Hillary Clinton is, by a mile, the friendliest presidential candidate in history to women’s media outlets. That’s not surprising, but some of its particulars have been noteworthy. In September 2015, for example, after a lifetime of staunchly refusing to talk about her clothing choices with the press, she gave an interview to Lena Dunham and her newsletter Lenny, where she happily chatted about a Donna Karan dress she wore in 1993.
“This is what’s called a cold-shoulder dress,” she said easily, as if she hadn’t spent close to three decades fighting an incessant and irritating national conversation about what’s on her back. “And I wore it for one of our first big events at the White House, in 1993. It was a design of my friend Donna Karan. And like everything I do, it turned out to be controversial. I’m hardly a fashion icon.”
But it’s not just the omnipresent Lena: Clinton has consistently granted interviews to women’s media outlets, in a clear effort to reach out to millennial voters. In turn, those outlets have rewarded her with mostly softball questions and soft-focus coverage. Refinery29 praised her “values and vision” and asked hard-driving questions like, “Have you always had that confidence, or have you cultivated it?” Cosmo pressed her on whether men and women should split the bill on dates. BuzzFeed’s Another Round podcast praised her for never seeming to sweat.
She’s also made inroads into pop culture outlets beloved by a young female audience, making a triumphant cameo on Broad City and writing a fond farewell for The Toast.
Recently, she penned an essay for Teen Vogue, where she made a direct—albeit long-game, since presumably most of the magazine’s readership isn’t of voting age just yet—appeal to young voters:
I know many of you didn’t vote for me in the primaries. But no matter who you supported—whether it was me, Senator Bernie Sanders, or another candidate—I’m going to keep working hard to earn your trust. I’m not taking anything for granted. The stakes in this election are higher than ever. We have to come together to build an America that reflects the values your generation embodies—diversity, openness, innovation—and stop those who want to take us in a very different direction.
(Vogue editor-in-chief and DNC mega-fundraiser Anna Wintour is also reportedly consulting on Clinton’s clothing for the campaign.)
Less than week later, she followed up with an op-ed in Refinery 29, praising young women for their bravery in fighting for various social causes: “I want you to know that I see you.”
There have been some gaps in her lady-media blitz, of course: we haven’t yet seen much of a Clinton campaign outreach to outlets that specifically cater to women of color; no Latina profile, no sit-down with Essence. (Another Round is hosted by Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu, who are both black, and that interview featured some of Clinton’s most extensive comments on Black Lives Matter).
But on the whole, she’s seemingly friendly with—and, more importantly, for the ever-cautious Clinton—comfortable with women’s outlets. So why won’t she talk to Jezebel?
The Clinton campaign has yet to explain, but I do have some theories. (We’ve asked them for comment; thus far, they have not responded.)
This part hardly bears saying, but let’s sketch it out anyway: Hillary Clinton is the first woman to be picked as a major party’s nominee for president, and she will—unless something goes very wrong—be the first woman in the Oval Office. We’re the one of the biggest “women’s media” sites in the United States, averaging around 10 million unique views in the U.S. and 13 million globally right now. At nine years old, we’re one of the longest-running, too. We’re a pretty good stop if you’re looking to reach an audience of educated, politically engaged women, as our Quantcast data shows, and we’ve interviewed a number of important political and cultural figures, from Chirlane McCray to Cecile Richards to Wendy Davis. We have a keen interest in this election season, so much so that we created an entire politics sub-blog to write about it. You guys seem to like it: it’s one of the most-read verticals in all of Gawker Media.
Of course, it’s only recently that new media publications have been able to get sitdowns with major elected officials. Vox and BuzzFeed got interviews with President Obama, for example, but there’s no question they had to hustle hard for them. It’s not a given that any elected official or candidate ever will want to talk to people who write for the internet. But still: Secretary Clinton and Jezebel felt like a match made in media expediency heaven. It felt possible that, at some point in this campaign season, if we worked hard and made a good case, we would be able to secure a sitdown with Secretary Clinton. Brief, probably, sandwiched between five other outlets and likely not the most earth-shattering of exchanges, but we believed it could happen.
