Gender Politics: News Coverage of the Candidates' Wives in Campaign 2000

By Winfield, Betty Houchin; Friedman, Barbara | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

Gender Politics: News Coverage of the Candidates' Wives in Campaign 2000


Winfield, Betty Houchin, Friedman, Barbara, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


This study considers coverage of the candidates' wives prior to the election during the 2000 presidential campaign. News coverage is examined for the presence of established frames used in covering First Ladies: as an escort, in a protocol role, in a noblesse oblige role, and as a policy adviser.

Twentieth-century coverage of the President as the symbolic head of state has extended to his wife.1 They together become the First Family, an ideal couple for the nation, with the wife a model for upper-middle-class women. Historian Gil Troy has said, "We use the first lady not only as a role model but also a metaphor for what the modern American woman is all about."2

In the past twenty years, studies have examined the First Lady,3 how she enhances or detracts from her husband's administration,4 changing expectations of her,5 what the position means,6 what the public thinks about her,7 and how news media cover her.8 The few studies of news coverage point to journalists' interest in how the couple met, their courtship, and their work and lives together, primarily in terms of traditional roles for such a woman.9 Less research has examined coverage of the candidates' wives as First Ladies-to-be.10

Scharrer and Bissell examined media coverage of Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, and Hillary Clinton, finding that the more politically active a First Lady is, the more negative the news coverage of her tends to be.11 Iyengar et. al. found that media stereotyping of women candidates depends upon contextual and individual difference factors, such as the extent to which gender is salient to voters.12 Winfield distinguishes four major frames which journalists apply to First Ladies: as an escort, accompanying her spouse; in a protocol role as a style setter, leading fashionable society in social and ceremonial events; in a noblesse oblige role, doing charitable, good works; and in a policy role, taking a political role as a policy adviser.13

This qualitative study of Election 2000 asks the following: During a presidential campaign, does coverage of candidates' wives reflect particular expectations for an upper-middle-class supporting-wife role and does it follow the same kind of news patterns found in the coverage of First Ladies? If not, what news coverage frames dominate?

Previous scholarship on coverage of First Ladies addressed White House news management and image making,14 gender stereotypes,15 public opinion,16 and news framing.17 Frames, to quote Reese, are "organizing principles that are socially shared and persistent over time," and that structure in a meaningful way the social world.18 "Structure," Reese points out, means that internal organization within news stories can impose a pattern over time on how the story is told. In fact, framing can relate closely to ideological analysis.19 Pan and Kosicki note that reporters are more than neutral chroniclers, and news frames can influence how audiences understand issues.20 As an example, they point to the framing of Zoe Baird's nomination for Attorney General in terms of class division and respect for law, a viewpoint repeatedly broadcast over talk radio.21

This study examines coverage of women connected to major political figures by marriage, the wives of candidates for President and Vice President. The First and Second Lady, unlike the President and Vice President, do not operate under a constitutional directive, nor do they receive a policy portfolio. Their roles are unspecified. Their sources of guidance are examples of tradition and previous First Ladies' experiences. As public figures, they also contend with public response. How journalists covered the Campaign 2000 candidates' wives may say something both about how the First and Second Lady's roles are evolving and the defining role of the media.22

The focus is primarily on Laura Bush and Tipper Gore, wives of Republican and Democratic presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore, respectively; and Lynne Cheney, wife of Republican vice presidential nominee Richard "Dick" Cheney, and Hadassah Lieberman, wife of Democratic vice presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman.

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