Estimated Word Count: 4757 words Keywords: Feeding Frenzy, Responsibility Frenzy, Hillary Clinton, Senate campaigns "Responsibility Frenzies in News Coverage:
The Case of the Hillary Clinton Lesbian Rumor"
Little attention has been paid to cases where news media cover political controversies in sensible and responsible manner. Unlike "feeding frenzies" which have been well-documented, there has been almost no serious examinations of cases where reporters engage in "responsibility frenzies". In this paper, I discuss a case of one such responsibility frenzy, rumors during Hillary Clinton's 2000 U.S. Senate campaign that she was a lesbian. Using interviews, personal observation, and news accounts, I explain how the press avoided irresponsible coverage and engaged in enlightened self-restraint. While responsibility frenzies admittedly are much more rare than feeding frenzies, it is important to understand the dynamics of the former and the factors that lead the press to act responsibly.
It has become a truism that contemporary news organizations suffer from "feeding frenzies". According to the common complaint, news outlets pile onto big stories and subject the object of the coverage to excessive and outlandish reporting. In the process, these frenzies generate citizen cynicism, are biased and unfair toward particular politicians, and encourage personalistic rather than policy-oriented coverage. Contemporary examples include President Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky and Representative Gary Condit's relationship with intern Chandra Levy.
However, little attention has been paid to a conceptual counterpart in news coverage, that which I call "responsibility frenzies". These are situations where the press runs counter to the style of coverage described above and covers the news in ways that appear more conscientious and serious. Responsibility frenzies can occur through reporting the news in a dignified manner, refusing to convey information that might threaten national security, or refraining from covering salacious or tawdry issues.
War-time coverage is an example of a responsibility frenzy in the national security area. In these cases, reporters often fail to report troop movements or military strategies when such news would threaten troop lives or endanger national security. As a historical illustration, some reporters were aware of the "Bay of Pigs" plan to invade Cuba, but did not share that information with the general public.
Responsibility frenzies sometimes erupt in the domestic arena when personal charges are made that appear unsubstantiated or overtly partisan or when the allegation about someone's personal life appears unrelated to official duties. For example, during the 1996 presidential election, most press outlets did not publicize evidence of GOP candidate Robert Dole's adultery from his first marriage because it was an infidelity that had occurred decades earlier and did not seem relevant to his future presidential conduct.
Although admittedly more rare than feeding frenzies, responsibility outbursts do take place occasionally, and they shed some light on the dynamics of contemporary press coverage. In this paper, I present a case study of one such responsibility frenzy, rumors during Senator Hillary Clinton's 2000 campaign that she was a lesbian. Based on interviews, personal observation, and news accounts, I explain how the press avoided irresponsible coverage and engaged in enlightened self-restraint.
Feeding versus Responsibility Frenzies
There is no doubt that the American news media have undergone major changes over the past few decades. Titles of leading books outline the transformation: Out of Order by Thomas Patterson (1993), The Spiral of Cynicism by Joseph Cappella and Kathleen Hall Jamieson (1997), and Feeding Frenzy by Larry Sabato (1991). Among other things, these books review a litany of news media pathologies that have altered press coverage and undermined our nation's capacity for democratic governance.
According to the media observers, structural changes in the news business have unleashed a hyper-competitiveness that has transformed news coverage and ushered in junkyard news tactics (West, 2000). For example, Patterson details how news media schemas emphasize strategy and "the game" over governing. Instead of paying attention to issues that matter to the lives of ordinary Americans, press coverage focuses on sensational and personalistic accounts.
In a similar vein, Cappella and Jamieson argue that by questioning motives and highlighting personal behavior, journalists frame the news in a cynical direction and create even more citizen doubts than otherwise would be the case. Such cynicism spreads like a virus throughout the political system, to the detriment of democratic governance.
