Fact-Checking the Media Narrative About Hillary Clinton

Brian Beutler has written an interesting article on a topic a lot of people are talking about: how the media is handling coverage of Clinton and Trump. But as I was reading it, something jumped out at me. It wasn’t because what he wrote was unique – rather it was because it has become standard conventional wisdom for how to describe the two presidential candidates.

An ignorant, unethical, racist authoritarian who horrifies the political leaders of his party on the one hand; and a conventional, if flawed and unpopular politician on the other.

If you’ve read/listened to much of the coverage of this election, that’s about as good as it gets from most media sources who aren’t part of the right wing bubble. In other words, Beutler captured the media narrative that has developed about both candidates.

I remember noticing how durable these narratives have been when Dick Cheney was constantly described as the serious experienced one in relation to George W. Bush – the candidate everyone wanted to have a beer with. We all remember how that one turned out. But it’s the kind of thing that happens every presidential election. Pardon me for saying so, but it’s also the lazy short-hand that is often embraced without asking too many questions.

It might be interesting then, to do a bit of a fact-check on the current media narrative about Hillary Clinton. Beutler used three words to describe her: conventional, flawed and unpopular. Let’s take a minute to think about those.

Perhaps the word conventional is another way of saying “establishment.” If we mean that Clinton has embraced the idea of pushing for change from within the system rather than outside of it – that would be an apt description. It’s also true that describing Clinton as a conventional politician in contrast to her opponent – who is the complete opposite – hits the mark.

But it is difficult for me to wrap my head around the idea of calling the first female candidate for president from a major party “conventional.” Hillary Clinton’s life has been full of personal and professional experiences that have not been shared with any other major party nominee in the history of this country. Her election would be historic. It is difficult to connect that reality with any concept of conventional.

The word that intrigues me the most in that description is “flawed.” Just a moment’s thought about it’s use raises an awful lot of questions. Does it mean that Hillary Clinton is flawed in the same way that all candidates are because of the fact that they are human beings – or is it meant to signal something much bigger? I suspect that it’s the latter – otherwise it wouldn’t be worth saying. But then you have to wonder how Hillary is more flawed than previous candidates who have run for president – like her husband Bill, or Bob Dole, or Al Gore, or George W. Bush, or John McCain, or Mitt Romney, or Barack Obama. Surely they all had flaws as candidates. Was that word used to describe them?

Beyond that, one has to wonder what is flawed about the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Is it about the policies she has proposed or the kind of campaign she has run? I don’t think so. In both of those regards, her candidacy has been exemplary, rather than flawed. I suspect that it is meant to refer to personal flaws. Things that have been bandied about over the years about her include that she is overly protective (and possibly defensive) about her privacy and that she’s not an inspirational public speaker. There are facts that back up those critiques, but they hardly rise above the kinds of flaws we’ve seen in other candidates. She also gets criticized for being untrustworthy and ambitious – but those come from a combination or right wing smears and sexism. In other words, they are either not actually flaws or they’re not fact-based.

In the end, it seems to me that we can call any candidate (or human being for that matter) flawed. I just don’t see how it fits for Clinton anymore than it does for anyone else.

The word that we hear the most when talking about Hillary Clinton is “unpopular.” The fact that backs that one up is her unfavorable rating in the polls. Right now the RCP average has it at 54.8 (compared to a favorable rating at 41.4). There is no disputing that this part of the narrative is true.

What is interesting about it though, is to take a look at this one over the course of Clinton’s time on the national stage. It’s striking that her favorability rating during her tenure as Secretary of State was more than 20 points higher (low to mid 60’s) than it is today. So she hasn’t always been unpopular. Most rational people would ask “what changed?” I suspect that actual data to answer that question is more difficult to come by. We can all fashion our own assumptions, but they’d be very difficult to prove. The one thing I’d like to know is whether or not that drop in favorability is based on anything Clinton actually did or if it has to do with how she is portrayed in the role of Secretary of State vs presidential candidate – which brings us right back to the media’s narrative that she is conventional, flawed and unpopular. See how that works? It’s a classic case of which came first, the chicken or the egg.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.