Her new book is “Chasing Hillary.”
On this episode of Recode Media, New York Times writer-at-large Amy Chozick sits down with Recode Managing Editor Edmund Lee to talk about her new memoir, “Chasing Hillary: Ten Years, Two Presidential Campaigns, and One Intact Glass Ceiling.” Chozick says the book is about all the things reporters didn’t write in their stories about Hillary Clinton, and the “decline of campaign reporting.”
Below, you’ll also find a lightly edited transcript of the full episode.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That’s me. I am part of the Vox Media podcast network, and I’m here at Vox Media headquarters in New York City. I won’t be here for long, because you’re soon to be listening to Ed Lee, my colleague, talk to Amy Chozick from the New York Times. It’s excellent. You will enjoy it. But before we get started, here is my daily ask of you. If you like this podcast, please tell someone else about it. I’ve noticed some of you are tweeting. I appreciate it very much. Keep it up. We love it. Thank you so much. Okay, here is Recode’s managing editor, Ed Lee, talking to Amy Chozick. Take it away, Ed.
Ed Lee: Thanks, Peter. I’m here with Amy Chozick, the author of “Chasing Hillary.” I’m gonna read the full subhead, so our listeners get an idea of what the book’s really about: “Ten years, two presidential campaigns, and one intact glass ceiling.” Amy, thanks for joining me.
Amy Chozick: Thanks for having me.
Sure. Look, we’re gonna get this part out of the way, all right? So the book came out, and there’s already been some blowback, but that’s not a bad thing, necessarily. The point is, people are paying attention. Notably Chelsea Clinton.
Who … a series of tweets, now it’s become a whole thing, call it hair-gate, or do we call it hair truthers, or what do we want to …
Keratin versus keratin?
Keratin versus, yes, there you go. So let’s just get that out of the way. What happened?
Look, you can’t write a book about Hillary Clinton and not anticipate some blowback, so I always knew it was going to be something. I’ve covered this family for 10 years, for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, so I know the way they receive books, and I knew that there would be some blowback.
I kept incredibly detailed notes,and audio and hundreds of reporter’s notebooks stacked under my bed, in case I ever wrote a book. And I also — which I think a lot of authors do not do — is I used my own money to hire a fact-checker to review all of my reporting and sourcing and scrutinize everything, so I’m very confident in the reporting.
In terms of Chelsea, I have a lot of respect for her. I write in the book, when I was growing up in Texas, that I identified with her. We were the same age, had the same hair, and then I think the question, the line in question, I just want to read, because I think there’s a lot of … there’s some misinformation. Do you mind if I just read this little part?
In fact, I was gonna ask you to do that very thing. It’s funny, because I was dog-earing this pages as I went through. I did not dog-ear that page until the tweets started happening. I was like, I gotta go back and find this thing. So what does it read?
Okay, so first I’m just, this is me growing up in Texas. I even saw myself in Chelsea then. We were about the same age, from neighboring southern states, both avid readers, and uncomfortable in our own skin. With smiles full of braces, curls we couldn’t control, and frilly dresses with bubbly shoulder pads.
So then flash forward, this is like 2015, and I run into Chelsea again, and I say, I no longer saw myself in Chelsea. She had grown into her celebrity, with flowing straight hair, and a permanent strawberry glow. Chelsea told Elle magazine that, in her early 20s, her curls just naturally subsided; an affront to frizzy-haired women everywhere. I also happened to know her New York hairdresser, and a keratin job when I saw it.
And Chelsea tweeted out something to the effect of, “Well if you had called me, or fact-checked this damn thing, then you would have known that I don’t use keratin.”
Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
There’s a fine line here, though, right? I mean we should talk … this book is a memoir, right?
It’s not a documentary account, necessarily, though there’s a lot of great details in it, and as you pointed out, you used your reporter’s notebooks, which were chock full of information. But a memoir, generally, by definition, is your impression of events, right?
And that happened to you, and to others, and what’s really great about the book, I felt, is that this was an incredibly divisive election. Everyone has an opinion on it either way, but you were one of the few people to have a front-row seat. To a part of it, anyway. And so your impression of it is incredibly relevant. Including keratin or no keratin, the hair thing. Okay, so that’s out of the way.
But I think, yeah, but that confuses people, and I respect and understand that. Like in my author’s note, I was trying to explain that this is nonfiction but it’s not journalism, which means there are details in the book, I did not reach out to everyone to say so-and-so declined to comment, or so-and-so declined that this happened, the way you would in a newspaper story. And so I think … I understand the questions people have, because I think I was trying something new. People were saying, “What about the factual problems in ‘Fire and Fury?’” And this isn’t “Fire and Fury.”
The Michael Wolff book, right? Yeah.
