The other night, Hillary Clinton took questions from Twitter users, live on YouTube. The live stream was, well, excruciatingly boring: She's selling a book, not saying much of anything. Understandably, the live YouTube audience for this numbered, at one check-in, 550 people — which includes the dozens of reporters and opposition researchers whose job it is to suffer through this stuff. Two days later the video has had fewer than 5,000 views.
Hillary Clinton is the presumptive Democratic nominee, and fairly likely the next president. Generations of reporters, mine included, have covered the Clinton epic and are fascinated by her power and her plans. But there is a deep misunderstanding among the public, and in particular among Republicans, about why the media covers her, and why some of the best reporters in the country are on the Clinton beat. They think we're doing it for the traffic.
The savvy former Romney aide Kevin Madden is among the leading spokesmen for this theory of the "Clinton industrial news complex," which he claims is "news media that know stories about Clinton draw readers and viewers."
Nope. Here is the truth: We cover Clinton because she's a great story, and an important one. Traffic to Clinton stories is nothing special. Readers will always engage great scoops and gorgeously written narratives, but the Clinton name doesn't do much to improve it. We published a fun and well-executed list post on the "Secretary of Sass" on Thursday morning; so far it's drawn about 10,000 readers from Facebook, 800 from Twitter, according to our internal analytics. Not exactly burning up the social web. (Madden had an alternate theory when confronted with the gap between his claim and the traffic: "That's the thing about industrial complexes. They just churn on.")
There is only one place, in fact, where Clinton is truly viral: On the right, and there, primarily in the fever swamps of the internet's deliriously far right. Over on the site BuzzSumo (no relation!), which tracks sharing on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks, for instance, the only two posts getting substantial sharing as I write this Thursday are on the disaster at an American consulate in Libya in 2012. The top one is from the little-known Conservative Tribune, headlined, "Conservative Lawyer: Hillary Clinton Committed Crimes at Benghazi."
This is hardly a blip. The same site's tracker over the last six months shows that the most shared Clinton page, by far, is the Republican Party's "Stop Hillary Now" campaign. The closest thing on the list to neutral coverage is in 16th place, a Politico piece headlined, "Dem base: Fine with Hillary Clinton, pining for Elizabeth Warren."
Even when posts from liberal outlets are widely shared, they're more often than not critical, like this Huffington Post blog demanding that Clinton "STOP NOW. Stop cozying up to the banks, to the chemical companies, to the military-industrial complex, to the party machine, and to all the various financiers who make up the plutocracy now ruining this country."
Clinton's book sales, similarly, suggest a modest level of interest. Despite a level of hype and access to the media — CNN, Facebook, and Twitter town halls — that virtually no other author could dream of, the book isn't selling particularly well. Nielsen's BookScan, which accounts for about 85% of publishing sales, reported in its newest figures, out Wednesday, that Hard Choices has slipped to 23rd place among fiction and nonfiction hardcovers in its sixth week on the list, selling 10,450 copies this week for a respectable but uninspiring total of 201,464 books. Ed Klein's ludicrous smear of Clinton, meanwhile, is 10th on the list after four weeks.
All this data suggests that Clinton still hasn't unlocked the only thing that could really turn a campaign into a movement, and make her a figure of the future and not just the past: authentic excitement among American women at her historic candidacy. There have been blips of real, viral enthusiasm — Texts From Hillary is the best I know. And this too could surely come. Indeed, I expect it to come. But for all the ersatz hashtags pushed by would-be grassroots support groups, it sure hasn't happened yet.
But the data also suggests that perhaps Clinton shouldn't rely on inspiration for her candidacy. There is, after all, another way to win. Perhaps she can't run a campaign modeled on the Obama 2008 movement. The alternative is Obama 2012 — a boring, grinding affair that sold a nascent economic recovery, scorched the Republican, and plodded to the White House.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at email@example.com.
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