Amy Chozick spent a decade trailing Hillary Clinton, first for the Wall Street Journal then the New York Times. She put the rest of her life on hold, filling notebook after notebook with material she expected might someday be repurposed into a memoir about her time covering the victorious election of the first female president. When Clinton failed to break the “highest, hardest glass ceiling,” Chozick took her own proverbial walk in the woods (i.e. book leave) to reflect on those years, and the degree to which she played a role in Clinton’s loss.
Rolling Stone spoke with Chozick, who is on maternity leave from the Times after the birth of her son, Cormac, about her book and the characteristically strong reaction its already provoked, from the Clinton camp and elsewhere.
You spend a considerable amount of time reflecting on the impact of the stories you wrote for the Times after John Podesta’s emails were leaked, as we now know, by the Russian government. Jack Shafer at Politico wrote a piece dismissing your concerns, titled, “No, Amy Chozick, You’re Not a Russian Agent.”
I saw another headline saying, “Dear Amy Chozick, Stop Apologizing” — that must have been the tweet. “Amy Chozick, Stop Apologizing” sounded a lot like, you know, “Hey, smile.”
So patronizing! His argument is basically that that Times did nothing wrong. Your thoughts?
The point of that chapter wasn’t [to say] We made the wrong decision publishing those emails and I’m so regretful. It was: Wow! Know we know that the media did exactly what a foreign adversary who wanted to interfere in our democracy and get Donald Trump elected wanted us to do. Now that we have that information – and that information should send a shudder through any journalist – what should we do with it? We should have discussions about how we cover those hacked emails moving forward, because everyone expects these things to happen again in 2018 and 2020. I’m glad it sparked a conversation and debate – that’s what I was hoping.
For all the talk about Russian interference and collusion, [we should] recognize our role in the dissemination of the information and how we responsibly handle these things moving forward. My colleagues in D.C. wrote the great story about how the Russians had pulled off the perfect hack, and they said a big part of that was turning every media organization, including the Times, into a de facto arm of the Russian intelligence. Once I read that and we had that data point, it made me really uncomfortable. What do you do? What do you do knowing that?
What do you do? How should the Times have handled it?
[I think we need to ask ourselves:] What do voters or readers really need to know about these, can we confirm that they’re accurate, contextualize them. Can we be as transparent as possible about the source? Because sources usually have agendas – almost always have some motivation – and can we be pretty clear about documents that have been not even “obtained,” but stolen and released? I think we can be concerned about sourcing and confirm what’s really newsworthy versus just what’s salacious. There’s something in between juicy, salacious clickbait and ignoring the whole trove.
The book starts off with a lengthy note about how it was put together, highlighting the fact that you hired an independent fact-checker. Were you anticipating a fair amount of pushback?
Of course. You can’t write a book about a subject as contentious as Hillary Clinton and the 2016 campaign and not anticipate some amount of blowback. And if you look at other books about Hillary Clinton that were not authorized, they’ve all encountered significant blowback. Some of them were pre-Twitter, but there have been 20 years of books that have confronted efforts to try to kill them.
Chelsea Clinton, in particular, has taken issue with the fact that she wasn’t contacted during the fact-checking process. She seized on one detail, declaring on Twitter that she’s never had a Keratin treatment. I thought that was interesting because it’s a jokey aside in the book, and one that comes in the broader context of the fact that you identified personally with Chelsea.
I have a lot of respect for Chelsea, I’ve interviewed her, I’ve traveled with her. In the book, I say that [when I was growing up in Texas] we were the same age, we had the same hair, that I identified with her.
She complained that neither she nor her office were contacted to check details in the book.
All I can say is that I’m very well-sourced. I checked all of my facts. I also had a fact-checker check all of them and I can’t get into a big Twitter war with a celebrity who has 3 million followers. I don’t think that is the most productive way to go through some of her concerns. I’m not going to discuss my sourcing and exactly who told me what and who was reached, but we talked to sufficient people in that we were confident in our reporting.
That dust-up seemed emblematic of this specific dynamic you describe in the book: you identifying, even sympathizing, with the Clintons, and them feeling very attacked by you. Did Chelsea’s response strike you as ironic?
Ironic and expected. The reaction completely reinforces all of the themes in the book. I would also just say that it’s really interesting to me that the debate over Keratin has eclipsed some of the other very-much confirmed details in the book, like Hillary’s closest male aides and some of the things they said to me.