It has a lot of juicy tidbits in it. But yeah, I of course anticipated blowback, and some authors were like, “You gotta hire a publicist!” I was like, “Forget hiring a publicist. I’m hiring a fact-checker,” and it’s not cheap, and they go through everything, and so that’s all, yeah.
And we should also …
You know me, as a reporter, Ed.
I know. We competed on the same stories.
We competed intensely.
So I know exactly how good a reporter you are. So I have no problem believing the story, right? Which I have here.
We should also note, on Twitter, that I think it’s created division on Twitter as well. I’ve seen people on Chelsea’s side, I’ve seen people on your side. It’s weird that there’s a side, right? But that seems to be part of the way things go now. Because of the internet, because of Twitter, because of this hyper-intense cycle of information. Everyone just starts picking sides all of a sudden.
Yeah, and sometimes the context … I mean, almost always, the context gets lost in the mix.
So I want to bring it back. What was your intention with the book? You say, in your sort of preface, you’ve always wanted to write a book. I think any journalist, any … someone who writes for a living wants to write a book, of course, so that part is obvious, but with this, in particular, what was the idea? What was the pitch, ultimately, when you went?
Well, I was a real student of campaign books. I read all of them, and they were almost — actually, they were all, I should correct myself — they were all great men getting inside the campaigns of other great men.
There was this confluence of events in 2016. The first female with a shot at the presidency, a largely female press corps, and so what I really wanted to do was change the genre. Write a really female book. As you know, there’s stuff in there about fertility, and my marriage, and all of these ways that my job took over my life. My job happened to be covering the first woman with a shot at the presidency, but every woman has had to make those choices. So I wanted to do a female memoir … I’m sorry, a female campaign book, and that meant kind of putting myself in it, as well as Hillary’s press, and kind of seeing her through that prism.
You are a central part of this, it’s a memoir, it’s your sense of it, so you are a big part of it. As you point out, your personal life. How you met your husband, for one, your concerns about can I get pregnant eventually, will I be able to have a family? Just sort of your rise through the ranks of journalism in general. I particularly loved just your backstory of how you got into the business. Give us a little bit of that. How did you …
Oh, thanks, because I thought, I actually asked my editor, I’m like, “Are readers gonna think this is like a weird tangent?” But to me, it was important. I think, in this election, there was a lot of sense — and there’s still the sense, if you look at Twitter — of the media is in our ivory tower, we’re all elitists, and we didn’t understand the country. And so I wanted to give readers the context of how hard I had it, when I moved to New York from Texas, with no job and no apartment, running around dropping off my clips from the Daily Texan, getting escorted out of the New York Times lobby when I was loitering too long.
You just showed up at the New York Times building, in the lobby.
I would physically drop my clips off. It was very naïve, but I didn’t have any context. I didn’t know. I was very … I was naïve, and I didn’t know.
That’s great, I love that.
No, it’s really sad. It’s like somebody, one of the Bernie bros was always trolling me, said, “Her life seems like a cross between a sad episode of ‘Working Girl’ and ‘Midnight Cowboy,’” and I was like, “Exactly. How did you know?”
You’re like, “That’s exactly what I wanted in my life!”
That’s exactly what my life was.
You’ve always wanted to come to New York.
I love New York stories. I love these coming to New York stories, and you have a pretty classic one, I feel like. So what did you do? What was your first … how did you get into journalism at all?
Yeah, I moved to New York, no job, no apartment. I was crashing with a boyfriend on his couch in Fort Green. At first I was temping, insurance agencies, nonprofits, and then in between temping I was going on job interviews, and I could name 12 publications, some of which no longer exist, that didn’t even call me back or interviewed me and had no interest. An editor at Cosmo asked me if I was a makeup junkie, and I’m like, as you can look at my face now, Ed, it was pretty self explanatory that I’m not.
So my first foot in the door was a position that no longer exists at Conde Nast, a magazine publisher. We were called Rovers.
Yes. We were basically, it was an internal temping … it was a step up from outside temps. You were like an internal temp, and you had six months to fill in at all their different magazines, and then at the end of six months, if anyone offered, you could make relationships, have coffees with people if they would, which you normally were fetching coffee, not having coffees, but if you don’t get a job after six months, then it’s done, and they replenish the program.
And what were you doing, you were basically, as you said, fetching coffee, getting people’s dry cleaning, you were almost like the assistants to the assistants sometimes, right?
I was the assistant to the assistant. I mean, that’s bad. And you were getting put in different magazines all the time, so nobody knew you or knew your name, and I always wanted … I was like, Conde Nast publishes the New Yorker, I’m gonna get to go to the … The New Yorker never needed rovers. The people that needed rovers were like Brides Magazine and House and Garden.
