Revisiting the Clinton/lewinsky Scandal: The Convergence of Agenda Setting and Framing

Article excerpt

This study examines Clinton/Lewinsky scandal coverage from an agenda-setting perspective-while polls show morality is important to the public, why wasn't Clinton and Lewinsky's relationship? We argue that it was a case of compelling arguments, where the media's choice of attributes negatively affected the public's salience of the story. The "sex scandal/adultery" attribute was used most often, was of low relevance, and we speculate that because of its high use in the beginning, persisted in people's minds, influencing the way they viewed continuing coverage of the scandal. Finally, ramifications of Clinton/Lewinsky coverage on the 2000 presidential election are discussed.

The 2000 presidential election was a sensational story that captured the attention of the world. It will be remembered as one of the closest, most suspenseful, and unpredictable elections in U.S. history. Before the election, the outcome seemed clear. The country was riding a wave of economic prosperity and Al Gore was the vice president of a popular administration with high approval ratings. Most of the political science election models predicted that Gore would become the next president of the United States, and, in fact, he was leading in the early polls. It seemed a foregone conclusion that Gore would win the 2000 presidential election. As the election neared, Gore attempted to separate himself from that popular administration, choosing not to involve President Bill Clinton in the campaign. In the end, Gore won the popular vote by .51%, while Bush won the electoral vote and became president.1 What appeared to escape the prediction formulas of the political scientists-the distancing of Clinton-did not escape the attention of the public.

Polls prior to the 2000 campaign season highlighted the prominence of candidates' character and morality. A December 1999 survey sponsored by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard School of Public Health asked U.S. adults which issues would "be most important when you decide who to vote for" in the upcoming election.2 Candidates' character and moral values came in second, after candidates' stands on issues (and tied with leadership abilities). Almost one-fourth of the U.S. adult population surveyed found character and moral values to be a significant determinant in their election decision.

Another study conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post in March and April 2000 asked U.S. adults how important "encouraging high moral standards and values" was to them in deciding how to vote in the 2000 presidential election.3 The result: 66% of those surveyed stated it was "very important" while 21% stated it was "somewhat important." In other words, for 87% of those surveyed, encouraging morality and values would factor in their voting decision for president. Finally, in a July 2000 Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/ Harvard poll, when choosing from a list of seventeen prominent issues, 15% of respondents selected "moral values" as the issue "most important in deciding [their] vote for president" tying with social security and only surpassed by education (18%).4

In light of the poll results demonstrating the importance of a presidential candidate's morality and character, one wonders about the public's disinterest in and dissatisfaction with the overwhelming earlier media coverage of the relationship between President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and the Gore campaign decision to distance itself from Clinton.

Part of the explanation can be found in the interplay between the media's framing of issues and the public's perceptions of news coverage, which has been the focus of agenda-setting and framing research. Although the two have primarily been separate paths of inquiry, their convergence is a hotly debated topic among communication scholars. Advocates cite similarities in conceptualizations of frames and attributes, while others disagree and fear the rich detail of framing analysis will be lost in the aggregation of data that is utilized in many agenda-setting studies. …