Media Feeding Frenzies: Press Behavior during Two Clinton Scandals.


We have witnessed in recent years numerous political scandals at the highest level of American government. Given the power of media, press behavior during these scandals is an increasingly relevant topic for examination. Most recently, President Bill Clinton is facing charges of scandal in relation to former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. How the press covers political scandal warrants careful research. This article examines how the press covered two scandals of the Clinton presidency.

Specifically, this article describes and tests the conclusions of Larry Sabato, who in his book, Feeding Frenzy, suggests that journalists of all varieties begin to act like sharks when they "smell the blood" of a political scandal.(1) This article describes Sabato's concept and examines the Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones cases against Sabato's explanation of frenzy. The Gary Hart/Donna Rice frenzy offers an occasional point of comparison in light of the research Sabato has already done.

In gathering data to describe and analyze the Flowers and Jones frenzies, only articles from the New York Times and the Washington Post were examined.(2) These newspapers were chosen because they set the standard for the news media in terms of what is suitable to report.(3) Therefore, any reference to "number of articles" refers to articles that mention at least twice the names of Donna Rice, Gennifer Flowers, or Paula Jones.

Sabato's Description of Feeding Frenzies

Sabato offers multiple components in understanding feeding frenzies:

Watergate's watermark on the media. Sabato points to the Watergate scandal as the watershed event in creating the phenomenon of feeding frenzies. Prior to Watergate, the press lived in complicity with politicians regarding their personal lives or character. The press never mentioned Franklin D. Roosevelt's relationship with Lucy Mercer, and only 2 of 35,000 photos of Roosevelt show him in a wheelchair. The press knew of John F. Kennedy's liaisons and of Lyndon B. Johnson's hard drinking, but these were considered taboo to report. Watergate shifted the orientation of reporting from description to prescription.(4) A new breed of journalist emerged who was highly investigative, idealistic, and mistrustful of authority. Hollywood helped create this new vision of journalism with the glamorous portrayals of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the President's Men.

Competitive pressures. The increase of news outlets and the advent of new technologies such as minicams, faxes, and all-news channels have helped create a highly intense press environment. Sabato states that "as coverage expands, quality declines."(5) The increase of intensity has taken place while journalism's ultimate imperatives have remained the same. First, do not get beaten to a story by another media outlet. Second, if we do not break this story, then someone else will.(6) The media outlets exist to make money and must turn a profit. They also know that sex sells. These factors have created "lowest common denominator journalism,"(7) which leads other outlets to cover a story once it has been broken.

Pack journalism. Sabato identifies a herd mentality resulting from competitive pressures. Groupthink becomes the norm, and it is unusual for a news outlet to act independently once a major story has broken. Even the heavyweights fall in line quickly.(8)

The character issue takes hold. The character component is the nerve center of Sabato's work. It represents the point at which reporters struggle with the question of whether or not to report on the private life of a politician. The press continually asks, "Is private character relevant to public office performance?" Sabato believes the question has been answered affirmatively but finds the answer disturbing, saying, "Perhaps most troubling is the nearly universally accepted belief that private conduct is the road map to public action."(9) Is this point confirmed by the Flowers and Jones affairs?

More women in the press corps. Sabato believes that feminism has shaped media behavior. Once a "boys' club," the press corps is now at least one-third female.(10) Sabato writes,

The feminist view had triumphed. A man who cheated on his wife was now seen as possibly also given to deception, untrustworthiness, power lust, and recklessness in state as well as personal matters.... The most significant effect has been to reinforce the character issue and prepare the way for more feeding frenzies based on private vices.(11) Did the feminist view "triumph" in the cases of Flowers and Jones? As we will see, at least part of Sabato's conclusion is questionable. This article examines how some women reporters responded to allegations of marital infidelity and sexual harassment against Clinton.