Places you didn’t want to necessarily write for.
That I did not want to write for. And so I was doing … yeah, I was a rover. I learned a lot, but not necessarily what I thought I would learn when I moved to New York. For instance, I was … I have some stuff in the book, but I was wearing, I used to wear one of those plastic banana clips, they were big in the early aughts. It was fine, everyone wore one.
Who didn’t have one, right? Yeah.
So I got off the elevator once, it was a packed elevator, and the elevator doors were closing, and I hear a girl go, “Okay, who told her she could wear her hair like that?” And I was like, “What? There’s something wrong with this?”
Yeah, that’s a very “Devil Wears Prada” moment. It’s a real moment, it’s a real thing, certainly at Conde Nast.
Yeah, and I was from Texas. I’d never spent more than $30 on a pair of jeans. Shoes were Nine West, like I didn’t … this world. And it was the first world that I had in New York, so I thought this is what New York is like, meanwhile not knowing this is this bizarre, rarefied Conde Nast fashion world of before the financial crisis, when they had money and black cars to the Hamptons.
So then I eventually got a job as the foreign news assistant at the Wall Street Journal, and as soon as I walked into the newsroom, this was after 9/11, when the Journal’s newsroom had been bombed out …
Right near where the Trade Towers were, yeah.
Exactly, exactly, and I just thought everyone was frumpy and brilliant and I thought, “Oh, I’ve found my people! This is great. My banana clip is just fine here.”
So frumpy and brilliant is … that’s your people? So we’re good company then, yeah.
Well, I immediately loved the place, and yeah, I felt like I fit in much better there.
Newsrooms are great, aren’t they?
They are great.
Yeah, it’s always a bastion of no-shit, tell me what’s going on, as opposed to the whole put-ons of what you would normally see …
Right, I don’t care if you’re dressed like the Unabomber, as long as you can deliver the story.
Amy, I have more questions for you, but we’re gonna take a quick break so Peter Kafka can tell us about some of our sponsors. We’ll be back after this.
Thanks, Peter. So you were a foreign correspondent for a while. Actually, you were in Japan for a bit. You learned some Japanese, even.
There you go, look at that. I love that. I remember when we first met …
We spoke some Japanese!
Yes, you were speaking Japanese to me, I’m like, “What the hell is going on here?”
Didn’t we talk to some Sony executive?
Oh, Kaz Hirai, the CEO of Sony.
Yes, and he was like, “I speak English, guys.”
So we should let the audience in on what we’re talking about for a second, here. So we met at Sun Valley, which is the annual mogul retreat, right? It’s where guys like Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone, all the big media moguls would meet, and now tech guys like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey also. It’s a real confab. And what’s crazy is that it’s kinda like paparazzi for moguls, right? That’s the role we play.
Mm-hmm. You feel that way, yeah.
Just like you’re behind the Tensor barriers, and we’re literally yelling out questions, and that’s fine for big news making things, but these guys are just CEOs, right? They’re not gonna tell you anything, so yelling out, “Hey, what’s going on? When are you gonna sell your company?”
It’s really humiliating, yeah.
It’s very humiliating, and the more humiliating part is, if we remember this, but we’re not allowed in the bar, right?
(laughing) Right. We weren’t allowed.
So it’s a resort.
And we were spending money to stay there.
Exactly right. So it’s like, it’s at a resort, and they don’t stop people from booking rooms. The reporters book rooms alongside these big moguls, but they close off the bar, which was the best part of it, or one of the few best parts of it that were available to us, and so we literally were out in the lobby.
They like roped us into a separate place.
And we’d sort of yell out, “Hey, can you bring me a drink, please?” Like we’d actually ask the waiters, “Can you take our order?” and wait for people to come out, to stumble out, and we could hound them with questions, and sometimes they’d entertain us, but most of the time they were kinda jerks about it, weren’t they?
No, of all the humiliating experiences as a reporter, that was very high up there.
Which is pretty high, given the fact of what I read, in terms of what campaign reporters generally go through, which is pretty, pretty tough.
That is true, but you also feel like the stakes are higher in covering an election, so the humiliation is … and also, the humiliation is more widely endured. It’s like, this is the way it is.
Right. This is the world.
You go to those briefings, White House briefings, and they give you nothing, and you feel like you’re groveling for morsels.
But your humiliation as a journalist, then, is really like the public’s humiliation, right? Because you’re there to represent the people in terms of here are the questions that people should know, try to get answered, and if they’re not gonna answer it, it’s not just your question they’re not answering, it’s the public, really.
Okay but back to, you were a foreign correspondent. You were in Japan, and then from there you got plopped into Iowa to cover Hillary’s first campaign in ’08. That’s kinda crazy, going from one to the other. How did that happen, exactly?
