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«Hillary Clinton’s Race for the White House: Gender Politics and the Media on the Campaign Trail Regina G. Lawrence and Melody Rose Copyright © ...»

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Hillary Clinton’s Race

for the White House:

Gender Politics and

the Media on the

Campaign Trail

Regina G. Lawrence

and Melody Rose

Copyright © 2010

ISBNs: 978-1-58826-670-5 hc

978-1-58826-695-8 pb

1800 30th Street, Ste. 314

Boulder, CO 80301


telephone 303.444.6684

fax 303.444.0824

This excerpt was downloaded from the

Lynne Rienner Publishers website



Preface vii 1 Introduction: Gender, the Media, and Hillary Clinton 1 2 Women and Presidential Politics 21 3 The Media and the Path to the White House 47 4 Hillary Clinton in Context 73 5 Clinton’s Gender Strategy 109 6 Quantity vs. Quality of Media Coverage 145 7 A Gendered Game? 179 8 The Future Female Presidency 209 Appendix: Democratic Party Rules in 2008 235 References 241 Index 267 About the Book 277 v


Gender, the Media, and Hillary Clinton Nobody knew how to run a woman as leader of the free world.

—Gail Sheehy, Vanity Fair, August 2008 A s Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton suspended her campaign for the Democratic nomination in June 2008, bringing her historic effort to a close, CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric received an award in the name of feminist icon Alice Paul. Couric marked the occasion by observing, “However you feel about her politics, I feel that Senator Clinton received some of the most unfair, hostile coverage I’ve ever seen.” From her vantage point within broadcast news, Couric argued that Clinton’s defeat was rooted in sexism (Fishbowl.com 2008). Couric followed these remarks with a video commentary posted on the CBS News website, in which she claimed, “Like her or not, one of the great lessons of Hillary Clinton’s campaign is the continued—and accepted—sexism in American life... particularly in the media” (Couric 2008).

Couric’s perceptions were shared by a large number of feminists, Clinton supporters, and others. The Women’s Media Center, for example, posted a video “illustrating the pervasive nature of sexism in the media’s coverage” of Clinton’s campaign and an online petition campaign urging television viewers to “call on the national broadcast news outlets (CNN, FNC, MSNBC, and NBC) to stop treating women as a joke; to stop using inherently gendered language as an insult or criticism; and to ensure that women’s voices are present and accounted for in the national political dialogue” (Women’s Media Center 2008). The National Organization for Women (NOW) assembled an online “Media Hall of Shame,” a video collection of “the most outrageous moments of

2 Hillary Clinton’s Race for the White House

sexism from mainstream media’s coverage of the 2008 elections,” accompanied by a “Misogyny Meter” so viewers could rate each one (National Organization for Women 2008).

Most of Couric’s colleagues in the mainstream media denied sexist bias in their coverage of Clinton’s campaign, with varying degrees of thoughtfulness. CNN political reporter Candy Crowley claimed that while she saw some sexism in cable news commentary, she hadn’t seen it in regular broadcast news coverage. Crowley also noted that it was “hard to know if these attacks [by cable commentators] were being made because [Clinton] was a woman or because she was this woman or because, for a long time, she was the front-runner” (Seelye and Bosman 2008, emphasis added). Long-time CBS political correspondent Jeff Greenfield argued that, “Throughout this campaign, people’s perception of the press has been in line with what they wanted to happen politically.

... If my person lost, the press did a bad job” (quoted in ibid.). Taking his remarks one step further, MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann (himself a frequent target of charges of bias against Clinton), added Couric to his “worst people in the world” list, calling it outright “nonsense that Senator Clinton was a victim of pronounced sexism.”1 At the same time, some in the media wondered aloud if perceptions of media bias actually helped Clinton rather than hurt her, particularly among women voters. Some even charged the Clinton campaign with drumming up sexism talk in order to win more votes. Senior vice president of NBC News Phil Griffin, in response to questions about media sexism, charged the Clinton campaign with creating the controversy for political ends: “They were trying to rally a certain demographic, and women were behind it,” Griffin contended (Seelye and Bosman 2008).

Ultimately, our argument reflects each of these perspectives to some degree. There is little question that as Clinton’s chances of winning the nomination became increasingly remote, her campaign began to talk openly about what it saw as media sexism, and that many Clinton supporters (mostly if not exclusively women) were galvanized by what they saw as unfair treatment of Clinton by national reporters and pundits.

Unlike Griffin, though, we maintain that these perceptions were not groundless.

We seek to document in this book the variety of ways that gender stereotypes shaded coverage of Clinton’s presidential bid and perhaps wounded her campaign. Our findings lend some credence to charges against the media, particularly to the perspective expressed by Allida M.

Black, the director of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers at George Washington University, who believes that the media “compounded the


missteps” made by Clinton’s campaign (Seelye and Bosman 2008). But

we also illuminate the complexity that Crowley attempts to describe:

Much of what Senator Clinton faced from the media was driven by standard news media routines for covering presidential elections, and any effort to indentify “bias” against her must grapple with the fact that those routines have long been applied to other (male) presidential candidates. Media critics must also grapple with Clinton’s own troubled history with the US public and the press.

