Hillary Clinton Won the Nomination, But Her Husband is On Front Pages Everywhere. Here’s Why it Matters.
Yesterday, July 26, 2016, Hillary Rodham Clinton made history. She became the first woman on a major party ticket to be nominated to run for president.
But you’d never guess from today’s front pages, because they’re plastered with photos of her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
To people not in the newspaper business, it might seem like a strange choice. To those of us in the newspaper business, it should be outrageous.
Hillary Clinton made a surprise satellite appearance at the convention to accept her nomination right after her husband’s speech. CNN.com had pictures of it last night. Why didn’t the newspapers use those instead?
In a few cases, especially on the East Coast, deadline likely played a role. They couldn’t wait for photographers to upload photos of Clinton, and they had already planned to use her husband, so they went with it.
That’s a stupid excuse, though, because they should never have planned to use a photo of Clinton’s husband to begin with.
Imagine if, in 2008, they’d shown photos of Michelle Obama, but not Barack. They didn’t, though. It was a historic nomination, so they made sure to get a photo of Barack Obama for their front pages.
Compare the Birmingham News in 2008 to today’s front page on Newseum. In 2008, President Obama was on the front page — a big photo, right in the center. He wasn’t active, he wasn’t speaking, likely again because of deadline issues, but he was there. On today’s page, the story — though equally historic — is much smaller, off to the side, and the photo and headline are both about the candidate’s husband.
But, again, newspapers didn’t know Clinton would be making a satellite appearance. What could they have possibly done instead?
Well, the Huntsville Times worked around that just fine, running a large photo of Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s main opponent for the party’s backing and the man who offered her the nomination on the party’s behalf. They also ran a smaller photo of a convention attendee with a Hillary Clinton mask. Points for both relevance and originality.
The Dothan Eagle, the New Bedford Standard-Times, Fresno Bee and the Miami Herald all went with crowds of emotional supporters at the convention as their main art. Three of those papers specifically chose to use photos of enthusiastic women supporters, a poignant hat tip to the fact that Clinton is the first woman with a serious shot at the presidency, nearly 100 years after women gained the right to vote in the U.S.
The Juneau Empire went with a file photo of Clinton, which gave them time to turn it into an eye-catching cutout. Other newspapers, like La Opinion and the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, also used file photos to great effect.
However, the stranger thing to me as a former front-page designer is that many of the newspapers that chose to run Bill Clinton’s photo did so on a “news slot” story — a one-column story along the side of the page. Stories in this position lend themselves quite well to mugshots — small, close-up portraits of the person the story is about — rather than photos, as the Eureka Times-Standard showed. But many papers instead went out of their way to choose a photo of Clinton’s husband and to include him in the subheads of their stories.
(Perhaps the worst offender was the Palo Alto Daily Post, which did use a mugshot … of Bill. Why would you bother?)
In fact, you’d think that these papers would have planned to use a mugshot of Hillary Clinton with their story regardless of the art they chose, since they expected her not to make an appearance at the convention until Thursday. But for many, the only Clinton on the page in photographic form is Bill, even when there was plenty of space to include a small file photo of the candidate herself.
You’d think the big story was a husband speaking about his wife, and not the first woman to be nominated as a major party candidate for President of the United States of America.
But who cares, right? Hillary Clinton got the nomination. Why does it matter if newspapers used her husband’s photo?
It matters because representation is important — and not just because it’s fun to see people like yourself in the newspaper, in movies and on television, and in the media generally.
It’s an argument that, ironically, has been in the media in recent weeks because of the all-women re-imagining of the “Ghostbusters” team, but it’s one that goes way back.
“The media — television, the press and online — play a central role in communicating to the public what happens in the world. In those cases in which audiences do not possess direct knowledge or experience of what is happening, they become particularly reliant upon the media to inform them,” write Drs. Catherine Happer and Greg Philo in their 2013 article “The Role of the Media in Construction of Public Belief and Social Change.”
Drs. Happer and Philo note that the people who control media production in much of the world are from specific privileged groups, and that their prejudices unconsciously inform how stories are presented.
