Earlier this year, Hillary Clinton had inspired her critics to keep a running tally of how many days she went without answering questions from journalists. Intent on controlling the message she sends to voters, Clinton is very sensitive to the fact that her interactions with journalists always have the potential to go downhill rapidly at the first sign of embarrassing questions about missing emails from her term as Secretary of State or about the Clinton Foundation’s fundraising.
On Monday, though, Clinton may have discovered the perfect venue for a press conference: Facebook. The former First Lady, senator, and Secretary of State announced her first Facebook Q&A Monday, and was promptly deluged with questions.
However, unlike a real press conference where once a reporter is called on the candidate has no option but to cope with the question – and sometimes impertinent, shouted follow-ups – a Q&A on Facebook gives the candidate the option of simply ignoring them. And Clinton ignored plenty on Monday.
BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski asked, “Why didn’t you list Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization?”
Justin Green of IJ Review asked about the war in Syria, while Andrew Stiles of the Washington Free Beacon asked about New York Mayor Bill Di Blasio’s policy regarding the car service Uber.
And of course the nature of Facebook is such that some folks who would not get into a normal press conference were able to get their licks in as well.
Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist popped up in the feed of questions, citing statistics about the federal income tax burden and wanting to know, “Why do you want to raise taxes even higher?”
Judicial Watch, the conservative activist group that has been hounding the Clintons since Bill Clinton’s first term as president, demanded, “Why didn't you tell the truth to the American People about your secret email accounts as Secretary of State? When will you release all of your hidden emails and turn over your email server?”
However, the default setting on Facebook’s Q&A’s is to put the most “relevant” exchanges at the top and it appears to define relevance as, mainly, “questions that got answered.” So Norquist, Judicial Watch, and many others saw their questions pushed further and further down the page as Clinton answered the questions she felt like answering and ignored the rest. (This makes the Facebook model of online Q&A considerably preferable to Twitter, where the presentation is more chronological.)
She did take the opportunity to answer some questions, though, and many were from actual journalists. Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery asked her about her decision not to speak at the Netroots Nation gathering over the weekend, where her two primary opponents for the Democratic nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, were practically chased off the stage by activists from the group Black Lives Matter.
Neither O’Malley nor Sanders covered himself in glory at the gathering, and Clinton took the opportunity to make a lengthy statement that with the benefit of hindsight hit the notes her competitors had missed. “Black lives matter. Everyone in this country should stand firmly behind that. We need to acknowledge some hard truths about race and justice in this country, and one of those hard truths is that that racial inequality is not merely a symptom of economic inequality. Black people across America still experience racism every day.”
Dan Merica of CNN asked about her changing position on taxing capital gains and Clinton explained that her view had changed because of what she described as “the increase in short-term thinking in the private sector.”
Alexander Howard of the Huffington Post asked about the particular challenges posed by the “gig” economy and automation.
“[W]e have to resolve these questions while embracing the promise and potential of these new technologies and without stifling innovation or limiting the ability of working moms and veterans and young people to get ahead,” Clinton said in part of a longer answer.
She touched on some other substantive topics, including immigration reform. But Clinton also spent time on topics that would probably never come up in a normal press conference – her favorite pantsuit, hre feelings about being a grandmother, and her admiration for Nelson Mandela.
The ability to engage only when she wants to and the ease of pushing unwelcome queries quickly out of view may prove attractive to Clinton in the future. Campaign reporters won’t like it, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see more and more of Clinton’s engagement with the media taking place under similarly controlled circumstances.