Nov 1 1998

Feminists, Prostitutes and Nazis

Media Labeling in the Lewinsky Story

The mainstream media’s campaign to discredit feminist leaders has been a dominant and consistent element of 1998’s ongoing sex spectacle. Feminist politicians and organizational leaders have arguably been opinion leaders for many women voters who elected Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and who support social issues such as abortion rights and affirmative action. These leaders have been under attack, not only by right-wing partisans but by the press itself. The attacks have ranged from subtle but steady biases in coverage–omission of relevant facts from news reports, for example–to wholesale character assassination and name-calling.

Media implicitly tell us how to rank the importance of public issues according to the amount of press coverage devoted to an issue. The level of coverage afforded to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal has certainly conveyed an aura of overwhelming importance to the matter, and therefore implies Clinton’s behavior in the matter was proportionately monstrous. Against this backdrop, feminists have been repeatedly asked to comment, and labeled hypocrites or worse when they don’t instantly call for impeachment.

Media coverage consistently portrays feminists as hypocrites who were never really concerned about sexual harassment, who just used the allegation against political enemies, notably then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and former Sen. Robert Packwood (R.-Ore.)–but are now unwilling to treat Clinton (portrayed as full ally) the same way. CNN Newsstand (9/20/98) summarized the formula: “Feminists attacked Bob Packwood when he got caught, but they stick by the president when he did.” This portrayal is flawed in several ways.

First, there is the misrepresentation of Packwood as a political enemy of feminists, and of Clinton as a consistent ally. Though feminists have repeatedly reminded journalists that Packwood was an supporter of feminist issues, especially abortion rights, and a powerful ally on that issue in the Senate, news stories almost never mention this as a background fact.

Nor do they mention that Clinton was the subject of long and heated protests by feminist leaders concerning his support of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. At the peak of this opposition, NOW President Patricia Ireland and others led a hunger strike in front of the White House for more than two weeks prior to Clinton’s signing of the bill. In 1993, Ireland was arrested in front of the White House protesting the administration’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gays and lesbians in the military. Packwood was never subjected to heat like that from feminists on a policy issue, yet now the press portrays him solely as a political enemy and Clinton as a close friend to be protected at all costs.

Second, the media join right-wing spokespeople in continuing to conflate and confuse workplace sexual harassment and consensual sexual activity. In story after story, the cases of Thomas, Packwood and Clinton have all been lumped together as examples of illegal sexual harassment. Many feminists have disagreed.

Feminists fought for creation and enforcement of sexual harassment laws in order to alleviate a form of sex discrimination in employment; forcing women to endure unwanted sexual advances is a method by which some men have kept power over women. Because the Clinton/Lewinsky relationship was consensual, many feminists have argued that it was not sexual harassment. The affair was an example of workplace behavior which objectifies women and should be condemned, they say, but to categorize it with illegal sexual harassment denies women’s sexual freedom, just as sexual harassment behavior did before the law empowered women to say no.

Over and over again, on talkshows, in interviews, at press conferences and on the campaign trail, feminist leaders have tried to clarify the facts. (Feminists surely wish they’d been asked their opinions as often about welfare reform and other policy issues.) However, despite their repetition, the facts are not incorporated into news stories, the arguments are disputed as if they had never been previously made, and feminists are continually subjected to personal attack–called “risible hypocrites” (Maureen Dowd, New York Times, 8/19/98) and worse in newspaper editorials, columns and on talkshows.

Prostitutes and Nazis

Consider the treatment received by former congressmember Elizabeth Holtzman on CNBC‘s Hardball with Chris Matthews on August 17. The conversation took place as the media world waited for Clinton’s speech admitting a relationship with Monica Lewinsky. After Holtzman explained that since Lewinsky was a consenting adult, the relationship was not sexual harassment, Michael Barone, senior Washington editor for Reader’s Digest, exclaimed, “I think, you know, basically, we’ve established the feminist movement in the United States. We’ve now found what profession they’re in and the only question is their price.”

On September 22, Patricia Ireland appeared on CNN‘s Larry King Live. After Ireland argued that Clinton’s offense did not warrant overturning an election, especially where women had been responsible for the election’s outcome, Larry King responded, “If you were a highway builder in Germany in 1936, and you would have said let’s keep Hitler because he built highways. You’re a highway man.”

In American political discourse, even the most extreme and hateful positions are rarely compared to a defense of Hitler. Yet the views of most feminists spokespeople approximately mirror public opinion among American women, who by-and-large oppose Clinton’s behavior, yet want him to remain in office and want the press and the government to turn their attention to public policy issues (Los Angeles Times, 8/21/98; CBS This Morning, 9/15/98). Meanwhile in the press, it was repeated that women’s support could soon erode (e.g., Seattle Times, 8/25/98). Such statements suggest this is what should occur.

Media Sleight of Hand

This was the loaded media environment facing feminist officeholders around the country as they campaigned for re-election in the fall of 1998. A large net gain of women occurred in Congress when these mostly-Democratic feminists were initially elected in 1992, “The Year of the Woman.” They include Senators Patty Murray, Carole Mosely-Braun and Barbara Boxer, all up for reelection this year.

