Americans thanks to the Times’ decision to legitimize Schweizer’s dubious reporting.
“Institutional bias” is too abstract and grand a phrase to describe the toxic relationship between the Clintons and the Times, but there’s no question the paper has overplayed stories about the Clintons, which, in turn, has made them far more guarded than your average politician. To the extent the Times’s excessively hostile coverage hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances in 2016 by reinforcing the image of her as a corrupt and deceitful politician, this toxic relationship has also been consequential: It helped to elect Trump.
There seems to be no partisan ideology behind the Times’ coverage of the Clintons. The paper endorsed Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and Hillary Clinton in 2016. The editorial board’s centrist liberalism is very close Clintonian politics. But it’s possible that this ideological affinity also feeds into the acrimony. Precisely because it is a liberal newspaper, the Times might feel like it has to prove its independence by being especially hard on the Clintons; in turn, because they share the Times’ worldview, the Clintons might be more upset at critical coverage from the paper than they would be from more ideologically hostile outlets like The Wall Street Journal. Paradoxically, the Times and the Clintons can never get along because they have too much in common.