Yeah, so my editor, who hired me on the foreign desk to be the news assistant, eventually hired me to be a foreign correspondent in Japan, and I speak fluent Spanish, I knew no Japanese. I learned some, as you know.
Very nice, yeah.
But he thought, I mean, his perspective on coverage was that a fresh perspective is important. You have foreign correspondents who stay in these places for decades, years, have lives there, and some of the things that are stories, to western readers, might not be stories to … like my colleagues who had lived there so long, and my Japanese colleagues were like, “Of course the toilets play music.” Everything I saw in Japan was a story to me.
Because it was new to you.
Because they all, those stories grow on trees, yeah, exactly. And if they’re new to me, they’re new to our readers, so that was his perspective. It didn’t make my life very easy there, but …
But it’s actually pretty classic. I love … that’s a great way … I mean, reporters don’t do that enough, right? You’re on the beat forever, you miss the stories. You’re so entrenched, you’re so ensconced in the minutiae that you’re like, well, that’s a known thing. Well, it’s known to you, but it’s not known to normal people.
Exactly. Or it’s impressing your other friends, like I need to scoop this because somebody else is going to, and you sort of forget that does a reader really care about …
So here’s what I love about this part of your … I love many parts of your book, but this in particular, this is a very journalism point of view thing, but when you first went to cover it, this was one of the first campaign appearances that Hillary made, and we were all at an event, and you, the whole media scrum is there, and you stand up. She comes out, you stand up, and what do you do?
I cheered. It was so embarrassing.
You start cheering and clapping, right? The guy from the Chicago Tribune was there, tugging on your arm.
Yeah, my friend Jason George was like, “Dude,” and I’d just met him, and he was like, “Dude, you can’t do that.”
He’s like, “Dude, what are you doing? You can’t do that!”
I didn’t know. I was swept up. It was my first … I’d never seen … oh, no, I had seen Hillary. I wrote that I met her as a teenager in Texas, but I’d never been to a political rally like that, and everybody was so excited, and I got like, “Oh, everyone’s standing up,” and then I look around and I’m like, “Oh my god, that was a major faux pas.”
So here’s the thing: We’re talking about this like we know that’s funny and it’s a faux pas, but I don’t know, I think readers and listeners may not necessarily get that, though, right? It’s like as journalists, you can’t be part of the story. That’s the whole point. And that’s what your friend was haranguing you about, like, “You can’t do that,” meaning you can’t be on either side of this.
Right. You have to be … and actually I learned that in 2008, especially, I think, when I switched over to Obama, and you saw these crowds that were totally swept up in the phenomenon, and I sort of saw Obama differently, because seeing him as a reporter, you see the warts and all.
He’s a person, yes.
He’s a person, exactly. So I thought, and I looked at these crowds and I was like, gosh, you really cede your right or your ability to be really swept up and excited about a candidate, not just because you want to project non-partisanship, but because you see them for who they are, and they all have pluses and minuses, and negatives and positives.
And that’s what you need to see, as a journalist. You can’t be swayed either way. But that’s the eternal struggle. A big part of the tension in this book is you and what you call “The guys.” Her press handlers, her aides, who are there to sort of stand in front of the press, basically, and spin you guys. And you know they’re trying to spin you. They know they’re trying to spin you. It’s just this constant conflict.
You kind of have to wonder, and especially the way you frame it here, what’s the point of all that? If the system is set up to be antagonistic at the start like that, in a known way, you’re just gaming each other, kind of. Isn’t that part of the concern?
I do think you’re right, that it’s like a cycle. It’s like you control everything. The handlers control everything. We have to write something, so then you end up … Like I write that we had stories counting Hillary’s head nods during policy round tables, and in turn, she and her campaign think we’re vapid morons, and it’s this cycle.
Well it is a cycle, but it’s also, as a reporter, I’ve been in that same situation of, well, if you’re not gonna talk to me, I’m gonna find something else to write about.
You’re gonna fill the vacuum. Right.
Right. Exactly, and it’s gonna be head nods, or it’s gonna be the smallest little thing, and that’s a headline.
Didn’t Peter Chernin knock someone off a whitewater raft? I mean, I don’t …
That was the story, because he didn’t say anything to us. Yeah, give us something, we’ll write about that, right?
So that’s another way of pointing out this other thing, which I think a lot of people don’t realize and that you really highlight in the book early on, which is the Clintons had this longstanding theory that the New York Times was out to get them. Going all the way back to Howell Raines, when he was the editor. A man from the south, who saw Bill Clinton as sort of a rival. That’s not true, of course, right?
Well, this is something that I think surprises people. I mean certainly, my family in Texas was like, “The liberal New York Times, out to get the Clintons? What are you talking about?”
