One of Hillary Clinton’s first sitdown interviews since the Democratic National Convention was conducted by a self-described supporter who has been hired by the campaign to host the Democratic nominee’s official campaign podcast.
“With Her,” which launched on iTunes Friday morning, promises an inside account “straight from Hillary [of] what life is like on the campaign trail.” The series is being produced by the campaign and hosted by Max Linsky, a founding editor of Longform.org and a co-host of the well-respected Longform podcast. The debut episode features Linsky’s 15-minute interview with the nominee.
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The result is a casual conversation that steers clear of politics — and it’s the latest example of how Clinton is trying to control her storyline. She has been criticized for limiting press access by not participating in press conferences and being slow to grant reporters the level of access that has become common and expected of candidates vying for the Oval Office.
Now, she has gone a step further, creating a safe space from which to present the image of herself that she wants voters to see.
“You can call me whatever you want to call me,” a relaxed-sounding Clinton tells Linsky. “You can call me Hillary, you can call me Madam Secretary. You can call me, ‘hey you.’” (He settles for “Hillary.”)
With 87 days to go to until the election, Donald Trump’s name does not come up once in the conversation. Nor is there any discussion of new emails that have once again raised questions about the relationship between the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton-lead State Department.
Instead, Linsky appears more interested in getting Clinton to discuss the emotional and human experience of running for president. He asks her what was going through her mind after hugging her daughter on stage at the convention (spoiler alert: “such a rush of emotion”), how she keeps up her stamina, how she stays engaged with the people she’s meeting and what she thinks about before she goes to bed.
Clinton chats about the iPhone ringtone she employs as an alarm clock, Facetiming with her grandchildren, and how she plans to end a day of campaigning in Miami with a meal of Cuban food and locally brewed beers.
But getting new and specific details about life on the campaign trail can prove difficult with a guarded and practiced interviewee. “I usually get up, get dressed, get out the door,” Clinton explains of her morning routine. “I get a big briefing in my phone and a paper version and I go through that. There’s a regular routine for every day.”
Linsky, a well-respected podcast host, told POLITICO that he was given no specific ground rules for his interview with Clinton. But his access to the candidate comes from being on the campaign’s official payroll.
“She’s taking a page from President Obama’s playbook — using in-house videos, blogs, photographs, etc. — to tightly control his message,” said Democratic strategist Lis Smith, a former top adviser to onetime presidential candidate Martin O’Malley. “Where she deviates — and where it should be troubling for the press and public — is that she has massive trust issues that could be addressed with more transparency, and she refuses to hold press conferences.”
The new podcast is not the only way the campaign is trying to tell its own story by seeming to attempt an end-run around the reporters who cover it.
For months, the campaign has been relying on its in-house videographer, Julie Zuckerbrod, to film closed-to-the-press meetings and personal moments Clinton and other top campaign officials share with supporters and staff. The most flattering moments are often turned into slick web videos and ads released by the campaign, rather than reported on by the press.
In an interview, Linsky made it clear that he doesn’t consider his unique access to the candidate and the campaign a substitute for objective coverage of her campaign.“It’s not journalism,” Linsky said in an interview. “It’s a different thing, which doesn’t mean it’s not interesting, or true. But it’s a different mechanism and it’s newly important to make that distinction.”
Linsky — who with his business partner Jenna Weiss-Berman co-founded the podcast production company Pineapple Street Media earlier this year — delivers a disclaimer at the top of his interview: “I’m not a journalist, and I’m not impartial. I’m a small business owner, a huge supporter of Secretary Clinton’s, and I’m thrilled her campaign is having me do this.”
He said it was important to him for listeners to understand exactly what they were getting. “It’s being produced by the campaign,” he said. “I didn’t want there to be any confusion about what we were doing.”
Clinton has participated in some independent podcasts interviews, as well. She recently sat down for an extended interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein, and last April, she was a guest on POLITICO’s own “Off Message” podcast. Since the convention, Clinton also sat for an interview with Chris Wallace on the adversarial Fox News.
Her in-house podcast project has been months in the making and is being overseen by Katie Dowd, the campaign’s digital director. The campaign, Linsky said, has been interested in launching its own podcast since Clinton was a guest on BuzzFeed’s popular “Another Round” podcast in October, 2015. That interview provided her with a funny, conversational platform that showed off a looser side of Clinton, and led to original insights, like the admission that Clinton doesn’t physically produce any sweat.
Weiss-Berman, Linsky’s business partner, at the time produced the audio for BuzzFeed’s podcasts and stayed in touch with the campaign.
After starting their own podcast company, Weiss-Berman “came to the campaign with the idea,” said Linsky. “They’d been saying they want to do a podcast. She raised the idea of doing a campaign journal, and to give a 360-degree view of a presidential campaign. That was what they were into, too. They thought of podcast listeners as an audience writ-large that they’d like to meet. It’s a group of people they’re trying to reach.” It’s also another vehicle to collect voter information. At the end of the broadcast, Clinton tells listeners to text “podcast” to her campaign number, where their information can then be collected for future updates from the campaign.
A campaign official said that the podcast “will come out periodically to show the unexpected and excited nature of campaign life. It will highlight Hillary Clinton and her campaign staff’s experiences and stories from the campaign trail.” The campaign did not respond to requests for comment about whether that would come in lieu of interviews with independent news outlets.
Linsky hasn’t taped his second episode yet, but promised that listeners will hear “from all facets of the campaign, other big names. But we’d also love to talk to someone in the field, and try and get all the way up and down the campaign.”
Linsky and Weiss-Berman are being paid by the campaign, but Linsky said his interview was not substantively edited after the recording earlier this week in Miami. And even if it’s not journalism, Linsky said he’s just asking the questions he’s personally interested in learning about. “What we’re trying to do is provide this window into the campaign and focus on how it feels,” he said. “That’s what I’m interested in.”