She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not —
The on-again, off-again love affair between the media and the First Lady is back on again, thanks in large measure to White House counselor David Gergen, whose public relations finesse has not only helped President Clinton, but has sweetened coverage of the First Lady as well.
For many observers, the First Couple’s recent trip to Japan for the G-7 economic summit clearly demonstrated the power of the White House to reshape public perceptions of a First Lady whose image had been teetering between that of an artificially-sweetened “Hostess With The Mostest” and a leathery “Hillary the Policy Wonk.” At last, some say, we’re finally seeing Mrs. Clinton as the multi-dimensional woman she really is. Not coincidentally, relations with the media have never been better. And whether or not David Gergen truly deserves all the credit, some in the media believe it is his handiwork that has given both Mr. and Mrs. Clinton a second chance with the public.
Even those not normally inclined to think kindly of the Clintons seem impressed — at least for now. According to Suzanne Fields, a conservative columnist with the Washington Times, “There has been a decided change in public relations since David Gergen has been there, and he is serving both Hillary and the President well. Gergen gets an A+ for orchestrating the entire image of both Hillary and the President.”
Bill Zwecker, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, agrees: “I think it’s a total package and Gergen has improved her coverage as well.”
Whether it’s David Gergen or a learning curve that would have taken affect anyway, the First Lady’s press office has also been getting better grades from the media. Says Margaret Carlson, White House correspondent for Time magazine: “In the beginning, the press office in general was less accessible. As time has gone by, the White House is more open because not being open didn’t work for them.”
Adds Zwecker: “The First Lady’s White House staff has settled in now and are seemingly much more comfortable with what is obviously a huge job. They’re more confident, not as overwhelmed with the whole situation. The response now is excellent — they call you right back. All that translates into better coverage in the media, which means she’s going to be perceived better by the public, because we’re the vehicle by which it’s all distilled.”
Relations between the press and the First Lady have been on a roller-coaster ride from day one. Once the euphoria of the Inauguration wore off, positive stories with titles like “The Cult of Hillary” gave way to less flattering pieces, such as Michael Kelly’s coy dissection of Mrs. Clinton’s “politics of meaning” in New York Times Magazine.
According to Carlson, the problems started with the high expectations of the media. “We thought things might be different (with Hillary) than they were with Barbara Bush, who would never take a question and really answer it. She was totally scripted: it was ‘the lovely school,’ ‘the lovely hospital,’ ‘the lovely day care center,’ ‘the lovely literacy.’ We expected more from Mrs. Clinton.”
“They were naive,” says Suzanne Fields. “They (the press office) were unprepared for the press, they got scared very quickly. It wasn’t just the way they were protecting Hillary. It was also the way they were attempting — and not doing a very good job at it — to protect the President.”
Conversations with White House reporters suggest two major consequences of that initial rift between the press office and the media. First, it inhibited the media’s ability to get its job done: to have access to the First Lady, to obtain information about her, to be able to ask meaningful questions and write stories without fear of paybacks or retaliation. The second consequence — clearly an outgrowth of the first — was that Mrs. Clinton herself was being “Balkanized” — she was being chopped up into discrete, easily digestible pieces, when indeed she is more complex and integrated than the media made her out to be.
Like husband and wife in divorce court, both sides accuse the other. Less partial observers argue that there’s enough blame for everyone.
In a review of Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman in the July/August issue of the American Journalism Review, Jim Anderson provides an analysis of the authors’ “propaganda model” and their belief that government news is sifted through several “filters” before it ever reaches the public. “Reporters and editors — as well as the publications they work for — prosper or die on their ability to establish and foster a symbiotic relationship with sources, mainly in government,” explains Anderson. “Depending on how well they behave, reporters and publishers will be rewarded with inside stuff, or alternatively punished by deprivation of access.”
Although the Chomsky/Herman book was written specifically to address the issue of government control of foreign policy news, the notion of news filters is applicable to domestic news coverage as well. On May 8, in “First Lady’s Press Picks,” Washington Post media reporter, Howard Kurtz, wrote: “Reporters who are deemed friendly (to Mrs. Clinton) are getting plenty of access. Others are required to submit questions while the First Lady’s press office weighs their interview requests. And some publications are simply getting the cold shoulder.”