Yeah, aren’t they in the pot for them?
In the tank, exactly. Even I, when I was put on this beat, really underestimated the decades of baggage between the Clintons’ world and the Times. I was naïve about that. I thought hey, this is gonna be great. I knew I’d write some tough stories, but I didn’t know … at one point, the guys, Hillary’s press handlers, were trying to kind of talk me out of, I don’t know which story it was, but they said, they expressed, they had feigned concern, and they said, “I just don’t want you to become the Jeff Gerth of your generation.” So Jeff Gerth was the reporter who broke the Whitewater story. I was 12 when that happened.
And you’re like, wait a minute, who is that? You’re kind of ticking through, you’re like, yeah.
Right, right, right. Yeah, and so it was really, they were very much stuck in the ’90s. It was like a time warp. It was like Whitewater was yesterday, but the endorsements, all the positive endorsements that the paper had given Hillary didn’t exist, and so I had to educate myself, very early on, about this relationship.
And it wasn’t just Howell Raines, it was his … it was everyone since.
It was always passed on.
Whoever was running the Times.
It started with Howell Raines, who was also from the south, and there was this conspiracy, or this theory in Hillary’s world, in Bill’s world, that he had this white southern rivalry with Bill Clinton, that he sort of saw Bill Clinton as less than him, and there was this white man southern rivalry between these two most powerful figures. So that was that.
And then it was like when Jill Abramson was the executive editor it was like well, these two women, she has it, it was Jill versus Hill, they used to say, and she has it out. She obviously has left, ever since she got fired from the paper, and has been writing for the Guardian, she’s been sympathetic to Hillary, and I think been honest about how she had a lot of respect for her the whole time. But there was always a narrative.
And the other thing that struck me, too, in terms of … you’re writing all these stories, they’re factual stories, and you’re getting hell for it from the campaign. Now that’s understandable when it’s like, “I didn’t like that story exists,” but it seemed to be deeper than that. It seemed to be like, “Why are you trying to hurt us?” Right?
There’s a point in the book where you simply say, well, I’m sorry that I hurt you, but these stories are true. What do you think that is? Why is it — and it’s not just within politics but everywhere, and almost journalism altogether — that there’s this backlash against … even if they might acknowledge that it’s true, they’re like, “Well, that you printed it made it something else. You’re trying to hurt us.” That’s such a …
Yeah, I think that was even more pronounced when it was Trump, when she was running against Trump. It was just like, “How could you do this to us? The other guy is so beyond the pale.” I think if I’m guessing right, you’re referring to the Hamptons Hillary, and the Hampton story in the final weeks of August. She basically disappeared after a very good convention, when she was 10 points ahead, and went to fundraise in the Hamptons, and I wrote a story that was universally hated by her campaign and her supporters, but it was true. She did go, and it doesn’t always look pretty, and yeah, I had learned to anticipate the backlash, but the idea that sort of, well, stop writing those stories, this guy she’s running against, he’s bragging about sexually assaulting women.
And the irony here is, of course, we’re hearing about all the backlash against the press in the Trump administration with “failing New York Times,” “fake news,” etc., and meanwhile, as you’re covering the Clintons for 10 years plus, they’ve had the same sense of, “Oh, the New York Times is out to get us,” it’s just less well known, or it’s less publicized from their end.
Yeah, and I would say, to their credit, it’s less dangerous. I mean, to have a president decry a free press and call out my colleagues on Twitter, and the way he talked about doing away … the way he talks about suing reporters and doing away with the First Amendment, that is a much more dangerous proposition. To me, the Clintons, it was within the confines of political machines.
The usual sort of, yeah, back-fighting, right.
It was a little more extreme, because Hillary had built up so much scar tissue and grudges about the media, some real and some imagined, and so I think it was a little more amplified, but I don’t want to equate the way they control the press to what Trump is doing.
What he’s doing is he’s speaking it, which is a completely different thing, right?
I think so, yes.
Yeah, I think it definitely …
I mean Hillary, to her credit, would travel the world and support First Amendment, support journalists, free speech in countries all over the world.
I have more questions, but we’re gonna take a quick break, so Peter Kafka can tell us some more about our sponsors. We’ll be back right after this.
We’re here with “Chasing Hillary” author Amy Chozick. We’re talking about the New York Times, the Clintons, the White House generally. One thing I wanted to bug you about, this has to do with being on the bus. So there is … you were a foreign correspondent, and then you went to being a campaign reporter. There’s something that David Remnick, I remember saying, when as a foreign correspondent, your job is largely to stand witness, right? You’re just seeing there, and reporting what you’re seeing. It seems like campaign reporting is very similar in that way.