We also push beyond the question of media treatment of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy to the larger question concerning what her campaign can teach us about women in presidential politics. There have been so very few women on the US presidential stage that Hillary Clinton’s near-win of the Democratic primary poses a fascinating case study for testing the observations and predictions of the women and politics literature. We find many ways in which that literature was confirmed, but also many ways in which it fell short of predicting the twists and turns of the Clinton campaign—in large part because the “small n” problem of limited cases to study has left large gaps in what we know about how women presidential candidates might present themselves to and be received by the media and the public. Rather than simply explain how Clinton lost her bid for the presidency, this book is an effort to build a more complete theory of women, media, and strategy in presidential politics—an effort that begins by sketching a fuller picture of the many factors that formed the context for Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.

Understanding Clinton’s Context: Three Interlocking Variables

We contend that the story of how Senator Clinton nearly won but ultimately lost the Democratic nomination is not a simple story of media bias or sexism (terms that, we argue below, must be thoughtfully defined), though both may have played roles in her defeat. In the end, the story of her campaign must be understood in terms of three interlocking factors: the role of gender in presidential politics (and therefore the conundrum of running for a masculinized office as a woman), contemporary media norms and routines, and the individual candidate and her particular political context (see Figure 1.1). It is at the interstices of this figurative Venn diagram that Hillary Clinton waged her battle for the presidency, and these three dimensions together create the dynamics within which any woman who would be president must compete.

Considering these three sets of interlocking factors allows us to appreciHillary Clinton’s Race for the White House

–  –  –

ate both the unique institutional and personal characteristics of the 2008 nomination contest as well as more enduring forces in presidential politics and US political culture.

Gender Stereotypes and the Presidency In significant ways, deeply entrenched cultural attitudes that associate the presidency with masculinity (what scholars of women and politics refer to as “androcentrist” attitudes) indelibly and unavoidably shaped the terrain upon which Clinton forged her campaign. Deeply rooted attitudes about women’s inherent attributes collide with long-held beliefs about the US presidency. For instance, a recent study of news coverage of women presidential candidates that was published shortly before the 2008 primaries began reminds us that “the assumptions that women are emotional and men rational is part of conventional stereotyping,” according to which “natural sexual differences” include “the irrationality of women and the rationality of men” (Falk 2008, 55).2 Given the public’s presumed preference for a rational president, this stereotype and others act as a powerful barrier to would-be female presidents.

Sex stereotypes are not immutable barriers to political advancement for women. Noting the strong patterns of support for female candidates expressed in public opinion polls, Falk also argues that “actual polling about women and the presidency indicates that should a woman run for the presidency her sex is unlikely to keep her from office, even though


the press tends to cover women as losers” (Falk 2008, 158). Critics of societal and media sexism sometimes fail to note that although she ultimately fell short of gaining her party’s nomination, Hillary Clinton won more votes than any Democratic presidential contender in US history,3 and that she lost the 2008 primary by a narrow margin.

Yet Clinton’s successes do not negate the power of gender in politics. The backdrop of gender stereotypes creates for women politicians a challenging set of “double binds” in which they must simultaneously defend alternating standards of femininity and credibility in leadership (Jamieson 1995). In presidential politics in particular, these binds tighten, leaving women candidates with a narrowed range of options for how to present themselves to the public. We theorize that a fundamental task of the female presidential hopeful is to design a “gender strategy” that can navigate this troubled terrain.

Media Routines In presidential elections in particular, the media have become the central conduit connecting voters with the candidates, and media coverage is one of three essential factors (along with money and organization) that shapes the fate of presidential campaigns (Aldrich 1992; Patterson 1994). Clinton’s path toward the White House, like that of every other candidate since at least the 1960s, ran through the newsroom, and she found that path cluttered with media scripts and frames that emphasized her negatives at the expense of her positives—just as many other aspirants to the White House have discovered. In many ways, the media operated according to their own established routines for covering presidential elections, thus treating Hillary Clinton just like one of the boys.

In other more subtle respects, however, media coverage drew upon gendered stereotypes, and in some ways held Clinton to a different set of standards than her male counterparts. Thus, in running for president, Hillary Clinton experienced some (though as we will show, not all) of the media “biases” observed in research on media coverage of other women candidates in addition to virtually all of the biases experienced by most male presidential candidates—and some additional media bias owing to her own particular communicative style and troubled history with the press. The resulting negative coverage does not necessarily make the media responsible for Clinton’s loss, but it does raise questions about how different coverage might have affected the outcome of a close nomination contest. Clinton’s media treatment thus underscores the critical task faced by all presidential candidates—and, arguably, 6 Hillary Clinton’s Race for the White House female candidates in particular—of effectively shaping the news about their campaigns.

Research shows patterns of media coverage since at least the late 1960s that have undermined many presidential candidacies (not just those of women). The media’s routine “horse race” and “character” based coverage, often markedly negative in tone, was in full display in 2008, and because Hillary Clinton entered the race as the presumed front-runner she received the full brunt of this kind of coverage. While confirming these patterns, our study also illustrates unique hurdles for women who enter the presidential election arena. In particular, while scholars have bemoaned the decline of substantive, issue-oriented coverage and the predominance of horse-race coverage of presidential elections, our study shows how this coverage may be especially tough on female candidacies due to the intertwining of negative horse-race narratives with pointedly gendered themes and expectations.

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