The Performance of a Lifetime — Why Hillary Clinton’s Media Coverage Matters

By Marissa Deutsch

Hillary Clinton making a campaign stop at USC last spring.

When it comes to the media’s coverage of current presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, whether it be broadcast or print or radio, it is clear that she has been the subject of intense scrutiny.

Some would say that much of this could be because Clinton is the first female presidential candidate to be nominated by one of the two major political parties. Diane Winston, an associate professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the Knight Center Chair in Media and Religion, however, cautions against too much generality, and suggests a more nuanced approach when it comes to deciphering the media’s relationship with Clinton.

“It’s very hard to talk about the media nowadays because the media’s so diffused and there’s so much media. So, I suppose if we were talking about feminist media, or we were talking about Fox News, we’re talking about two very different kinds of media,” Winston said.

Winston acknowledges, however, that Clinton has faced unique challenges and perhaps unfair scrutiny being a female politician. “It seems that they’ve liked Hillary less than Bill (Clinton) in recent years,” said Winston. “Not so much when she was acting as secretary of state but every time she seems to exert power on her own.”

In an article from Quartz earlier this year, feminist political writer Sady Doyle pointed out that American approval ratings of Clinton have soared every time she takes on a new role, but plummet during her campaigning for it. The article suggests that American society is still uncomfortable with the public act of a woman asking for power, something the Fourth Estate’s political coverage has had a long history with.

“I was a young reporter and Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman to be nominated as vice president,” remembered Winston. “I mean, on one hand this was historic to have a woman as vice president at the top of the ticket, but on the other hand she really got slammed by the press in a way that very few vice presidential candidates ever do.”

Winston thinks this might have something to do with the way that politicians exert their femininity. This, however, also represents a catch-22 for Clinton and her female politician peers.

“If she was feminine and soft she would be seen as manipulative and exploiting her gender,” said Winston, who added that Clinton therefore tries to remain more stoic, and instead is portrayed as “aggressive” by the media. She compares this treatment to the potentially deliberate choices that President Obama made during his campaigns. He was often criticized by the press for his “soft” demeanor and persona.

“I think it speaks to why Obama was so emotionally controlled throughout his presidency, because he realized that he didn’t want to play into any racist stereotypes,” said Winston. “But I think he realized those tropes are powerful and Hillary realizes that too.”

As for witnessing an overall change in the way that women in politics are covered by the media, Winston again cautions against sweeping generalizations without some sort of controlled study, but acknowledges that other areas of growth for feminism might have had an impact over time. “In the last thirty years we’ve seen more women running for office and more women succeeding in congress and in the senate and in the supreme court,” points out Winston. “But it still seems like when a woman is at the top of the ticket it generates a lot of negativity and sexism and problematic coverage.”

The Clinton campaign issues mirror Obama’s in other ways, too. Being the first is not always a good thing.

“When Obama was elected everyone thought that this was the beginning of a post-racial society,” said Winston. However, looking back that was decidedly not true. Winston suggests this may have even led to more vitriol and hatred by those that are too used to being in power, and wonders if something similar won’t happen were we to elect our first female president.

“I wonder what kind of backlash there will be, because if Obama teaches us anything it’s that people’s minds don’t get changed quite as quickly and easily as we thought” said Winston.

And, while it’s very clear that there is still much work to be done in the fight for equal representation between genders in the media, Hillary Clinton’s national bid for president speaks to at least some small measure of success. While this opportunity would have been unthinkable as short as a decade ago, Clinton now represents a possible career path to young girls across the nation — much of that thanks to the vehicle of the media. Representation matters. As The Guardian puts it, “If she can’t see it, she can’t be it.”

Hopefully, as time goes on, the media will cover a world where women from every walk of life are represented.

But first, we have to elect a president.