But at the same time, because of the internet now, because everything is streamed, and you sort of mention this in your book, like do you need to be there kind of a thing. How has that changed? You were there in ’08 and then you were there in this recent campaign. What were the big differences? How much of the internet affected the change from one to the other?
I think it drastically changed the role of the campaign reporter. But not only that, I think Trump could not have been elected without those changes, and so there was a real sense that why should I be on this bus where they’re controlling your every word, where it’s impossible to write, because you’re being shuffled on and off of buses. I was always trying to write stories on my lap in the back of the motorcade, before … when you can livestream everything. I mean Twitter and livestreaming, and a candidate who gave us almost no access, really … I think a lot of newsrooms were questioning why are we doing this? It’s one thing, I think, for networks that need to have a camera there.
They need the visual.
They need the visual. And also, I think it’s protective. People still think, “What if something happens?”
What if something happens, some crazy …
Although I would argue that when the press is on a separate plane, when the press is on a bus in Sioux City when Hillary’s giving a speech in Des Moines because the logistics didn’t work out for us to be at both events, then it’s not even serving its protective function. There would be times when we were on the bus in Iowa, streaming her speech in another city in Iowa.
Isn’t that just crazy? I was reading that thinking wow, this is just … the post-modern bizarreness of that is so weird.
Exactly. Well, I’m glad you picked up on that, because I think — and this is something that’s a little inside baseball — but a sub-theme of the book is the decline of campaign reporting. Not just, and I am not putting that on the press corps, I’m just, the changing nature of the job. It was like suddenly we had all this all-female press corps, and I say — call it a slap in the face from the patriarchy or stroke of bad luck — but by the time it became the girls on the bus, the role of the bus in the media ecosystem had been vastly diminished.
One thing that I think really really brings it to bear … The book is brilliant. It’s got a lot of great detail, and it brings to light all the things you didn’t read about during the actual campaign. This is the kind of stuff that reporters all talk about in the bar after the presser but that they never write. It’s like what Nick Denton always talks about, the whole reason for Gawker. But is there room for that? Shouldn’t there be that kind of writing and reporting, as things are happening? Do you think … if there were sort of an outlet, or for the New York Times to say, “Hey, we’re gonna do something completely different here. We want this type of story on the road, as things are happening.”
Hunter S. Thompson in real time.
Ooh, I like it.
Is that possible? Can you do that now, do you think?
Hmm. That’s a really good point. I mean yeah, the New York Times review of my book said it was like a director’s cut of the campaign coverage. I wonder if you can do that. For one, I think it would be sort of hard.
I’m gonna give an example. In 2008, Matt Taibbi was pretending to cover Obama, but really we kind of picked up that he was actually doing a story on the traveling press. And everyone got paranoid and no one wanted to drink chardonnay in front of him because it was gonna end up in the story. So I feel like if you knew that that person was there and that was their role, then you wouldn’t get the organic experience. I took a lot of notes, thinking I wanted to write a book, but if it was happening in real time, I just wonder, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s the person that’s gonna be all gonzo on us.”
They probably would kick you off the bus … Exactly, right.
They would not … I think there wouldn’t be an organic … I mean, even Vogue did a story on the girls on the bus, and when the Vogue writer was there, and one of my friends was like, “Amy, stop drinking so much Perrier, it’s gonna be in the story.” It was like we were very paranoid about everything.
I think there’s that weird Heisenberg blitz that happens, right? If they know that you’re observing this, then they’re gonna not want to do it. I mean, beyond just sort of the inside baseball part of it, though, I do think what was really illuminating is how you evaluated the crowds, how you evaluate her actual stump speech. How it changed in a way that was just more colloquial and vivid than you would see in a standard report, even if it were an A-1 thing, and I wonder how that might have actually affected the campaign, too. They might have reacted differently. They might have actually adjusted differently, who knows what. But because there’s this kind of tacit agreement of this is how you do this, this is how we do that, and we know what it ends up looking like, there’s almost a stalemate, right?
And you want to break news, you break the stalemate. That’s one way around it. But I feel like there’s so much energy placed in something that, well, okay, I know what’s gonna happen kind of a thing. So more gonzo reporting.
I mean, I think it’s … in retrospect, writing the book, it was important to be at so many rallies. I notice things, like I write when there was a weird, that nobody knew, caucus night in Iowa, when she didn’t know what the results were but she had to give a speech, and it was totally awkward, and she straightens her jacket, and I write that it was this fidgety gesture that I almost never saw Hillary do, and so there was, looking back, value in seeing the same thing all the time.
I do go on this sort of riff about how she was in Iowa, how she got … you campaign so frequently and so intimately in Iowa, that she developed her speech … she pulled off jokes and said things in Iowa that I never heard anywhere else.
