By Shawn J. Parry-Giles
University of Illinois Press
Paperback, 288 pages
February 15, 2014
Hillary Clinton, through her time in the political spotlight, has shown a tremendous amount of political agency, which routinely attracted heightened levels of animosity from political opponents, the news media, disapproving political watchers, and American voters. The “instability” of Hillary Clinton’s “television image,” Mary Ellen Brown maintains, was due to her “refusal to be silenced,” helping to ramp up the intrigue and contempt directed toward her political choices and messages.She won't stand by her man, she won't bake cookies. She's a man-hating feminist.
She stands by her man, she shares a cookie recipe. She's a phony.
She's cold, aggressive, calculating. She's an opportunist.
Oh, wait. She's being emotional, warm and charming. She's a poseur.
Welcome to the past—and most assuredly the near future—of the seesaw media framing of one Hillary Rodham Clinton, a framing in which no matter what she does or what she says, some talking head will spin it as either brutally and typically ambitious or patently pandering.
Shawn J. Parry-Giles, a professor of communication and director of the Center for Political Communication and Civic Leadership at the University of Maryland, has compiled decades of television news coverage of Clinton, from her first appearance on the national scene as a presidential candidate's wife through her tenure as Secretary of State.
Let's just put it out there—it's not a pretty picture, as you will see beneath the fold.
The baseline news frames that developed out of Clinton’s 1992 coverage as a campaign surrogate for her husband helped authenticate Clinton as a politically outspoken and out-front feminist who violated the traditions of authentic womanhood. Future coverage often returned to these baseline frames as a means of imagery juxtaposition and authenticity evaluation as Clinton’s national biography unfolded in the media spotlight.Yes, Parry-Giles is a professor and uses jargon throughout (one of the drawbacks of this academic book for a layperson to read), but the evidence she compiles is damning and hard to interpret any other way: the media, for several decades, has had a Hillary Clinton problem.
Beginning with the famous January 1992 60 Minutes interview in which the Clintons discussed the Gennifer Flowers allegations, Parry-Giles says, the paradigm was set. Here's a reminder, for those of you who want to relive the moments:
The key phrase that the media seized upon and replayed in different contexts for decades was this:
Hillary Clinton: You know, I'm not sitting here—some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. I'm sitting here because I love him, and I respect him, and I honor what he's been through and what we've been through together. And you know, if that's not enough for people, then heck, don't vote for him.Two months later, in a Nightline interview, she uttered an equally vivid proclamation about her view of herself and her role in her family:
HILLARY CLINTON: I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.These two quotes are the foundation of what Parry-Giles calls the "baseline frame" of Hillary Clinton. Not traditional. Dedicated to career. No little woman standing by her man. In other words, a feminist.
From this frame, all actions, statements, facial expressions, career moves, clothes, hairstyles would be evaluated. When she was being plainspoken and unabashed—often interpreted by the press as typically cold, calculating and man-hating as a feminist—she was being authentic. If she declined to speak, softened her tone, chose "female" issues to address—the plight of women or children, for example—the media said she was either phony and/or politically calculating.
Nevermind that long before she hit the national scene, she'd been deeply involved in issues concerning women and children. Nevermind that she actually had a vibrant career that she was in a real sense sacrificing for the national political ambitions of her husband. Nevermind that she was, after all, a mother—not someone completely unfamiliar with the challenges of day-to-day child-rearing.
Interestingly enough, instances in which she was labeled "inauthentic" by the media (meaning she did not provide the scripted cold-hearted feminist stereotype reaction) led to speculation: Had the campaign silenced her? Had her husband dressed her down? Was she choosing the "softened" tone for politically expedient reasons of her own, with an eye on furthering her own career ambitions? Even as First Lady, there were endless talking heads insisting she was being "disciplined" by the president's team whenever she passed a few days out of the public eye. Thus sayeth the media, and thus America accepted the truth to be.
Much of this pundit chatter, unmoored from reality, was based on insisting on clinging to that simplistic, twisted baseline frame and its unspoken brutally ridiculous stereotype: feminists are cold, hard, ambitious charlatans who despise stay-at-home moms, men, children and even their fellow feminists.
When the stereotype or background didn't work for the narrative, Parry-Giles shows, it would be tweaked by the punditocracy. Often this mean "recontextualizing" video from a different event and running it for a current one. For example, when Whitewater heated up, TV news ran old unrelated, footage of Hillary Clinton testifying before Congress ... during her leadership of her husband's health care initiative. This footage implied she was in very serious trouble on this very serious matter, grilled by legislators.
Similarly, during the Lewinsky crisis, video of the First Couple—somber-faced, separated physically by a couple of feet, looking down at the ground, walking across a lawn—was run repeatedly to show the sadness and distance between the despairing duo. Too bad the video was old and unrelated to their personal crisis—and was culled from their attendance at an official memorial service, a setting in which such demeanor is, of course, entirely appropriate.
Games were played too when Hillary Clinton would travel the world as First Lady as an unofficial ambassador on women's and children's issues. Anchors (usually male) would talk over video of her speeches, paraphrasing what she said instead of letting listeners hear her say it. This backfired in a pretty spectacular way when she visited China for the Fourth World Conference on Women, where she made a very forceful statement that women's rights were the same as human rights. Appalled journalists (who just days before were criticizing Clinton for remaining silent about human rights at the forum), declared that she had brought a crisis upon the presidency by such a forceful and unexpected statement. Except … remember all those heads talking blah blah blah over the varied footage of Clinton in other countries? Yeah, funny thing: She'd been delivering the same message for years pretty much everywhere she visited. Sometimes it actually helps to listen to the content of what a woman says and not assume you know more than she does about what she's trying to say.
The author lays out all these examples—and many, many more throughout Clinton's long career—in painstaking detail, with rich documentation and analysis. Make no mistake, this is an academic book written by an academic and published by an academic press. The book's careful, sometimes ponderous prose, however, succeeds at what it sets out to do: to document and analyze thousands of television appearances and shallow interpretations of a complex woman.
What the reader comes away with is a trove of evidence pointing to what many have suspected all along: With the American media, no matter what she does, Hillary Clinton just can't win.
Or can she?