You write about one particular exchange with a male press aide: there’s a quote the Clinton camp doesn’t want in the story, and you tell the aide [since identified as Philippe Reines] it wasn’t off the record, and he responds, “I didn’t know I had to say it was off the record when I was inside you.” It’s a movie reference, but my mouth dropped open when I read that…
I will just say – and you’re a female reporter so you’ll understand – yeah, it bothered me but it wasn’t that I thought it was so outrageous. I just thought this is reporting-while-female, you know? And as soon as I got off that phone call I told colleagues and friends, Ew, he just said this thing that was really gross.
You don’t say whether or not you ended up using the disputed details, though.
No – it didn’t intimidate me out of using those details.
Hillary’s press team was all men, the press corps was all women, and that incident – while particularly disgusting – is representative of the dynamic between them. You write that you believe Hillary “liked” that her press team acted that way. Why do you think she let her staff treat you and the other female reporters like that?
This is the first woman with a real shot at the presidency, first time she had a predominantly female press corps, and that brought a lot of historic moments, like seeing a woman on the general election debate stage really kind of clean house. There were these moments where you’re thinking: This is history. And then there were all of these moments where you’re like: This is the same old boys’ club bullshit that we’ve seen in politics for decades. It’s not like because a woman is about to become president, Oh, Kumbaya, and everyone around her equal opportunity and embraces their feminist side – no.
The other thing I would say about the men around Hillary who have questionable behavior is: isn’t that what happens when women reach a certain level? If anything this last year and a half has shown us that when women reach a certain level you’re often surrounded by men – really badly behaving men.
Is there something particular to Hillary Clinton, though, that she’s surrounded by all these awful men? Ronan Farrow, for instance, recently said she tried to cancel an interview after she learned he was reporting on Harvey Weinstein.
I certainly don’t blame her for the bad-behaving men around her, but I do think there was a fascinating swirl of these alleged sexual abusers. Here was Hillary Clinton, married to an alleged sexual abuser, trying to defeat an alleged sexual abuser – and then with the Anthony Weiner email story prompted the Comey letter and all that – could lose because of this alleged sexual abuser. It was really something. I don’t blame Hillary that one of her donors was Harvey Weinstein, but Trump really took advantage of all of that: the way he used Bill Clinton as a human shield when the Access Hollywood tape hit. His first statement was ‘Bill Clinton said far worse to me,’ and he trotted out Bill Clinton’s accusers, which frankly at the time I really thought would help Hillary – I really thought it would earn her sympathy. How could any woman watch that and watch what he’s putting her through and not think Trump is relentlessly bullying this poor woman whose already been through a lot in her marriage?
The question isn’t “Should Hillary be held responsible for Weinstein’s crimes because she cashed his checks?” The question is: “Should she be held responsible for withholding access to a reporter because he was working to expose Weinstein’s crimes?” That’s a specific decision. She made decisions – when stayed with Bill and counseled Huma Abedin, who ultimately stayed with Anthony Weiner – to excuse certain behavior. I wonder if you think she bears some kind of responsibility for that?
I don’t think so; I wouldn’t put the responsibility on her. What you’re telling me about her canceling or not doing the interview with Ronan, that to me just speaks to the sensitivity, the controllingness – I don’t know what exchange was like, but I think if Hillary declined to do an interview it would be out of an abundance of caution.
You write about how more closed off she was in 2016, compared to when you covered her in 2008. Do you think it would have benefitted her to be more open with the press, or would that openness have just come back to bite her in the ass?
I don’t know. She probably would say the latter. I do think she was a little damned if you do, damned if you don’t. When she would have a political gaffe – the biggest of which was the ‘deplorables,’ right? – she had to apologize, recover for that, [even though] it’s just Hillary saying what she really thought, you know? We’ve been hammering her for years: Tell us what you really think, stop poll-testing everything, and just be an authentic person. And then she has these authentic moments and she gets absolutely crucified.
All her friends, and I know a lot of them, going back to college roommates and her debate teammates from Park Ridge High School: If only the country could see the Hillary we saw! She’s so funny; she’s so wacky. She’s sarcastic. Well, the media is the conduit to the people, whether candidates like it or not, and if we don’t ever see that side of her, how do we communicate it? And I tried – really hard – by talking to people from all chapters of her life, by digging through archival letters in Arkansas and White House documents and trying to get a portrait of that real Hillary, but it’s really hard because if you don’t see it how do you communicate it?
Do you think you’ll ever see it? Like, sit down and have a candid conversation with her – on or off the record?
I don’t, to be honest.