And that’s the thing. The way you recount it, the way you show it, actually, and there’s a lot of showing more than telling, which I thought was really helpful, I could see it. You could see how she’s crafting her message and trying things out, and how a lot of things aren’t landing, which then sort of would give you, as the reader or as the citizen, a clearer understanding of wow, they don’t know what they’re doing.
Yeah. We wrote some of that, but some of that’s harder to see unless you know that, when they get to New Hampshire, they recalibrate. Like I had that added data. Writing the book, you have the added data point of, “Oh, here’s the list.” And I devote four pages of my book, of the 84 slogans that they focus grouped …
They were testing out, yeah.
But we didn’t know that at the time, we just knew something’s not working, and they keep getting new signage, and …
No, it definitely feels like sort of a PowerPoint from hell type of presentation. Just the way you list it.
So going back to your intention for the book, how much of it was that she was tagged? Because no matter how unlikeable or uncharismatic she may have come across, she’s a woman, and part of your intention with the book is to write this memoir about the first woman candidate, possible president, and the female press corps, it really had sort of flipped. How much did she get tagged? How much did misogyny play a part, from what you saw from the campaign trail, from the voters, the everydays, as you pointed out?
I think a lot. I think we couldn’t … I think we need distance to really assess that, and probably history, to assess how much misogyny played into Hillary Clinton’s career, because she’s still being attacked, she’s still being vilified, and there’s a lot of people who say it’s not because she’s a woman, it’s because she’s that … this is what I always heard on the campaign trail: “I’d vote for a woman, I want to see a woman president, just not that woman.” So I started thinking, “Well why is she that woman? Is it because of 30 years of sexist attacks have made her that woman?” And they would say, “No, it’s because of the Whitewater thing, and it’s because of Benghazi,” or they might … and so I think it’s very difficult, living through history, to also parse how much of how we perceive Hillary is the storms that she and her husband have weathered, and how much of it is gender? I think we need some perspective, but I also think that, once we have that perspective, we’ll realize it was mostly gender.
That is my, if I had to guess how history would view Hillary, she’s going to be this … I know some people on Twitter, after she lost, said, “Well, after all that, Hillary Clinton’s a footnote in history,” and I actually don’t think so, and it’s not just because I wrote a book about her. I think her career is going to be such a symbol of how we viewed women, and powerful women in this period of American history, that it’s gonna be incredibly important and studied for decades, because I think it was a lot of misogyny, and the fact that the last chapter of her career, and who knows what else she’ll do, but last chapter of her political career was up against this candidate who was bragging about sexually assaulting women and had a known history of insulting women. It was just such a confluence of forces. To look on that debate stage, and see the first woman nominee against the first openly bragging about misogyny was a striking look at our society. A striking barometer of where we are.
It was historical, for sure.
This book is also about journalism, what it means to do journalism in this day and age. I feel like a lot of people, generally, don’t understand how journalism works. They think you write a story as part of an agenda, as opposed to well that’s what happened, or that’s what the facts are, or that’s what’s significant right now. Did you hope that the book would sort of explain and also dispel myths about here’s how it works?
I don’t think I sat down thinking I want this to be a primer of what journalism is, but I did think I have to be honest. I can’t sit down and write a memoir and be like, “We did everything perfect in 2016,” and I didn’t want to write it from that ivory tower. I wanted to write about really how it is. A lot of people have said, “God, it sounds glamorous,” but it’s not at all.
No, you’re very detailed, and you’re very up front about how it works, and I mean that in the best possible way. I mean there’s a lot of nuance to it, there’s a lot of inside baseball stuff in terms of here’s my nut graph, here’s the lead that I wrote, here’s the positive, the negative version. As journalists, I know what all that is, but I don’t think regular readers understand oh wow, that’s an interesting process, that that’s what you go through.
Yeah, I hope that’s eye-opening to people.
That’s gonna lead me to the last part. I think this is the most difficult part, right? So this is the … you have a whole chapter, how you became an unwitting agent of the Russians.
I love how dog-eared your copy is. I love that.
Yes, I really read through this. Look at this.
It makes me happy.
It’s marked up, and …
I’ll get you a new one.
No, I like the marked-up one. I love doing that.
Okay. It’s an early edition.
So this, towards the end, “How I became an unwitting agent of Russian intelligence,” set that up for us. What happened, here?
Yeah, so this is something … It was December, it was right after the election, I didn’t know what my new beat was gonna be, we were all sort of in this election haze, like what just happened, how’d we all miss it? And I’m on the F train, on my way to the newsroom, the Times newsroom, and I’m reading a front-page story that my colleagues wrote that ended up winning a Pulitzer, a great tick-tock of how the Russians pulled off the perfect hack on the DNC, and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman’s emails, in order to disturb our democracy and help Donald Trump. So I’m reading the story. I get to a line that says, “Turning all reporters, including the Times, who covered the emails, into defacto agents of Russian intelligence.”
