Constructing Race in Black and Whiteness: Media Coverage of Public Support for President Clinton

Article excerpt

Abstract

This study employs a framing analysis of media explanations regarding public support for President Clinton during the 1998 coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. An analysis of broadcast, newspaper, and magazine stories during the scandal reveals that media coverage of support for the President focused exclusively on African Americans. Five discursive frames were used to explain African American support: morality, political pragmatism, distrust of the criminal justice system, forgiveness/redemption, and Clinton's rapport with African Americans. Although these frames construct blackness using a variety of characteristics seldom found in the media, they also construct the concept of blackness in near universal and essentialist terms. Media explanations of Black support at the expense of explanations of White support (or lack thereof) for the President reinforce a racial hierarchy whereby whiteness serves as an invisible racial norm.

The reality of the news takes precedence over the news of reality

[Bill Nichols, 1991, p. 128]

Since social reality is socially constructed and the mass media provide frameworks for constructing that reality, then among the media's more conspicuous roles is its contribution to our understanding of race. The concept of "race" is a social construct that is the result of dynamic power relations rather than skin color or genes. By interrogating the symbolic processes whereby some groups are coded as "the other" and others "the norm," various scholars have demonstrated how constructions of both "blackness" and "whiteness" change according to political, social, and economic circumstances (Dyer, 1997; Frankenberg, 1993; hooks, 1990; 1992; Pieterse, 1992). These constructions-often found in media texts produced by institutions owned, operated, and largely controlled by Whites-work to create, sustain, and legitimize White supremacy (Dines & Humez, 1995). Thus, it is important to investigate how media texts construct race when covering stories that may be influenced by the aforementioned political, social, and economic circumstances.

This paper examines the social construction of race by analyzing media discourses surrounding a prominent news event: the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. While the Presidential scandal dominated news coverage for over a year beginning in January 1998, it did not, at least initially, possess racial dimensions. However, as the event played out in the media, race, and more specifically, African Americans became central to the story in at least two ways.1

As soon as the President of the United States was accused of having a wrongful sexual relationship with a female intern, among those implicated in this relationship were two African Americans: Presidential secretary Betty Currie and Clinton's friend and attorney Vernon Jordan.2 When it appeared the President misled many of those around him, and as more details of the investigation were revealed, the news media and public opinion polls kept a constant watch on the public's reaction to the scandal.3 Thus, a second, and more important way in which race became prominent to this mediated event was in terms of who supported President Clinton and why. Among the many possible responses to the first part of the question, the media gave one dominant answer: the President received extensive support from African Americans. For example, ABC News anchor Carole Simpson began one ABC Evening News story in the following manner: "As many segments of the American people seem to be turning away from President Clinton, he continues to find solace among his most loyal constituency" (Simpson, 1998). The story proceeded to define Clinton's most loyal constituency as African Americans and offer reasons for this support. CBS's Dan Rather offered a similar lead-in to a story: "Poll after poll shows Mr. Clinton's core support within the African American community granite solid" (Whittaker, 1998).

This paper analyzes media discourse explaining public support for a President who, after initial denials, admitted to having an inappropriate relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. …