Sabato, the originator of the feeding frenzy concept, presents detailed case studies demonstrating how the press highlights sex scandals, drinking problems, and financial conflicts of interest and covers the news in irresponsible ways. Using episodes such as the supposed mental problems of 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, Dan Quayle's less than stellar academic record, and Geraldine Ferraro's family finances, Sabato argues that the press often acts like sharks surrounding a helpless prey. Specifically, he defines a feeding frenzy as "the press coverage attending any political event or circumstance where a critical mass of journalists leap to cover the same embarrassing or scandalous subject and pursue it intensely, often excessively, and sometimes uncontrollably" (Sabato, 1991, p. 6).
According to critics such as Sabato (1991) and Fallows (1996), contemporary press coverage creates enormous problems for American democracy. For example, excessive focus on personal character drains substance out of the coverage. It leads to unfairness in the type of coverage because politicians with otherwise good governing records have been forced out of the political process due to saturation negative coverage. Such media episodes engender extensive cynicism on the part of the general public, who think based on contemporary press coverage that politicians are scoundrels and bums.
Despite the weight of evidence in favor of feeding frenzies, however, there has been little attention to a contrary phenomenon, that of responsibility frenzies. These are situations where in the face of a possible scandal or news development, journalists refrain from covering the episode and instead act in a sensible way to quash a story they do not view as newsworthy. In his book, Sabato (1991, p. 188ff) alludes to examples of "frenzies delayed and denied", meaning potential controversies that were not covered or where the mainstream press initially did not cover the event. Homosexual leanings, Sabato says, often are not reported because journalists do not want to turn this type of private behavior into a political issue.
There are several reasons why the press would choose not to cover an embarrassing situation. The source making a charge might lack sufficient credibility, which provides a basis for non-coverage. The accuser may be seen in purely partisan terms, which leads the press not to report the charge. Charges themselves might lack adequate substantiation such that reporters believe they should not be made public. Finally, in highly charged political situations, reporters themselves may fear a backlash from angry politicians and upset voters, and these concerns lead them to quash a potentially juicy story.
Given the fact that responsibility frenzies have been the object of so little attention, it is important to investigate these kind of episodes and thereby focus on exceptions to the overall pattern of press coverage. The hope is that by looking at exceptional situations where the press engages in self-restraint, it will shed light on the dynamics of press coverage and the factors affecting how reporters decide what is newsworthy.
The Hillary Clinton Lesbian Rumors
In 2000, First Lady Hillary Clinton made history by becoming the only presidential spouse to seek elective office in her own right, in this case a U.S. Senate seat from New York. As someone who had passionate supporters and opponents, this announcement generated a range of strong emotions from people interested in keeping her from gaining elective office. Political opponents who long had been hostile to Bill and Hillary Clinton feared that she would become a major power in the U.S. Senate and might even use that platform to run for president one day.
The period during the Clinton presidency did nothing to cool this ardor. The couple was plagued with many investigations and scandals on everything from a failed real estate investment in Whitewater and the first lady's role in firing White House travel officials to campaign finance controversies and President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky and subsequent House impeachment.
When news surfaced that Hillary Clinton was planning a Senate bid, conservatives marshaled their forces and helped Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani (and then his successor Rick Lazio) raise millions of dollars. Conservative groups were especially fearful over the first lady's plans because they knew she would be a formidable spokesperson for causes they strongly opposed.
In that situation, it was no surprise that groups mobilized to undertake a wide variety of opposition efforts. One group that acutely disliked the prospects of a Clinton candidacy was the Christian Action Network. This advocacy group based in Forest, Virginia was upset over what it saw as growing rights for homosexuals in America. Aware that many gay rights groups were supporting the First Lady, CAN undertook a mission of embarrassing and defeating Mrs. Clinton. The specific vehicle it used was a rumor that Hillary Clinton was a lesbian. Hoping that the news media in the middle of the most visible Senate race in America would latch onto this story and create a feeding frenzy that would damage her political prospects, CAN actively pushed this rumor, held a press conference, and produced a television spot on the lesbian rumor. Although few stories were generated by these efforts, in the end most of the news media ignored this accusation and did not report the story. Instead, reporters quashed the accusations, and Mrs. Clinton went on to win a historical victory.
