The national media have never been more primed to take down Hillary Clinton (and, by the same token, elevate a Republican candidate) – Politico
My intention here is simple: detail the various narratives and frames (“calculating,” “secretive,” “polarizing,” etc.) that paint Hillary Clinton’s actions in the most negative possible light. These are carefully crafted and patently false scripts, many of which were concocted years ago in GOP oppo shops to demean and dehumanize her. Distinct from legitimate policy critiques, these lazy shortcuts have seeped so deeply into traditional media coverage that it is virtually impossible to read anything about Hillary Clinton without encountering them.
Every public figure is subject to criticism. What is unique in Clinton’s case is that personal attacks which would normally be the province of political opponents and critics are promulgated by the mainstream news media.
To illustrate the convergence, I’ve put together two word mashups. The first is a list of adjectives describing Hillary Clinton drawn from two articles in the conservative publications Townhall and National Review. The second is a compilation of terms from just two weeks of Clinton coverage in supposedly non-partisan media outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, and NBC News. Both yield a grotesque caricature of the actual person, but it is hard to say which is more egregious.
National Review & Townhall: “Lovecraftian monster, the Cthulhu of American politics, short of clever, too old and out of touch, edifice to deceit, slithered out of Washington, Faustian, passion-quelling pantsuit.”
Mainstream media: “Machiavellian, musty-smelling, stale, secretive, calculating, imperious, paranoid, petulant, defiant, devious, scrambles in the dirt.”
Each journalist or media source will justify their particular choice of terms, but the net effect is that mainstream media coverage of Hillary Clinton is soaked in veiled (and sometimes explicit) sexism, politically-charged framing and character assassination. When a New York Times or Washington Post article is indistinguishable from a rightwing publication, you know something is amiss.
None of this is meant to place Hillary Clinton above reproach, simply to illustrate the complex process by which these memes are regurgitated, repeated and reinforced.
For example, a reporter may attribute a negative frame to a political opponent, then subtly echo the same attack line.
Example from the New York Times:
And for someone who has so long been lampooned, and demonized on the right, as overly calculating, playing up her gender as a strength would also allow her to demonstrate her nurturing, maternal — and newly grandmotherly — side to voters whom she may have left cold in the past.
The reader is first primed with the narrative that Hillary Clinton is “overly calculating” then told she is “playing up her gender,” which echoes the theme of calculation. [For a more detailed explanation of how this process works, read about Inoculation Theory.]
National Journal reverses the order, going with the attack first and the priming second:
The media and the American public are familiar with the stale Clinton tricks, which now only play into the GOP caricature that Hillary Clinton is calculating, paranoid, and wholly political.
Memes spread through repetition. In the examples above, the repeated word is “calculating.” Another favorite is “secretive.”
USA Today alludes to Hillary Clinton’s “reputation for secrecy.”
Mirrored by the Washington Post: “her penchant for secrecy.”
NBC News: “Folks, this is the Clinton Way. Secretive.”
TIME: “penchant for secrecy.”
The Hill: “a paranoid, secretive politician.”
New York Times: “[T]he imbroglio could grow into a problem if Mrs. Clinton comes to be seen as unduly secretive or imperious in the months ahead.”
Remember, these instances are from two weeks of coverage in major news outlets. The recursive effect is obvious: the more the word “secrecy” is associated with Hillary Clinton, the more reporters and critics will use it, the more it will be associated with her, the more… you get the point.
A common feature of these memes is that other people’s criticisms are ascribed to Clinton as a negative personal trait. The term “polarizing” is typically peddled by people who are attacking her, thus creating the very polarization they are lamenting. Case in point, from The Hill: Clinton fails to calm email storm. The entire article is about the fact that her opponents intend to keep attacking her. How is that Hillary Clinton’s failure?
Politico uses the same technique, opening an article by calling her “devious” then concluding it by asserting that “it’s hard to win if you’re constantly on the defensive.” See the trap? Attack her, then claim she’s on the defensive.
Similarly, the ‘inevitability’ frame is an artificial perch that others place her on and then try to knock her off. And when her behavior doesn’t conform to the media’s expectations, she is “defiant.”
From The Hill:
While Clinton kept a calm demeanor throughout the press conference, she appeared defiant on one point.
A Defiant Clinton Brushes Off Email Controversy
It goes on and on. Coverage of Hillary Clinton is littered with references to her hair, fashion, health and family – innuendo and insinuation that have no direct relevance to her policies. The terminology used to describe her would be unacceptable for any other respected public figure.
A Washington Post reporter appearing on MSNBC made reference to “Clinton, Inc.” (the implication is obvious). Politico uses the term “Machiavellian” to describe her team’s strategy. Not to be outdone, TIME waxes poetic, describing her response to an attack as a “scramble in the dirt on the crabbed limbs of legal compliance.” The Washington Post compares her to a “stale, musty” old car. The New Yorker prefers the blatantly sexist “petulant.”
Below are the top anti-Clinton memes. See if you can spot them the next time you read about her. Better yet, see if you can find any Hillary Clinton coverage that doesn’t use some version of the following:
- OVER AMBITIOUS
- WILL DO ANYTHING TO WIN
- OLD/OUT OF TOUCH
UPDATE 1: A classic lede from Patrick Healy, one of the masters of anti-Clinton memes:
On one side is a crowd of Republicans trying to look presidential. On the other side is a lone Democrat trying to look normal.
Translation: Hillary Clinton is abnormal but trying to manipulate perceptions to appear normal.
UPDATE 2: From US News:
Clinton is trying to keep the media at bay but at the same time avoid public bursts of anger at them or displays of petulance, which would lessen her likability.
UPDATE 3: Under the guise of the insulting question, “Can you be a bad person but a strong leader?” David Brooks employs convoluted logic and fake interrogatories to spread a cornucopia of anti-Clinton tropes:
They tend to have sleazy friends … Their pride is bloated and sensitive … They keep an enemies list and life becomes a matter of settling scores and imagining conspiracies … Maybe once upon a time there was an environment in which ruthless Machiavellians had room to work their dark arts, but we don’t live in Renaissance Italy … They don’t have to think through the dangers of tit-for-tat favor-exchanges with billionaires.
UPDATE 4: Patrick Healy strikes again, with a tutorial in anti-Clinton memes titled (believe it or not) Hillary Clinton Shows New Willingness to Run a Divisive Campaign. In a remarkable illustration of the power of framing, Maggie Haberman, another NYT reporter, tweeted a link to Healy’s piece saying, “a more confident Clinton this time around.” Contrast her choice of words and Healy’s and ask why he avoided her more positive framing. [An hour after I posted this update and tweeted at Healy and Haberman, the headline was changed to: “Hillary Clinton Shows New Willingness to Tackle Risky Issues”]
If the headline isn’t bad enough, consider the terms that appear in this article: “get under her skin, cold, cautious, scandals-be-damned attitude, barreling ahead, not every day that a lawyer like Mrs. Clinton discovers a new constitutional protection, Hillary unbound, twisted herself into knots.”
It’s important to understand the process here: the overall article may make valid political points, but it is delivered in a way that leaves the reader with a negative impression of the subject of the story. This is a quintessential example of how the mainstream media engage in character destruction with Hillary Clinton.
UPDATE 5: Sexist insinuations and gratuitous editorializing from a NY Times article:
Unlike in 2008, when Mrs. Clinton’s regal bearing was brought low by Barack Obama’s insurgent campaign …
Magically animated from a wax museum to claim what is rightfully hers.
And here’s the tweet the reporter posted as a link to his story: “Queen Hillary and the Everyday Americans of the Round Table”
So much for just reporting the facts.