The search to validate the subtext. Like Hollywood actors, politicians get "typecast."(12) Journalists develop character profiles that set the tone for coverage. Sabato offers the illustrations of Joe Biden and Gary Hart, both of whom had negative subtexts with the press long before the feeding frenzies that damaged/ended their political careers. When a story develops that validates press subtext, it has great potential to become a frenzy. What was Clinton's subtext when the Flowers story broke? Did he have a different subtext two years later when Jones's allegation became news?

Timing and special circumstances. Sabato holds that front-runners get rougher treatment than do other candidates. Was this true of Clinton in 1992? He also quotes ABC network reporter Hal Bruno as saying, "When you run for president, unlike lesser offices, there can be nothing left in the closet.... Everything has to come out."(13) Did everything come out with Flowers and Jones? If so, then by whom and when?

Press frustration. Sabato says that as a frenzy heats up, the politician normally restricts press access. This is just the time when the press wants maximum access and will go to extraordinary lengths to get information. This point is well illustrated in the Hart/Rice frenzy. What does Clinton do about press access? Does the press take dramatic steps to gain information during the Flowers and Jones frenzies?

Bias. Sabato speaks to the strong liberal tilt of the press, a difficult variable to measure. Reporters are heavily Democratic in orientation on most economic, foreign policy, and especially social issues, and many enter journalism after stints in the Democratic political arena.(14) In the case of Hart, who lived with Woodward on two occasions,(15) even such a close association could not stop the frenzy of 1987. Had Hart been a Republican, would a frenzy have happened in 1984? In some cases, bias takes the form of whether the press likes or dislikes the candidate. Sabato ranks two components by saying, "Pack journalism more than bias leads all media outlets to the same developing `good story' and encourages them to adopt the same slant."(16) This is a questionable conclusion when the "good story" is handled with kid gloves in seeming deference to the candidate.

The politicians themselves. In some cases, the candidate says or does things that encourage the press to dig harder. The appearance of hypocrisy may trigger frenzied behavior. In other cases, the candidate does good damage control and can quell the frenzy. We will see how Clinton handled damage control.

Frenzies build on one another. "Once a poi is wounded, open season is declared, and any damaging item related or unrelated to the pattern ... can be introduced."(17) When sharks smell blood, they are relentless and out of control. Sabato uses the term "primal behavior," but the Flowers and Jones cases lacked this characteristic in the way it existed with Dan Quayle. Clinton has endured multiple frenzies. Did the press declare "open season" on him?

Social conditions and public opinion. Sabato claims that as the electorate grows increasingly cynical toward politicians, it is less tolerant of corruption.(18) An examination of the Flowers and Jones stories and subsequent election and reelection of Clinton brings this statement into serious question. Rather than less toleration of corruption, is it possible that the public has become increasingly desensitized to political corruption? Does the public now "expect" its politicians to be corrupt?

The Gennifer Flowers Case

On January 23, 1992, the Star tabloid reported that Flowers had an affair with presidential candidate Clinton from 1977 to 1989. The evidence presented included a real person (not an anonymous tip), on-the-record interviews, and audiotapes of phone conversations. The most intense press coverage took place during the first fourteen days, with a total of twenty-five articles between the Post and the Times. Did Sabato's components play a major role in the press coverage? If so, then how? If not, then why?

Competitive Pressures

Rather than rush to break the story, there seemed to be an avoidance of it with the hope that no one would break it. Rumors of an affair had been swirling for months. The day after the Star broke the story, the Post ran an article that appeared on page A8. The Times' first entry was a one-paragraph story titled "Clinton Attempts to Ignore Rumors." The Times logged only sixteen of the eighty-eight stories generated by the Lexis/Nexis search, accounting for 18 percent of the total. Its first article did not appear until the fourth day.

On January 30, one week into the frenzy, the press began to publicly reflect on its own behavior. A Post lead paragraph observed, "Journalists found themselves wrestling publicly with a troubling question: Can they extricate themselves from yet another feeding frenzy?"(19) It was a clear call to stop the frenzy. The article went on to say that the media never have been so "self-conscious about their handling of a political story. They have been pilloried." It concluded with a quote by the Boston Globe's national editor, Christine...

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