The CAN Strategy
CAN long had engaged in a political vendetta against Bill and Hillary Clinton. Dating back to the 1992 presidential campaign, CAN had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars broadcasting an ad, "Clinton's Vision for a Better America" over 250 times in 24 major cities that attacked him for supporting homosexual rights, such as adopting children, serving in the military, and requiring job quotas for gay people. The ad interspersed policy stances of Clinton and Gore with pictures of young men from a gay pride parade wearing chains and leather. It closed with the question, "Is this your vision for a better America?" and gave an address where viewers could write for more information about the Christian Action Network.
Because the group did not file as an electoral advocacy group with the Federal Election Commission, its 1992 activities became the object of a court test when the FEC sued the group for engaging in electoral advocacy without having filed as a political action committee and making required financial disclosures (I was an expert witness for the FEC in this case). CAN ultimately won this legal battle when a federal judge dismissed the FEC lawsuit and the legal path was cleared for groups all across America (such as the Sierra Club, labor organizations, Americans for Term Limits, and abortion organizations) to run ads against specific candidates without having to disclose contributions and expenditures as required of other individuals and groups seeking to influence voters.
Given its clear hostility to the policy views of Bill and Hillary Clinton, CAN choose to engage in tactics designed to undermine public support for the First Lady. On September 7, 2000, CAN called a press conference in New York where it raised the rumor that Mrs. Clinton was a lesbian and previewed the following television ad it said it planned to broadcast on New York stations:
It is rumored that Hillary Clinton is a lesbian. It is rumored that Hillary Clinton supports homosexual marriage. It is rumored that Hillary Clinton will leave her husband upon taking office. It was rumored that Bill Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky. Sometimes rumors are true. Shouldn't you know the truth? For more information on traditional family values, please contact the Christian Action Network. (text interspersed with file video of Hillary speaking at a podium and Bill wagging his finger denying the Lewinsky affair; ad closes with CAN address)
According to reporters who attended the press conference, CAN officials made it clear that its organization was not accusing Mrs. Clinton of being a lesbian. It only was suggesting that these rumors were part of what was being said about the First Lady and that New York voters deserved to know the truth given the importance of this policy issue for Mrs. Clinton's performance as a Senator.
According to group leaders, the strategy behind calling the September press conference was to focus attention on an issue it felt deserved press scrutiny. "The media were not asking the right question. With Giuliani, there were rumors of personal affairs, but they never looked at that with Mrs. Clinton," said Phillip Vaught, CAN executive director. "Our goal was to let the public know we were not afraid to ask the questions that have been asked of other candidates" (personal interview). The larger hope, though, was that a media feeding frenzy would ensue and that this frenzy would take Mrs. Clinton off-message and undermine her public support among swing voters.
A few weeks after the press conference, CAN President Martin Mawyer sent an open letter to Mrs. Clinton (which was also delivered to news organizations at the same time) in which he asked her to reveal her sexual orientation and whether she planned to leave her husband if she won a seat in the U.S. Senate. Among other things, the group demanded the names of lesbians who had visited Camp David or stayed in the Lincoln bedroom at the White House. Not surprising, given CAN's hostile relations with the Clintons or the nature of the charges, there was no response from the First Lady or her campaign staff.
The Media Non-Response
In general, the CAN strategy did not yield many news stories. According to Vaught, "there wasn't a whole lot of interest from the press on this story. They assumed anything from our camp they didn't want to hear....It was from the past" (personal interview). About a dozen reporters attended the press conference, but journalists saw the source of this charge as sharply partisan and not very credible. Publicized in the middle of a high-profile election campaign, most chose not to write about the charges.