Journalists have repeatedly suggested that victory for Democratic candidates depends on the candidates’ ability to rise above the Clinton scandal and put policy issues forward in the public debate (CNN Inside Politics, 9/7/98; CBS Evening News, 9/11/98; Los Angeles Times, 9/21/98). But the media’s obsession with Lewinsky–together with the implication that feminist leaders were somehow responsible for the scandal–made a debate over the issues impossible for this group of feminist candidates.

Possibly the worst example of the media’s sleight of hand has been in the campaign of U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D.-Calif.). Similar to other “Year of the Woman” politicians, then-Rep. Boxer played an outspoken role in ensuring that public hearings took place to consider Anita Hill’s allegations against Clarence Thomas before his confirmation vote to the Supreme Court was taken in 1991; she also worked in 1995 with a bipartisan group of women politicians to insist on congressional public hearings of the sexual harassment allegations against Senator Packwood brought by more than 10 of his staff members.

Since Clinton admitted to the Lewinsky affair, Boxer has spoken out numerous times about the situation, saying, for example, “Clearly he was wrong to have that relationship in the first place….This president…disappointed a lot of people, including himself, his family, his friends and the American people. That includes myself and the people who supported his policies.” (San Francisco Chronicle, 8/19/98)

Recent press coverage of Boxer is skewed both in what it includes as fact, and in what it omits. Typically included as a relevant fact is Boxer’s tenuous family connection to Clinton; her daughter is married to Hillary Clinton’s brother (CNN Inside Politics, 8/27/98; San Francisco Examiner, 8/19/98). Repeatedly, the degree of her reaction to the scandal is questioned, in that she expressed betrayal instead of “outrage” (AP, 9/7/98; L.A. Times, 9/10/98).

A contrast is often drawn between her behavior toward Packwood and Thomas and her behavior toward Clinton, yet, the distinctions between the situations are almost never included. For example, it was repeatedly mentioned that Packwood and Thomas were Republicans and Clinton and Boxer Democrats, while only one article was found in the Nexis database (Seattle Times, 8/25/98) which mentioned that Packwood shared Clinton’s views on many women’s rights issues. Unmentioned was the difference between admission of an adulterous affair and allegation of sexual harassment; nor does the media ever provide the information that Boxer simply tried to get public hearings for the women in the Packwood and Thomas cases, who otherwise would have had no open process by which to have their complaints considered.

Manipulation of Debate

The media’s sleight of hand was evident in press participation in the first debate between Boxer and her Republican challenger, Matthew Fong and subsequent coverage it. During the debate, a panel of three journalists from mainstream news outlets (L.A. Daily News, Associated Press and L.A. TV station KCAL) asked questions of the candidates. The first question that each journalist asked was about Boxer’s response to the Clinton affair; even after she had answered the question fully, and repeatedly turned the discussion to policy issues, the journalists kept returning to the same question. The result was that a full quarter of the hour-long debate was spent on the issue.

Later, in the reporting of the event, the candidates themselves were held responsible for the debate’s focus on the Clinton issue (“they spent much time sparring over President Clinton,” Copley News Service, 8/27/98; “Republicans are doing some political road-testing,” CBS Evening News, 8/27/98); alternatively, press reports avoided mentioning who it was that kept the debate focused on the issue (Boxer “found herself on the defensive” about Clinton/Lewinsky, San Diego Union-Tribune, 8/28/98; “discussion of Clinton’s behavior dominated the first quarter of…debate,” Boston Globe, 9/17/98).

Another instance of bias in the Boxer-Fong race occurred when the L.A. Times conducted a poll with a loaded question about Boxer’s position regarding Clinton, then interpreted the unfavorable figures as resulting from respondents’ reaction to Boxer rather than from the question’s dubious wording. The question equated the Thomas, Packwood and Clinton cases, and portrayed Boxer’s behavior as based on partisan considerations:

Barbara Boxer was an outspoken critic of Clarence Thomas when he was nominated by Republican president George Bush to be a Supreme Court Justice and an outspoken critic of Republican Senator Bob Packwood after allegations of sexual harassment surfaced about both men. However, Barbara Boxer has not been as vocal about Bill Clinton’s admission of an affair with Monica Lewinsky. Does knowing this make you more or less likely to vote to re-elect her to the U.S. Senate or does it not make a difference one way or the other?

After prejudicing the responses in this way, the interpretation of the poll data (L.A. Times, 9/21/98) was that “Clinton has hurt Boxer, and that she has exacerbated the damage with her reaction to his admission of an illicit sexual relationship.”

This result was repeated in the New York Times, which reported (9/22/98) that “about a third of voters said they were less likely to vote for her because of her low-key response.” The article was headlined “An Uphill Climb, With Ankle Weights”–an appropriate metaphor, though the press would never admit that they themselves had produced the ankle weights for Boxer and for other feminist candidates.