And so, last fall, Jezebel’s Slot team started talking to the Clinton campaign about an interview. After a number of conference calls, an in-person meeting, several detailed pitches, and a healthy number of back and forth emails with her campaign’s press representatives, it’s become clear that we’re probably not getting that interview.
“I am not blowing you off,” someone from her campaign assured us a couple months back, in the bashful tone of someone knee-deep in the process of blowing us off.
It’s certainly very true that Secretary Clinton has thousands of better things to do, like defeat a raving tangerine maniac. But in the months that we’ve been sweating over getting her to talk to us, those other women’s outlets have managed to get in the same room with Clinton, to do a range of friendly interviews, most of them highlighting how exciting it is that a woman will likely be the next president and how #fierce her career has been.
(Not all of the coverage has been rosy: Cosmo asked about a fairly racist skit Clinton participated in with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and though it’s not necessarily a women’s outlet, Clinton did a particularly interesting, candid, and wide-ranging conversation with Power 105.1's Breakfast Club.)
But overall, she’s been more devoted to easier outlets, like Broad City and a Toast tribute and a highly sympathetic sketch on SNL where she played a bartender ministering to an exhausted Hillary Clinton.
Jezebel’s writers have taken a more varied view on Clinton’s candidacy than many—most? all?—women’s outlets. We’re not all agreed on how we feel about her as voters, and that’s reflected in our coverage. Sometimes it’s critical and sometimes it’s celebratory, sometimes praising her and sometimes doing a little shredding. I’ve personally been open about having voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary, but these Bernie or Bust motherfuckers got frankly absurd a long time ago, and we’ve grappled with that issue, too.
I think we’re more transparently conflicted about HRC than most women’s outlets, in other words, which I would argue has made for better and more interesting coverage (and also some wildly and wonderfully dumb stuff).
But the Clinton campaign is famously risk-averse when it comes to the media, the most notorious example being that she’s avoided press conferences for pretty much her entire campaign, apart from taking questions at a joint convention of the National Associations of Black and Hispanic Journalists. (The campaign also recently launched its own podcast. Clinton is a “cohost;” on WNYC, the New York Times’ Amy Chozick suggested it functions partially as a way for Clinton to continue to avoid having to talk to reporters.)
As best I can tell, someone’s done the math here and decided Jezebel isn’t worth the risk. It’s begun to seem to me that the Clinton campaign doesn’t like to talk to women-focused outlets unless they can provide a kind of burnished, pink-bulbed view of her candidacy that we were unwilling to promise.
The first and last time I met with the Clinton staff was in late November, when staff writer Ellie Shechet and I went to lunch in Brooklyn with Rebecca Chalif, the “Women’s Press Lead” for the campaign.
It was evident to me, midway through my California roll, that there might be a pretty sizable hitch. The issue wasn’t that the Clinton campaign wasn’t aware of Jezebel’s work or weren’t sure why talking to us would be beneficial. Rather, they seemed too aware of our work.
“People think we’re easier on Secretary Clinton because she’s a woman,” Ellie said to Chalif, or words to that effect.
“I don’t think you’re easier on her at all,” Chalif responded, dryly.
A moment later, we were, as I remember it, sketching out our rough idea for what we wanted the interview to be. We proposed either a panel or a one-on-one sit down with the Secretary, a mixture of light and not-so-light subjects, including some of the policy issues that have made it tough for some of us to support her. I explained that if I’m struggling with some of these things, so are our readers; Clinton would be making a case directly to millennial women who she’s had trouble winning over.
“Everyone always wants to do these hardball interviews,” I remember Chalif replying, wearily. “That’s always their pitch.”
Well, I mean: yes. That’s what interviews are, usually.
And that is certainly what ours would have been: we talked a lot as a staff about how beneficial it would be, especially in the fall, for Jezebel specifically to do a tough, smart (but fair, naturally) interview with Clinton. That was when she was being perpetually attacked by both Sanders and the GOP for being “unqualified,” a ludicrous criticism of a lifelong public servant if there ever was one. But a long career in public office means a lot of time to take controversial stances, and we knew we’d be able to ask the questions that our readership also had. That’s because we are our readership, and, God help us, we also read your comments.