Joel Siegel, who covered the Clinton campaign for the New York Daily News, said "it took my editors about two seconds to decide against pursuing this issue. First, it was only a rumor. Second, it was being circulated by a group whose aim was to defeat Mrs. Clinton. Third, there was absolutely no evidence it was true. And, by far the most important factor of all, the allegation related to Mrs. Clinton's private life and had no relevance, as far as we could tell, to how she would perform as senator" (personal interview).
According to Associated Press reporter Beth Harpaz (who also did not write about the CAN ad but covered the Senate contest), the press had a dilemma in terms of its coverage of Clinton's personal life. "For the most part, we tried to write about the issues, but of course the issues in this race sometimes had to do with personal matters" (personal interview). Harpaz noted that the First Lady presented difficult challenges for the press because of "the controversies surrounding her candidacy - Clinton scandals, carpetbagger issue, [and] lack of political experience -- which made her handlers very sensitive to the possibility that anything she said could and would be used against her" (personal interview; also see Harpaz, 2001).
There were about half a dozen news articles that either noted CAN's effort to promote the rumor or discussed it as part of broader stories. For example, on September 19, Washington Post writer John Mintz (2000) wrote a front-page article on the rise of issue advertisements that deep in the story mentioned ads (including the CAN spot) that "don't even have to make it on the air to get attention." He reviewed the text of the CAN ad and wrote that CAN claimed several stations indicated they would broadcast the ad, but noted that these stations were denying they planned to run the ad. Mintz cited industry sources who said the commercial "is highly unlikely it will get on the air", even though the group claimed it had $550,000 to pay for the ad.
There was a short September 21 article by Tim Thornton (2000) about the spot in the Roanoke Times, in which CAN executive director Vaught said the group was having difficulty convincing television stations to broadcast the spot. Several stations refused to air the commercial saying it was "unacceptable for airing." Vaught said in the newspaper story if television station managers refused to run the spot, CAN would distribute the ad message with direct mail letters and through Christian radio stations. "We're going to try to get it out," he said, "and if television isn't going to do it, we'll have to find other ways." When asked where he had heard the lesbian rumors, Vaught told the reporter, "I guess you hear them from different areas. A lot of times you can't pinpoint where you first heard something. It's not like we can prove this".
When asked in an interview why he wrote about the ad controversy, Thornton said "the story was worth covering because it involved a group based in our coverage area that was trying to influence a high profile Senate race in another state." Continuing, he noted that "political campaigns and rumors are certainly not strangers to one another and neither are political campaigns and charges dealing with sexual behavior" (personal interview).
On September 26, the New York Post included a short mention of the ad in its column by Michael Starr (2000) entitled "The Starr Report". The story quoted CAN President Martin Mawyer arguing the ad was not libelous because it described the lesbian charges as "rumors." Mawyer stated that "I think [Hillary] should come out and answer questions pertaining to those rumors."
This story was followed on September 27 with a yahoo.com web story entitled "Fox Blocks Hillary Attack". In an article written by Paula Bernstein (2000), the site noted that a scheduled Mawyer appearance on the Fox Network show "Hannity & Colmes" was blocked after network executives previewed the ad. "The segment was canceled because it was an unfair attack against the first lady and we're not in the business of being unfair," said Fox News Executive Producer Bill Shine.
On September 28, the San Francisco Examiner printed a column by editorial writer Stephanie Salter (2000) entitled "Christian Group Resurrects 'Hillary is Lesbian' Rumor". The article repeated the ad text and quoted Vaught saying the ad was a CAN effort to "ask questions the media should be asking." The editorial closed by criticizing CAN for trying "to cram its reactionary, troglodytic system of 'family values' down every American's throat." The group, she said, was "silly and hysterical".
