In 'Chasing Hillary,' Reporter Chronicles A Decade Spent Covering Hillary Clinton

Apr 21, 2018
Originally published on April 21, 2018 5:24 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you turned on any television - any radio at all this week, you probably encountered former FBI Director James Comey talking about his new book. It's his personal account of his firing by President Trump, the FBI's handling of Russian interference in the 2016 election and his decision to reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails just 11 days before Election Day. It's been riveting and headline-making, but it is not the only perspective about what went down in the fall of 2016. New York Times reporter Amy Chozick spent a decade covering Hillary Clinton, and her new book comes out on Tuesday. It is called "Chasing Hillary: Ten Years, Two Presidential Campaigns, And One Intact Glass Ceiling." It is a personal, reflective and often funny memoir about her time covering Hillary Clinton during both her presidential runs, and Amy Chozick is with us now from our NPR bureau in New York.

Thank you so much for coming in.

AMY CHOZICK: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Let me just start with the subject of the day and - you have a story in this book about being squished in between other members of the press at the U.N. press conference where Hillary Clinton first publicly addressed the investigation into her private email server and you say, candidly, in my view, that, initially, you did not think it was such a big deal. So when did you first get the sense that this would be a big story, that this wasn't going to just go away?

CHOZICK: Right. Well, the U.N. press conference was the first sort of sign that I thought, oh, my god. This is sort of unlike any other scandal I'd covered. Because I covered 2008, and you remember Sarah Palin. Bristol Palin had an illegitimate child, and there was Obama and Reverend Wright, and those scandals were largely, sort of, driven by political enemies. But the email scandal just, sort of, engulfed everything, and I think I had, naively, underestimated the kind of the machine at work behind the Clintons, both in terms of how these things fueled right-wing media, but also the - you know, the mainstream media, and how we all became just absolutely transfixed by this story.

MARTIN: The country has heard a lot from James Comey over the past week, as I said earlier. Is there anything in his book or that he's been saying that strikes you from the perspective of having been very immersed in Hillary Clinton's point of view over - in that same time frame - is there anything that strikes you about what he's been saying?

CHOZICK: Yeah. I mean, he's a fascinating figure, and I think he's not a villain or a hero. He's just in between. And I think that is even more so with Hillary Clinton and her circle. I mean, they really kind of don't know what to make of him. Right now, it's - the sense is, well, good. He's calling out Trump, and that's good for the country, and they - you know, they are glad to see that criticism coming from someone of his stature. But at the same time - I mean, they will say - and Jennifer Palmieri, who was Hillary's communications director just wrote in Politico that she believes Hillary lost because of the letter that James Comey sent to Congress 11 days before the election.

I mean, there has been a lot of data showing that she was leading in the polls - so much so that she was - I remember when the - when Comey sent the letter to Congress, that the campaign was on its way or it had just said that it was going to Arizona, which had gone red in 12 of the past 13 presidential elections but that Hillary's campaign believed they could turn. And it was fortuitous that when they said, oh, we're going to Arizona. We feel so confidently that we can turn Arizona, that's when Comey sent his letter, and then, of course, 11 days later, the election was a lot closer than they had thought it would be.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the Russian hacking. You know, you have some very pointed things to say about the media's role and the New York Times' role and your role in covering the hacked emails. I mean - in fact, you have a whole chapter on this - "How I Became An Unwitting Agent Of Russian Intelligence." It's a - and...

CHOZICK: Ouch.

MARTIN: Well, yeah. And you're very clear about this, but just as briefly as you can, you know, how did you become an unwitting agent of Russian intelligence?

CHOZICK: Yeah. What - this is the one thing - I know that Hillary Clinton supporters are vehement about the media's mishandling of her private emails. But to me, what kept me up at night was the idea that we in the media had done exactly what the Russians had wanted us to do, which was cover these stolen emails that were released by WikiLeaks. And I am conflicted because they were out there. You know, we confirmed that they were accurate and contextualized them, but I know that it hasn't sat well with me that the media kind of did exactly what Russian intelligence wanted us to do.

MARTIN: You felt, what? - that looking at these hacked emails was essentially looking at stolen material?

CHOZICK: I did. I did feel that way after the fact. I mean, I thought a lot about whether these campaign documents had been in a file cabinet in Brooklyn and someone had broken into the file cabinet and dumped them on our desks, would we have rushed to cover them the way we did? And I think the digital era is causing - it should cause newsrooms to reflect on how we covered those emails and, kind of, how we do it moving forward because I think that these hacks are going to continue to happen.

MARTIN: But you didn't, at the time, raise it with your colleagues or your editors. Why do you think that is?

CHOZICK: No, I didn't. I mean, I feel like we were in the swirl of breaking news. For one, we didn't know the extent of Russian involvement then. We had heard that the Russians had been behind the hack on the DNC's emails, but hadn't heard definitively that they were the ones behind Podesta's emails right when those landed. And so I don't think we - I don't think we comprehended how much the Russians were involved behind this. You know, that was the same day the Access Hollywood video hit, and there was just a swirl of deadlines and breaking news, and everybody's putting them up there and we got to get it out.

MARTIN: The book also outlines a number of missteps that - in your view, that the campaign made - I mean, just to be fair. For example, you document how Hillary Clinton really avoided interacting with the press. And thus she absolutely had to. And you have one story in which reporters grew so desperate to hear from her that they wrote a question on a clementine and rolled it down the aisle of the campaign plane to reach her. I mean - here it is - the glamorous world of campaign reporting. Wow, you know? But...

CHOZICK: Exactly. The best part was when her press aide came back and told us the clementine had been off the record and they never said that we could use the clementine. So yes, that pretty much encapsulated the girls on the bus and the access that we had. One, kind of, thing that I write in the book - call it bad luck or a slap in the face from the patriarchy, but by the time the press corps was predominantly female, we had Twitter and livestreaming and it sort of made the job of traveling with the candidate even more thankless. You could sort of do it from your desk, so - and it - which meant that the candidate gave us far less access than, you know, your days when the candidate would come back and schmooze with their press corps, and so it was sort of both striking progress that the press corps was female and also this, kind of, slap in the face that we were, kind of, less necessary in campaign coverage than previous years.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, how do you want us to think about the 2016 election. I mean, the fact that we're still talking about it more than a year later, what do - what should we think about that? What should we think about the 2016 election? Is it ever actually going to be over?

CHOZICK: I mean, I kind of hope not. I mean, not in that the country shouldn't move on. We should. And people have said, oh, I don't want to relive that. But I think that we have to. I think 2016 was a barometer of the mood of the country, and I think a lot of us were shocked by that mood. We were shocked by the anger over economic inequality. We were shocked by the misogyny that we heard. We were shocked by a lot of things, and I think the more we can dig into that and understand that and the more perspectives we can get on that, the more we can understand how we got where we are.

MARTIN: That's Amy Chozick, the lead reporter for The New York Times covering Hillary Clinton. Her memoir, "Chasing Hillary," comes out on Tuesday.

Amy Chozick, Thanks so much for speaking with us.

CHOZICK: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.