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The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal

November 14, 2009
Former President Bill Clinton attends a campaign stop with Democratic gubernatorial candidate R. Creigh Deeds, in McLean, Va. on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2009. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Former President Bill Clinton attends a campaign stop with Democratic gubernatorial candidate R. Creigh Deeds, in McLean, Va. on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2009. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

At the heart of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was the silent battle waged between the mass media and the American public. Whilst a majority of the Senate chamber and news commentators questioned Clinton’s morality in the aftermath of the scandal, the American public remained steadfast in its support for the Clinton presidency. The result, perplexed media gurus faced with public resistance, where in the end public opinion reigned above and beyond all media actors.

Despite media commentators, like Jeff Greenfield out rightly supporting media’s right to scrutinize public officials’ private lives,

“The public perceived the media, especially the television, as promoting the removal of the president…and as an invasion of the president’s right to privacy” (Arthur H. Miller, “Sex, Politics, and Public Opinion: What Political Scientists Really Learned from the Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal,” PS, December 1999)

Thus, despite Greenfield’s lets scrutinize the President campaign, public opinion polls countered the anti-Clinton views and remained fixated in their support for President Clinton. In that sense, the scandal not only puzzled media gurus who were accustomed to steering public views, but also allowed Clinton to initially leverage on the disconnect between the media and the public and charge the press as the culprit in the scandal.

Nevertheless, if a story is repeatedly fed to the public, there is bound to be some smoke with or without a fire. In the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, media commentators tried to use this strategy to persuade the public to question Clinton’s fit in the government; adding leverage to those who felt that Clinton had something to hide. Yet, it became evident with time that the public’s trust in the government was an equation independent of variables involving the political agent’s moral character.

“The degree of trust that citizens place in their government is a reflection of how the public judges…more profound aspects of government performance” (Arthur H. Miller, “Sex, Politics, and Public Opinion: What Political Scientists Really Learned from the Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal,” PS, December 1999)

The reactions from the Democrats and the Republicans also played a vital role in shaping the media stories at the time the scandal let loose. While a mass of media commentators were pro-impeachment, it is noteworthy mentioning that this was,

“supported by the differences in how Democrats and Republicans judged the performance of the media…nearly two-thirds of the Democrats rated the media coverage as poor to very poor…44% of Republicans rated the coverage negatively” (Arthur H. Miller, “Sex, Politics, and Public Opinion: What Political Scientists Really Learned from the Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal,” PS, December 1999)

Divided partisan reactions were also fueled by Hillary Clinton’s repeated assertions that the Starr investigation, along with the entire Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was in fact a Republican right-wing conspiracy against her husband. Similarly, the Paula Jones scandal, which could have been settled out of court, was strategically dragged into the media, such that the press could monetize and feed its marketing model. While media pundits condemned Hillary, the American public once again remained positive about Clinton’s job performance, clearly respecting the divide between the President’s personal acts and the public domain.

What was the consequence of this clash between the media and the public’s position on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal? Ultimately, the credibility of both the Republican Party and the mass media appeared to have suffered as a consequence of the scandal. Hence, it was not the trust in the government or the public institutions that were undermined, but rather the American public’s confidence in the media.

Nevertheless, the disarray of interests do not seem to have convinced journalists who are adamant in keeping with their ways,

“Only about a tenth of journalists plan to change the way they cover public officials’ private lives as a result of the Lewinsky story” (Neil Hickey, “After Monica, Next What?”Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 1998)

Kosovo Bill Clinton Visit

An ethnic Albanian holds a portrait of former US President Bill Clinton during his visit in Pristina, Kosovo, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2009. Thousands of ethnic Albanians gathered in Kosovo's capital Pristina to welcome former President Bill Clinton on Sunday as he attended the unveiling of an 3.5 meter statue of himself on a key boulevard that also bears his name. Following the 1998-99 war authorities in Pristina changed the name of the capital city's thoroughfare from Vladimir Lenin Street to Bill Clinton Boulevard. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

While journalists like, Tom Rawlins, a senior editor at St. Petersburg Times blame the cable television for the flawed coverage, others like James E. Shelledy, editor of the Salt Lake Tribune clearly confess that it was the hunger for competition, which took over the media’s common sense during the time.

The end result was a wounded press, perceived as being obsessed with sensationalism and scandalous sex news coverage. This had broader implications than any media guru could have perceived. Knowing the role that the media played in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal has allowed the American public to learn a lesson or two about their own judgment. While the media fishes out money making news and paints each story tactfully with scandalous flavors, citizen journalists have taken on the social responsibility to dig deeper into every news story. In that sense, the present failing newspaper model could it be a second wave of the American public’s intolerance of a scandal-hungry press. Ironically, Shelledy had long predicted the demise,

“The whole Clinton/Lewinsky tale has taken the press into a new era, and it’s not going to be pretty” (Neil Hickey, “After Monica, Next What?”Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 1998)

One Comment
  1. November 17, 2009 3:39 pm

    This is exactly what’s happening nowadays in Italy. We follow all the scandals but miss the major issues. The press is getting sick and it has become just a political tool. (See my post about Berlusconi and the media)

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