One publication in the doghouse for awhile was Newsweek, which had published a story mentioning the rumor that the First Lady had thrown a lamp at the President. “They let us know they were giving these interviews to Time and U.S. News as punishment, which seems a little petty,” Newsweek’s Washington Bureau Chief, Evan Thomas, told Kurtz.
Sun-Times columnist Zwecker, who had the dubious distinction of being the first to write about the lamp-tossing incident, told HCQ that he has suffered the consequences of that story as well. “I certainly felt the wrath of the White House both directly and indirectly,” says Zwecker. “I know that items were fed to other Chicago journalists that ordinarily might have been fed to me. It was a punishment for having written that story.”
While the First Lady’s press office might have been miffed for awhile, they seem willing to forgive, if not forget. “I have no problems now,” Zwecker says, adding, “I don’t fault them so much because that kind of reaction is true of every political operation.”
The First Lady’s press secretary, Lisa Caputo, in talking to Kurtz, denied any retaliation against Newsweek, telling him, “We give a lot of thought to the kind of interviews Mrs. Clinton does, given the constraints on her schedule. I do what any other press secretary does, just to get a sense of the story. That’s my job.”
Susan Milligan, who covers the White House for the New York Daily News empathized with the press office reaction to the lamp story and the way it was covered by Newsweek. She told HCQ, “It was a cheesy way of writing about a rumor. I don’t blame them (the First Lady’s press office) for being angry about it.” Milligan said she doubted that the granting of interviews with the First Lady is based on some kind of payback system. “I think there’s favoritism, but I don’t think it has to do with what you’ve written. It has to do with who you represent. The networks, the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times are always going to be favored in that regard. Those are the media outlets they can use the best.”
Milligan, too, has noticed a vast improvement between the media and the White House press office. “It’s gone from bad to good because they took George (Stephanopoulos) out. The chemistry is much less confrontational. Things had gotten really, really bad with George — briefings were like food fights. It was just a bad scene. They no longer presume that every question is an assault.”
Off the record, one reporter who covers Mrs. Clinton and the White House for one of the nation’s largest daily newspapers was more blunt in her comments about those shaky, pre-Gergen days. Fearing retaliation from Mrs. Clinton’s press office, she asked HCQ not to identify her. “I’m still trying to get an interview with the First Lady,” she explained.
Reporter X had just returned from covering the First Lady’s address at the University of Pennsylvania and spoke to HCQ for some 45 minutes, describing at length what she called the “shoddy treatment” of the national press corps by White House staff. “They never even answer the most basic questions, there are no fact sheets, no information about schedules, nothing.” She said it was the “arrogance” of the White House staff, however, that bothered her and other reporters the most. “I had one White House staff member tell me we (reporters) were acting pissed off because they made twice as much money as we did.” Clearly frustrated, she added, “The real irony is that a lot of us voted for the President.”
Was the treatment of the press corps affecting coverage? “What do you think?” she asked. “They believe they can go over our heads, go direct to local TV stations and newspapers and not have to deal with us. It worked during the campaign, but it’s not working now — people aren’t paying attention to the talk shows they way they were before the election. We’re here and we’re going to stay here and write our stories. When the shit hits the proverbial fan, those same reporters will have to write about it. Guess what we’ll be writing?” Not long after Reporter X vented her frustrations, the “Travel-Gate” story broke. As she predicted, the media went after that story like angry sharks shredding a wounded baby seal.
(We spoke to Reporter X again in mid-June, after Gergen had started working his media magic and asked how it was going. “Better,” she said. “A lot better.” Had she gotten her interview with Mrs. Clinton? “Not yet. Lisa (Caputo) told me they’d try to find time in the schedule. They’ve got a long list of requests.”)
Of course, media complaints about lack of access, “spin-doctors,” and favoritism are nothing new. Nor is the inclination of White House press officers to favor media outlets likely to view their client favorably an invention of the Clinton Administration. A love-hate relationship between the media and the White House is normal and should be expected. What is new is this: coverage of Mrs. Clinton is complicated by both a press corps and a White House press office that seem to be having trouble deciding how to report on such a unique First Lady.
