New website suggests tougher questions for Clinton • Sinclair Broadcast Group

By Stephen Loiaconi, Sinclair Broadcast Group

A new website launched this week with the intent to call attention to what critics perceive as a lack of availability to the press and unwillingness to answer questions by Democratic presidential front-runner and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

AskHillary.com "uses an online bulletin board system to crowd-source questions, rank them, and encourage Washington reporters to ask Hillary," according to Independent Women's Voice, which set up the site.

Users can submit questions to the site--which will be screened for appropriateness and redundancy--and then others can up-vote the best ones, which will then be forwarded to reporters with national news outlets.

Most of the top questions on the site at the moment deal with the Benghazi terrorist attacks, Clinton's email server, and the funding of the Clinton Foundation. Many are blatantly partisan ("Aren't you and Obama guilty of negligent homicide in the deaths of the four Americans in Benghazi?") but others are more neutral ("Other than Iran, with which countries do we have better relations than when you took office?").

"The run for the presidency is the world's greatest job interview and you don't get a job unless you answer questions," said Independent Women's Voice President and CEO Heather Higgins.

Clinton has claimed that regular voters do not ask her about things like her email use, so Higgins felt this could be a way to show what voters really do want her to answer.

"Unlike most politicians who love to talk, Hillary seems to want to avoid talking about a whole range of things," Higgins said, and she has been "gratified" by the response to the site so far.

"It's almost surprising that it hasn't been done before."

Her organization is considering sending the questions to local reporters in key battleground states as well and they hope journalists actually will ask some of the questions. She also indicated that the tactic could be applied to other candidates.

"I don't think you can dismiss it as just something that's a conservative thing...There are questions being asked from across the political spectrum," she said.

Republican candidate Carly Fiorina tweeted a link to the AskHillary site Thursday, along with a link to a page on her own website where she has posted clips of herself answering questions.

Clinton's campaign did not respond to a request for comment Friday about the AskHillary site or questions that have been posted on it.

Friday did bring signs of a potential shift in Clinton's media strategy, though, with a 30-minute sit-down interview with MSNBC and a brief press conference in Puerto Rico.

In the interview, Clinton apologized for the "confusion" her use of a personal email account and private email server during her term as secretary of state has caused, but she maintained that she did nothing wrong.

"At the end of the day, I am sorry that this has been confusing to people and has raised a lot of questions, but there are answers to all these questions and I will continue to provide those answers," Clinton told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell.

Clinton acknowledged using a personal email address on a private server "wasn't the best choice," but she did not really think about it when she took office. Mitchell pointed out employee policies the practice may have violated, but Clinton insisted it was allowed by the State Department and people she communicated with within the government knew about it.

"I certainly wish that I had made a different choice and I know why the American people have questions about it...I take responsibility. I should have had two accounts," she said.

Clinton has faced increasing questions about her email practices since reporters first learned of her personal email address earlier this year. She has said that she deleted emails she considered personal and turned over the rest to State Department investigators.

Clinton has said that she did not send or receive information that was classified at the time through the email account, but various agencies are reviewing the emails and have retroactively classified over 100 of them. Intentionally sharing classified information improperly is a crime, but no evidence has been released yet that Clinton did so.

In the MSNBC interview, Clinton explained that her lawyers were responsible for sifting through all of her emails, determining which were business and which were personal, printing them out, and delivering 55,000 pages of them to the State Department in response to a department request last fall.

She also clarified that classified information was generally handled on a completely different system in person or on secure lines, not over email.

"I take classified material very, very seriously and we followed all the rules on classified material," she said.

Clinton said she does not feel good about the fact that polls indicate most Americans do not trust her, but she is confident she will convince them she is being honest.

A new Gallup poll released Friday showed Clinton's favorability at one of the lowest levels since 1992, with 41% of Americans viewing her favorably and 51% unfavorably. She remains the most well-liked 2016 candidate among Democrats, though, with 74% favorability.

The perception that Clinton is closed off from the press may be contributing to those numbers, but it is nothing new, going back to her time as First Lady, according to Republican political commentator Tom Basile.

"I think that she has long established a reputation as being very guarded with the media...It's one of the reasons why people don't trust Hillary Clinton," he said.

Given the way the email story has developed and the questions that still surround it, he said he understands why her campaign might be hesitant to put her out in the media.

"Clearly they're running away from the scrutiny that they know that she should rightly be under," he said. Fairly or not, that strategy just contributes to her critics' narrative that the Clintons believe the rules do not apply to them.

"I think that her approach to the way that she handles the media and this very insular campaign that she's running is only reinforcing the distrust that people feel increasingly with respect to her," Basile said.

He called Clinton's "apology" for the confusion over the emails disingenuous and insulting because it implies the American people cannot understand the issue.

While political communications experts agree that Clinton's comments Friday were a far cry from a true apology for her conduct, they question AskHillary.com's premise that she is unusually closed off from the media for a presidential candidate.

"Part of it is just sort of the reality and some of it is the myth," said Fred Bayles, a professor of journalism at Boston University with over 20 years of national reporting experience.

Front-runners, with the exception of Donald Trump, are typically less eager to talk to the press, according to Bayles, because they have more to lose if they are misinterpreted. Clinton also already has national name recognition, so she does not need the media exposure.

Her campaign has to balance providing press availability and avoiding risk. Every interview brings up the email issue again, he said, and "how many times can you say 'I didn't do anything wrong with the emails?'"

Richard Benedetto, a journalism professor at American University and former reporter who covered the White House in the 1980s and 1990s, said Clinton has always had a prickly relationship with the press and has been pretty tightly scripted. That is not abnormal for modern candidates, though.

When they get the chance, reporters are not hurling her only softball questions.

"It's not that she's not getting tough questions, it's just that she's not answering them," Benedetto said.

He noted that Clinton has had many surrogates out in the media in recent weeks defending her and trying to explain her side of the email controversy for her, but polls still show that voters think she is not telling the truth.

"If the public is getting that impression, then she must not be doing something right," he said.

Clinton's advisors likely want her out in the media more often because her poll numbers are slipping, said Thomas Whalen, a social science professor at Boston University.

"She's going to have to decide soon how much she's going to put herself out there," he said.

Whalen said George W. Bush ran an extremely controlled campaign in 2000 and reporters often have complicated relationships with the candidates they cover.

"They're natural antagonists. They don't get along with each other," he said. "It's cats and dogs."

Particularly with the email issue looming, Whalen said Clinton is getting tougher questions than many other candidates, but she has not answered them well.

"She has been evasive, but presidential candidates usually are."

According to Whalen, part of Clinton's problem is that she's essentially the "antithesis" of Donald Trump, who at least gives the impression that he will say anything to anyone. The constant presence of Trump and the other Republican candidates in the media could put pressure on Clinton to do more interviews as the campaign goes on.

The questions about Clinton's trustworthiness have also spread via social media. The rise of social media campaigning in general and new technology that Clinton has not yet figured out how to capitalize on leaves her looking like "a dinosaur" in American politics, Whalen said.

"And we know what happened to the dinosaurs."

 

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