Another account about the ad came in October when gay.com, a gay rights website, ran an in-depth article by Mike White (2000) entitled "Commercial Closet: Group Asks, Is Hillary a Legislator or a Lesbian?". The story said UPN affiliates WLOT and WBQZ-TV in Watertown, New York planned to broadcast the ad October 23 and 24. The article quoted station general manager Anthony DiMarcantonio saying he decided to air the ad because Clinton had not spent a dime of campaign money advertising at his small, locally-owned station. "She's spent no money with me and I have no loyalty to her. They're not even throwing us a bone," he complained to the paper. "It's not my job to interpret content or I'd be a censor....You know what they say about most rumors--they're facts waiting to be confirmed."
However, despite the handful of news stories that did appear, most of the media did not mention the ad or the lesbian rumors. With the exception of the short mention within the Washington Post, no national newspaper or television station covered the story. There was no network coverage of the controversy. Other than the New York Post, nearly every New York outlet ignored the story.
Different rationales appeared for the decision not to cover the charge. Some journalists indicated it was only an accusation, with no corroboration or substantiating facts. Others said that if local television stories started to broadcast the ad, they would consider writing a story about the controversy, but would not do so if stations refused to air the ad (which turned out to be the case). Still others simply rejected the story as not being newsworthy and not deserving of press coverage.
The Tabloid Finale
With no significant coverage by the mainstream media, CAN was forced to move to a tabloid strategy. On October 17, 2000, just a few weeks before the election, CAN persuaded the editors of the Star newspaper to run a cover story about Mrs. Clinton entitled, "Hillary Caught with Galpal in Midnight Swim! New Gay Scandal Erupts". The cover story featured a picture of Mrs. Clinton and a single-page article with the headline, "Sleeping Over with Hillary!".
The text of the article (Kuncl, 2000) claimed a "new firestorm of controversy is erupting around first lady Hillary Clinton and threatening to engulf her Senate bid." It cited the fact that a Christian organization was "demanding she answer rumors that she is a closet lesbian!" CAN President Mawyer told the Star "we've heard reports that some very shameful lesbian goings-on have taken place at Camp David with Hillary's knowledge and, sometimes, her participation." The story went on to say an unnamed Washington insider claimed, "there have been leaks, some from Secret Service agents, cooks and groundskeepers that Hillary used Camp David as a meeting place for her lesbian friends." According to the tabloid account, one such informant stated that "Hillary and an unidentified woman were glimpsed swimming in a pool on the east side of Aspen Cabin" at Camp David.
Noting that major television stations were refusing to broadcast the CAN ad, Mawyer responded in the Star article saying, "we don't believe the ad is unfair at all, nor do we think the questions we have asked are unfair....Hillary has been outspoken in her advocacy of so-called gay and lesbian rights. If she believes there's nothing wrong about being gay, she shouldn't be afraid to confirm or deny if she herself is a lesbian."
Despite the front page story in one of the nation's leading tabloid newspaper, the mainstream media continued to ignore these allegations. Indeed, Vaught said the Christian Action Network received not a single call from a major news organization following the Star cover story (personal interview). Unlike the situation with Gennifer Flower's charges against then presidential candidate Bill Clinton that he had engaged in an affair with her and the fact that she personally came forward to make the accusation, national television and newspaper outlets ignored the tabloid story, similar to what they had done in September when CAN first held its press conference on the lesbian rumor. The accusations did not pass the threshold of credibility for traditional press outlets. Unlike the Flower's accusations, there was no individual who came forward saying she had engaged in a lesbian affair with the first lady.
According to Sam Boyle, the Associated Press bureau chief for New York City, the mainstream press was aware of the Star cover story and CAN's efforts to push the lesbian rumor, but his organization was not going to let its coverage by affected by the tabloids. "The editorial decisions of the AP are the editorial decisions of the AP. We make up our own news agenda," he said (personal interview).
In the end, the CAN strategy failed and Mrs. Clinton was elected to a six-year term in the U. S. Senate. Aside from the details of the group strategy and media non-response, what does this case study tell us about contemporary news coverage? It suggests feeding frenzies are not inevitable. For them to erupt, specific journalists must make decisions to cover particular charges. Despite the prediction of Nieman Foundation's Bill Kovach that "the bell that's been rung can't be unrung ... and that's reporting rumors" (quoted in Sabato, 1991, p. 199), reporters can exercise self-restraint, even during an era of hyper-competitiveness.