Stories about migrants may unconsciously be organized around the assumption that migrants present a threat to the communities they take refuge in, even when there is no evidence to support this. Even when media argues against this underlying assumption, by acknowledging it, they reinforce it.
“The story is organised around this way of understanding migration, and the different elements of the story such as interviewees, the information quoted, the selection of images and editorial comment, all work to elaborate and legitimise it as a key theme,” Drs. Happer and Philo write.
The story of women in the U.S. has been organized around our roles as helpmates to and supporters of men for hundreds of years. It’s no surprise that people know Abigail Adams, a Founding Mother, who influenced her presidential husband, but that Revolutionary women whose accomplishments can’t be put in the context of a male Founding Father, like Sybil Ludington or Deborah Samson, are forgotten.
Drs. Happer and Philo found that underlying assumptions can have a profound subconscious effect on media consumers. For example, people who work in mental health fields and who see, speak with, and work with mentally ill people on a daily basis know that they’re no more violent than the rest of the population.
But people who did not have that experience believed that people with mental illness were violent, and were actively afraid of them, even when they posed no threat. One woman Drs. Happer and Philo spoke to described how she was afraid of her elderly patients when she first began working in the geriatric ward of a mental hospital because of how the news media had portrayed people with mental illness. She was surprised to find they weren’t actually violent or scary people.
The media doesn’t have to set out with the intention of convincing people that migrants are dangerous, mentally ill people are violent, or men are the real influencers pulling the strings. Those biases inform how media creators approach their craft, and those biases are then spread to the people who consume media. It’s a vicious ourobouros.
At this point, it’s also important to note which man newspapers have chosen to stand in for Clinton: Not her running mate Tim Kaine, not her foil Bernie Sanders, but her husband. There’s history there that can’t be ignored, both in his personal past as a former U.S. president, and in the history of gender roles generally in the U.S., in which women were considered secondary to their husbands until very recently (and still are, too much of the time).
“Typically men are portrayed as active, adventurous, powerful, sexually aggressive and largely uninvolved in human relationships,” writes Dr. Julia T. Wood in her paper “Gendered Media: The Influence of Media on Views of Gender.” She also notes that men are shown as independent; women are shown as dependent. Women in the media get only a third of the speaking roles and are drastically underrepresented.
Dr. Wood was discussing fictional representations of women, but those roles are informed by actual attention to what women are doing in the world as portrayed by the media, and vice versa. Fictional media sees women’s accomplishments as less important than those of men, because women’s accomplishments in the real world are seen as less important than those of men. And then the media turns back around to reinforce biases that affect how the real world works.
The subconscious message here is that: a. Hillary Clinton is important because her husband says she is, directly reinforced by several headlines that quote Bill Clinton; and b. Her husband is the real power here, reinforced by the fact that her historic moment was illustrated by photos and quotes of her husband.
The choice to give so much attention to Hillary Clinton’s very recognizable and politically powerful husband instead of the candidate herself, one of her actual proxies (like Kaine), or her supporters at the convention, reinforces the idea that she, and all women, are wives first — even when they are running for president. It’s a subtle reminder that even in 2016, women are defined by their husbands.
I don’t think this was the intent of any of the newspapers that chose to run a photo of Bill Clinton instead of one of the Democratic Party candidate herself. I know most newsroom staffs are bare bones these days, and the front page designers were most likely scrambling to grab a photo, any photo, and send the page before deadline. From my own colleagues, I learned that at least one wire service had not made available a photo of Hillary Clinton on the Jumbotron as of 11:30 p.m. Pacific time last night.
For some of these papers, they probably don’t even design their own pages. They simply grab a page designed by a firm in another state and use it unaltered, because they no longer have a design staff of their own.
But when it comes to representation, this is why it’s so very important for media to think about which images they use and how they use them, especially for historic events like Clinton’s nomination.
The Newseum, a journalism museum based in Washington, D.C., took the excellent first step today of choosing only newspapers that used photos of Hillary Clinton or a crowd of her supporters as their main art for its daily Top Ten.