“The press corps tends to view First Ladies in a one-dimensional way,” says Margaret Carlson, whose Time cover story on Mrs. Clinton, “Ascent of a Woman,” itself made news. “They see her either as traditional or as a raving, independent feminist. The press chose ‘B’ at first. What’s really surprising to me is that there are lots of people who really know better, but still for the purpose of simplicity or for having a theme cover just one side of her. Hillary is both.”
Bill Zwecker admits that while Mrs. Clinton might have been over-simplified by the media in the past, that is changing. “In the beginning there was so much emphasis on her as some kind of super-woman that there was short-shrift given to her other duties as First Lady — as official hostess, for example. We (the press) have been doing a better job of covering her in a more balanced way.”
Ms. Carlson, herself a mother and career woman, suggested to HCQ that one reason the press corps sometimes has trouble covering the First Lady is that “there are a lot of men in it.” Conceding that it’s “all new to us (women), too,” Carlson nevertheless believes it’s more difficult for male journalists to understand and relate to the First Lady. “I think men are much simpler creatures. They go to work and they’re at work. You don’t find out if they had children until their obit is written. Women are both traditional children-loving, child-centered, husband-caring, grocery-shopping, neighborhood-helping people, and they are trust-busting lawyers, tough journalists, and feminists.”
According to Carlson, it’s that diversity of roles, not a formulated White House media strategy, that best explains why the First Lady might appear one week on the cover of a traditional women’s magazine and talk about child-rearing and family issues, and the next week be featured in the political pages of news magazines such as Time discussing health care reform. “If somebody called me and was doing a story for Parenting magazine, I’d happily talk about my daughter and her soccer games,” Carlson says. “On the other hand, if American Lawyer calls and asks what it’s like to be a lawyer and a journalist, I’d talk about that aspect of my life, too.”
Mrs. Clinton is not the first First Lady to be “over-simplified” by the media, says Suzanne Fields: “That was true of Rosalynn Carter and Nancy Reagan, too.” Fields sees the one-dimensional portraits of Mrs. Clinton as the work of Mrs. Clinton’s handlers and special interest groups, not the media. “As a lawyer, Hillary drew attention and was brought into the limelight by feminists who wanted to make a big deal of her having a profession.”
Susan Milligan believes that if there is a new White House media strategy, its purpose is “to make it clear that she is a mother and a feeling person, not just the health care coordinator. Personally, she’s not as warm as President Clinton, one on one. That just isn’t her demeanor. They want her to have a somewhat softer image.”
Mrs. Clinton’s interview with Katie Kouric, says Milligan, was clearly an effort to “soften” the First Lady’s image, though from Milligan’s perspective, it didn’t quite ring true. “I don’t think she enjoyed answering those questions — she doesn’t like talking about her personal life. Even so, I got the impression they thought it would be a good idea to show that side of her.”
To Bill Zwecker, the First Lady’s media image is not as closely managed as some might think. “This White House is not as calculating as people assume, and that might be one of their problems. I don’t see them sitting around and strategizing about image. Clinton’s people are a lot more issue oriented than issue-management oriented. All the years with Nixon and Watergate formed a lot of journalists’ approach to life — we automatically assume everyone is out there spin-doctoring everything.”
If the love affair between the media and First Lady is on again, is it likely to stay that way? Says Zwecker: “I’m a great believer in the pendulum theory. It’s hard to find a middle ground — it tends to swing one way or another. It’s like a feeding frenzy in this business. If someone writes a story, everybody jumps on the bandwagon. If it’s negative, then everybody’s on that negative side. Then reporters start thinking, ‘Gee, we’re being too negative,’ and the pendulum moves back the other way and we tend to be too soft. We tend to be more controlled by that pendulum than we should.”
“It’s like a marriage,” says Susan Milligan about the media-White House relationship. “There’s always going to be ups and downs in the relationship. You’re practically living with each other. You’re bound to fight.”
Stay tuned, folks. This ain’t over.
(Originally published in the Hillary Clinton Quarterly, Aug 1993)