Press decisions are governed by several criteria: source credibility, the political context, and the state of public opinion about tabloid journalism. Reporters are keenly aware that public ratings of the news media have dropped over the past decade. More and more Americans are criticizing news coverage and especially reporting that delves into the backgrounds and private lives of public officials. Armed with this knowledge, journalists evaluate the credibility of people making personal charges in light of the political context in which such accusations are made. The fact that CAN failed both the credibility and the political test, and was not able to convince New York television station owners to broadcast its ad turned what could have been a feeding frenzy into a responsibility frenzy. After a decade of scandal coverage involving the Clintons, journalists were keenly aware, in the words of AP bureau chief Boyle, that the First Lady "was a person who generated lots of pro and con opinions."
The polarization of public opinion about her candidacy ironically helped shield her from the frenzy CAN hoped to induce in her race. In the aftermath of the failed impeachment effort against President Bill Clinton, journalists were acutely aware that conservative groups were angry with both Clintons and that emotionally-charged accusations were being lodged against the couple, many without any factual basis. The partisan character of past battles between the Clintons and their foes made reporters leery about reporting the lesbian rumor about Mrs. Clinton.
Even in the cut-throat world of contemporary journalism, where market competition forces even well-intentioned reporters to engage in tabloid coverage, there can be acts of self-restraint that lead to responsible coverage. As Sabato (1991) points out, homosexual allegations are classic areas where the press exercises self-censorship. Given the history of gay-baiting and ruined careers over gay rumors, most reporters do not publicly "out" homosexuals and lesbians, and are even more reluctant to report unsubstantiated rumors about gay activity. During the time of the Senate impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, television networks by and large refused to report the accusation from Juanita Broaddrick that Clinton had assaulted her while he was Arkansas Attorney General. It was not until after the Senate had voted that NBC "Dateline" ran its interview with Broaddrick.
Although press treatment of the Hillary Clinton lesbian rumor does not herald the emergence of a new era of responsible journalism, this case study does show that there are exceptions to the well-documented tendency of the press to engage in feeding frenzies based on personal scandal. Reporters can overcome the tabloid impulses of their industry and refuse to report sensational stories that might attract an audience. Enlightened self-restraint is not entirely dead in the news business.
Cappella, Joseph and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. 1997. The Spiral of Cynicism: The Press and the Public Good. New York: Oxford University Press.
Fallows, James. 1996. Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy. New York: Pantheon Books.
Harpaz, Beth. 2001. The Girls in the Van: Covering Hillary. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.
Kuncl, Tom. 2000. "Sleeping Over with Hillary!", Star, October 17, p. 18.
Mintz, John. 2000. "In Campaign Heat, Issue Ads Mushroom," Washington Post, September 19, p. A1.
Patterson, Thomas. 1993. Out of Order. New York: Knopf.
Sabato, Larry. 1991. Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics. New York: Free Press.
Salter, Stephanie. 2000. "Christian Group Resurrects 'Hillary is Lesbian' Rumor", San FranciscoExaminer, September 28, p. A27.
Starr, Michael. 2000. "Controversial Hillary Ad Homeless in N.Y.", New York Post, September 26, p. 94.
Thornton, Tim. 2000. "Va. Organizations Tries to Run Controversial Ad; The 30-Second Spot Implies that Hillary Clinton May Be a Lesbian," Roanoke Times, September 21, p. B3.
West, Darrell M. 2000. The Rise and Fall of the Media Establishment. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's Press.
White, Mike. 2000. "Commercial Closet: Group Asks, Is Hillary a Legislator or a Lesbian?", Gay.com website, October.
Darrell M. West is the John Hazen White Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Brown University. He is the author of 11 books, including The Rise and Fall of the Media Establishment (2001) and Celebrity Politics (2002).