The newspapers that put Bill Clinton front and center on their front pages likely didn’t realize they’re part of the problem, but we can use their choice to launch a discussion of how influential and important women are portrayed in the news, and what steps media producers can take to fix it.
The following American newspapers ran photos of Hillary Clinton’s husband instead of Clinton herself:
- Birmingham News
- The Press-Register (Mobile, Ala.)
- Opelika-Auburn News
- Alaska Dispatch News
- Arizona Daily Sun
- Arizona Republic
- Arizona Daily Star
- Arkansas Democrat Gazette
- Bakersfield Californian
- The Daily Post (Palo Alto, Calif.)
- Sacramento Bee
- San Diego Union-Tribune
- San Francisco Chronicle
- The Tribune (San Luis Obispo, Calif.)
- Marin Independent Journal
- The Record (Stockton, Calif.)
- Tulare Advance-Register
- Visalia Times-Delta
- The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, Colo.)
- Pueblo Chieftain
- New Haven Register
- The Republican-American (Waterbury, Conn.)
- The News Journal (Wilmington, Del.)
- Washington Post
- Bradenton Herald
- South Florida Sun Sentinel
- Florida Today (Melbourne, Fla.)
- Naples Daily News*
- Orlando Sentinel
- The Villages Daily Sun
- Palm Beach Post
- Augusta Chronicle
- Savannah Morning News
- Chicago Tribune
- Decatur Herald & Review
- The Dispatch (Moline, Ill.)
- Rock Island Argus
- The Daily Herald (Chicago, Ill.)
- The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)
- Quad-City Times (Davenport, Iowa)
- Muscatine Journal
- Garden City Telegram
- The Advocate (Baton Rouge, La.)
- Times-Picayune (New Orleans, La.)
- Sun Journal (Lewiston, Maine)
- Boston Herald*
- Metro West Daily News (Framingham, Mass.)*
- The Sun (Lowell, Mass.)
- The Republican (Springfield, Mass.)
- Detroit Free Press*
- Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)
- Grand Island Independent
- Concord Monitor
- The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)
- Asbury Park Press (Neptune, N.J.)
- Burlington County Times (Willingboro, N.J.)
- Herald News (Woodland Park, N.J.)
- Times Union (Albany, N.Y.)
- Buffalo News
- Charlotte Observer
- Daily Reflector (Greenville, N.C.)
- Winston-Salem Journal
- Columbus Dispatch
- The Courier (Findlay, Ohio)
- Sandusky Register
- The Blade (Toledo, Ohio)*
- The Vindicator (Youngstown, Ohio)*
- The Oklahoman
- The Intelligencer (Doylestown, Pa.)*
- Standard-Speaker (Hazleton, Pa.)
- Indiana Gazette (Indiana, Pa.)*
- The Tribune-Democrat (Johnstown, Pa.)*
- LNP (Lancaster, Pa.)
- Bucks County Courier Times (Levittown, Pa.)*
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
- Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
- Reading Eagle
- The Daily Item (Sunbury, Pa.)
- Observer-Reporter (Washington, Pa.)
- The State (Columbia, S.C.)*
- News Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.)
- Valley Morning Star (Harlingen, Texas)*
- Houston Chronicle
- Killeen Daily Herald
- Lubbock Avalanche-Journal
- San Antonio Express-News
- Texarkana Gazette
- The Daily Herald (Provo, Utah)
- Salt Lake Tribune
- Daily News-Record (Harrisonburg, Va.)
- The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
- Richmond Times-Dispatch
- The WInchester Star
- Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.)
- The Seattle Times
- The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.)
- Yakima Herald-Republic*
- Parkersburg News and Sentinel*
- Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)*
*Entries with asterisks included a small photo of Hillary Clinton, but I included them because her husband still got top billing — but this was pretty subjective and based primarily on photo size and placement along with headline clarity, so take it with a grain of salt. They may also have given him more headline attention than Hillary Clinton. Some of these are actually fairly equal billing … but the nomination is Hillary’s moment, not her husband’s, even if he did speak at the convention that day.