Media Feeding Frenzies: Press Behavior during Two Clinton Scandals
Maurer, Paul J., Presidential Studies Quarterly
We have witnessed in recent years numerous political scandals at the highest level of American government. Given the power of media, press behavior during these scandals is an increasingly relevant topic for examination. Most recently, President Bill Clinton is facing charges of scandal in relation to former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. How the press covers political scandal warrants careful research. This article examines how the press covered two scandals of the Clinton presidency.
Specifically, this article describes and tests the conclusions of Larry Sabato, who in his book, Feeding Frenzy, suggests that journalists of all varieties begin to act like sharks when they "smell the blood" of a political scandal.(1) This article describes Sabato's concept and examines the Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones cases against Sabato's explanation of frenzy. The Gary Hart/Donna Rice frenzy offers an occasional point of comparison in light of the research Sabato has already done.
In gathering data to describe and analyze the Flowers and Jones frenzies, only articles from the New York Times and the Washington Post were examined.(2) These newspapers were chosen because they set the standard for the news media in terms of what is suitable to report.(3) Therefore, any reference to "number of articles" refers to articles that mention at least twice the names of Donna Rice, Gennifer Flowers, or Paula Jones.
Sabato's Description of Feeding Frenzies
Sabato offers multiple components in understanding feeding frenzies:
Watergate's watermark on the media. Sabato points to the Watergate scandal as the watershed event in creating the phenomenon of feeding frenzies. Prior to Watergate, the press lived in complicity with politicians regarding their personal lives or character. The press never mentioned Franklin D. Roosevelt's relationship with Lucy Mercer, and only 2 of 35,000 photos of Roosevelt show him in a wheelchair. The press knew of John F. Kennedy's liaisons and of Lyndon B. Johnson's hard drinking, but these were considered taboo to report. Watergate shifted the orientation of reporting from description to prescription.(4) A new breed of journalist emerged who was highly investigative, idealistic, and mistrustful of authority. Hollywood helped create this new vision of journalism with the glamorous portrayals of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the President's Men.
Competitive pressures. The increase of news outlets and the advent of new technologies such as minicams, faxes, and all-news channels have helped create a highly intense press environment. Sabato states that "as coverage expands, quality declines."(5) The increase of intensity has taken place while journalism's ultimate imperatives have remained the same. First, do not get beaten to a story by another media outlet. Second, if we do not break this story, then someone else will.(6) The media outlets exist to make money and must turn a profit. They also know that sex sells. These factors have created "lowest common denominator journalism,"(7) which leads other outlets to cover a story once it has been broken.
Pack journalism. Sabato identifies a herd mentality resulting from competitive pressures. Groupthink becomes the norm, and it is unusual for a news outlet to act independently once a major story has broken. Even the heavyweights fall in line quickly.(8)
The character issue takes hold. The character component is the nerve center of Sabato's work. It represents the point at which reporters struggle with the question of whether or not to report on the private life of a politician. The press continually asks, "Is private character relevant to public office performance?" Sabato believes the question has been answered affirmatively but finds the answer disturbing, saying, "Perhaps most troubling is the nearly universally accepted belief that private conduct is the road map to public action. …