And that’s a story your colleagues wrote.
That appeared in the New York Times, right?
Right, front page.
Front page, set in New York Times. Well, so the timing of those email leaks are sort of interesting too, right? Because just that day, was it, or around that time, it was the “Access Hollywood” tape.
Yeah, that was a crazy day.
Donald Trump, on the bus with … Who was the guy, the Access …
Billy Bush, talking about grab them by the, you know, and everyone’s thinking, “This is it, it’s over. There’s no way.” But then the WikiLeaks emails drop the same day, or within …
It was just right after that.
Within minutes of that, right?
That being the story. So newsrooms everywhere are like, “What in the world is happening?” And so I think part of the context around the unwitting agent is, well, clearly that happened at that time to deflect, right, or that was the thinking anyway, when that thing dropped, and you all played along. We amplified those emails. There was a debate over whether you should bother reporting on these emails. What was the debate about? Why was there a debate?
I never argued that we shouldn’t cover them, and I think that’s been a little misinterpreted, maybe. I just think these cyber attacks are going to continue to happen by foreign adversaries who want to interfere in our elections, and I just think newsrooms should debate how we present those stolen documents to readers. Of course there’s newsworthiness. In her Wall Street speeches, we’d been trying to get those speeches for years, and finally we got them …
There they are.
And they give a glimpse into what Hillary really thinks, and it’s important to confirm and contextualize them. I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m actually very glad that there has been debates happening. That’s sort of what I wanted to see.
So part of the debate, as I understand it, is first of all, you’re right, it’s news, it’s out there. The concern is, well, these are stolen documents, effectively, right? And journalists don’t steal things. That’s part of, we do our damnedest to get them, get people to give us things, that’s the process, but if something’s stolen, well that’s a different thing.
The added factor, though, is the internet exists. So even if they were stolen, the fact that they’re out there, free-floating, anyone can look at, probably begs context, begs reporting, begs well here’s what’s happening here. Here’s what’s significant, here’s something that’s not significant. That seems to be a relatively easy answer, but again, it doesn’t seem to be easy either. Why was that such a hard …
Right, I think it’s an easier answer if you say, okay, someone, a Russian agent broke into Hillary Clinton’s Brooklyn campaign headquarters and stole John Podesta’s files off his desk and handed them to us. Would we have a larger crisis of conscience if it was handed to us?
Right. Because it’s just you, it’s not just free-floating out there.
Because they’re not already out there, but I look at — and I don’t think this is necessarily the answer, but when the Sony hack happened, you and I were covering media, and I think the policy a lot of newsrooms had was we’re not gonna report on the salacious details …
But we’ll report on what’s happening.
The bigger issues, we’ll report what’s relevant, and we’ll report on the fact that there was this cyber attack.
So I have those emails on my laptop still. I’ve downloaded all of them, and I’ll search them every once in a while, just to see, oh wait, what happened with this one thing, and even if it’s just three or four or five years ago, it’s interesting to go back.
I haven’t reported on a lot of that stuff, just because, well, that’s kinda history now. It’s no longer relevant. But yeah, that’s still a concern, right? That’s still something I kind of think about in the back of my head. Is this … should we use it this way? But again, the fact that it’s out there, the fact that the internet exists, is one of those things that sometimes makes it easier, but then it’s also, well, am I just fueling this thing that shouldn’t be happening as well?
Right. I think that chapter is more about my personal conflict. It wasn’t declaring that we did the right thing or the wrong thing. It was just a lot of … there have been a lot of like, “What about her emails?” and, “You over-covered her emails,” and I think those are legitimate concerns, but the bigger concern, for me, looking ahead to election coverage in 2018 and 2020 and beyond, is this question of there’s a line between salacious and not covering at all.
You always chose the byline, as you say.
I always chose the byline.
I’m the same way. I always choose the byline.
I was voracious over bylines. Yummy bylines.
Well that’s how you tell a real journalist, right? That’s the way it goes.
This is a very entertaining book.
Am I gonna see this on Netflix or HBO or Hulu in some form?
From your lips to Reese Witherspoon’s ears, man.
Or Apple, yes, exactly, she’s doing big deals with Apple now for these things. Yeah, it seems tailor-made for that.
I hope so. What did Axios say? “Almost Famous” meets “Game Change”?
Oh, that’s the log line, right?
That’s my elevator pitch.
You know what, when that happens, you come back and you talk to us about that, and see what it’s like to turn your story into Hollywood fiction.
I will. I will. Thanks for having me.
Any time. Thanks, Amy, for coming on the podcast, and thanks to you all for listening.
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