Over the next few months, we kept in regular contact with the campaign. We expressed a willingness to go anywhere to get some time with the Secretary, and said we would consider a phone interview if nothing else was possible. (Email, we decided, wouldn’t really cut it.) Our business team made a pitch deck about our readership and our politics coverage. We got a few requests for follow-ups and clarifications and then, around late June, we stopped getting responses.
There hasn’t been total silence: we’ve continued to get mass emails from the campaign, invitations to the press briefings they held at the DNC, and, at one point, an invitation to an off-the-record drinks night with other people from “women’s media.”
In the meantime, we’ve watched every other ladies’ outlet and woman-oriented TV show get some sort of facetime with Clinton, in addition to the usual stops on equally friendly, more mainstream talk shows. In addition to the ones mentioned above, we’ve seen:
- This appearance on The View.
- This very good but certainly very sympathetic profile from New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister, who has written openly and intelligently about how she came to support Clinton, plus a book on the 2008 election. (“We’ve had pretty good luck with access to her so far,” another New York staffer told me.)
- This Ellen appearance.
There are also the interviews she’s done elsewhere in the pop culture sphere, albeit not in explicitly woman-focused venues: Jimmy Kimmel and James Corden and Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon, to name a few.
For me, this whole thing raises a pretty clear set of questions about what women’s media is meant to do, and what the Clinton campaign thinks we’re good for. Is it our job to cheerlead for Clinton without the slightest reservation? Does a candidate newly interested in candidly discussing her gender really feel that unwilling to do so in a setting that isn’t scripted or adoring? Can a feminist blog and the first female nominee really not have a serious, substantive discussion? We believe, sincerely, that smart young female voters can do better than what the Clinton camp has made available to them, and that was an integral part of our pitch to the campaign.
I should say here, before I pour gasoline on the last section of this rickety bridge, that there are of course alternate explanations besides an innate dislike for Jezebel. There is what we might gently term the Hulk Hogan Effect, where Clinton may quite reasonably not want to talk to a website whose parent company has such extensive and lurid legal issues. (Gawker Media was sold at auction to Univision last week. The company reportedly has a warm relationship with both Bill and Hillary Clinton.) There’s the coverage of her campaign on Gawker.com, which is similarly tough. There are the tweets that I personally have made about Clinton over the years, some of which are totally obnoxious.
Lots of possibilities here, in other words, but only one real conclusion: Hillary Clinton is ghosting on Jezebel. Even after these many months of watching it happen, I’m still sincerely a little surprised.
We’re also, as a staff, pretty disappointed. That’s because we know we would’ve asked good questions, ones that our readership wanted to hear Secretary Clinton speak on. A sampling of what we’ve been talking about internally, in these long nine months:
- Clinton’s policies on military intervention are famously hawk-like. What, in the Guardian’s words, does a “feminist foreign policy” look like? Does Clinton feel a tension between her feminism and her foreign policy stances?
- When did Clinton’s views on anti-crime legislation and same-sex marriage actually evolve? Did she feel pressure to publicly support Bill Clinton’s positions, during and after his time in office?
- In a similar vein, the Secretary had to know that rape and sexual assault allegations against Bill were going to be revived during her own run. How did her campaign prepare for that?
- It’s safe to say the Clintons have never been “dead broke,” as most people understand the term. Who does she look to to understand issues of poverty and social inequality?
- Clinton’s making a strenuous effort this time around to connect with Latino voters, which has occasionally looked like tone-deaf pandering. Did the response to the “Abuela” spot change anything about how she seeks to connect with a Latino voter base?
- Was it a given that the Clinton campaign would feel obligated to pick a white man as her VP? How much weight was given to Kaine’s personal anti-abortion views?
I sent Chalif a lengthy request for comment about this story on August 9 and have not heard back. I’ll update if I do.
Video by Melissa Murray