Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Press, Passion, and Portsmouth: Narratives about "Crying" on the Campaign Trail

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Press, Passion, and Portsmouth: Narratives about "Crying" on the Campaign Trail

Article excerpt


On January 7, 2008, one day before the New Hampshire primary, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, an undecided voter asked presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton, "How do you do it? ... How do you keep upbeat and so wonderful?" (Kornblut, 2008, p. A09). In answering the question, Clinton's voice quivered and tears appeared in her eyes. The next day, despite polling showing Obama in the lead in New Hampshire, Clinton won a plurality of votes. The incident at Portsmouth subsequently generated vast amounts of press coverage. A search of Lexis-Nexis revealed that in the week that followed the incident there were more than five hundred articles in English language papers reporting the story, and that eighty-five of those stories headlined with the tears. The press framed the incident as a major moment in the campaign and treated it as a profoundly important story about Senator Clinton.

Little academic research has focused on the expression of emotion by candidates. When scholars have tackled emotion in the political communication literature it has been more often in the context of how voters' emotions impact their voting choices (e.g., Ragsdale, 1991). In 1998 Glaser and Salovey declared, "Research has centered ... on the emotions of voters with regard to candidates, largely to the exclusion of studies of the impact of candidates' emotionality" (1998, p. 156). This claim seems as true today as it was a decade ago.

This paper will argue that we can understand the amount and type of press coverage of Clinton's Portsmouth moment by viewing the press stories as a narrative about her as a character in an unfolding campaign story. Specifically, Clinton got so much coverage because it represented a good story, and it was a good story because (a) it was perceived to have important consequences (arguably determining the outcome of the New Hampshire primary), (b) it resonated with stereotypes about women (women are emotional), and (c) it gave insight into the character of Hillary Clinton, a presidential candidate.

Walter Fisher (1989) in his seminal book Human Communication as Narration argued that humans are fundamentally storytellers, and they understand life as a series of stories. People also make arguments by telling stories. These stories are considered convincing if they meet the tests of narrative probability (the story must hang together and seem coherent) and narrative fidelity (the story must ring true with other stories that people have heard before and have come to believe). The characters in a story's narrative also play a prominent role in Fisher's theory. He argued that believable stories rely on the consistent actions of characters. Readers are less likely to believe and trust stories with unreliable characters. Fisher argued that we can enhance our understanding of human communication by exploring texts as narratives.

Similarly, Jamieson and Waldman (2003) argued that people understand press stories as narratives. They noted, "By arranging information into structures with antagonists, central conflicts, and narrative progression, journalists deliver the world to citizens in a comprehensible form" (p. 1). Moreover, they argued that reporters are so invested in telling a good story they often leave out facts when it would undermine the story line. To better examine the narrative elements in the story about Clinton at Portsmouth, I conducted a rhetorical analysis of press coverage of the event.


This study examined the press coverage of Clinton's campaign event in Portsmouth that appeared in the "Major U.S. and World Publications" database found in Lexis-Nexis in the week after she shed tears at Portsmouth. To select the articles, I searched for Clinton's last name and a series of words connoting sadness. The search terms in the Clinton race included: (Clinton and emotion) or (Clinton and cry) or (Clinton and tear) or (Clinton and weep). …

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