Clinton Ran Against The Press—And Won

Public believed her, not her coverage

After last night’s win, it seems clear that Bill was right. The possible future first laddie has been railing against the press for the past few weeks—and went on a real tirade just hours before the polls opened in New Hampshire. His complaint, which I laid out yesterday, was that Hillary was being bombarded with negative press while Obama was getting a free pass.

In the days following the Iowa caucuses, it was hard to argue otherwise. Obama’s sunny speech left Hillary in the shadows and the full barrage of journalistic maltreatment was unloaded on her—from seriously unflattering close-ups of her wrinkles to rumors that she was going to pull-out of the race. Even the now famous lump in her throat (The Moment) was first spun as a negative. As we recorded yesterday, those who didn’t think she was outright faking it assumed the tears were proof that the woman (or any woman?) that needed to keep a box of Kleenex handy lacked the mettle to be commander-in-chief.

Bill Clinton was right to be angry at all this. Did it mean the press had vindictively turned against his wife? I don’t think so, and I tried to say as much yesterday. As we have noted countless times before, journalists—particularly those trying to spin endless days of the same stump speeches into gold—depend on a simple narrative thread they can follow. It makes it easier for them to write under deadline and, presumably, they think the reader wants that thread to grasp onto. And after Hillary’s defeat in Iowa, which ended her reign of inevitability, that narrative turned simply to: she’s toast.

But, as it turns out, the very thing that Bill was railing against might have been Hillary’s biggest asset last night. Why did Hillary win, after all, defying conventional wisdom and those pesky polls? The early analyses this morning point to two obvious reasons: one is the groundwork. The effort to get out the Democratic base—Clinton’s core—paid off and counterbalanced the independents and young voters coming out for Obama. But the other thing everyone seems to be mentioning is emotion. The combination of her angry and soft moments at the debate last Saturday, and her coffee shop cry, made voters—and older women especially—more sympathetic to a suddenly more humanoid-seeming Hillary.

I agree with this last sentiment—but with a slight twist. I don’t think it was the pure emotion, as some of my fellow bloggers, like Ben Smith, suggest. I think it has more to do with how the media covered that emotion. They just wouldn’t give her a break. Hillary’s burst of anger at John Edwards during the debate was described as shrill and unhinged; the tears, as I said earlier, were immediately interpreted as some kind of ploy, or a sign of weakness and even emotional instability. It was the voters who saw beneath the interpretation and actually perceived these moments as a glimpse at the real Hillary. The pundits and analysts missed this. To them she was just as inauthentic as ever, the narrative had not, could not, change. What I think the public in New Hampshire responded to—the backlash, if you will—was how these moments were spun. People saw the media’s inability to fit Clinton into any narrative other than the one the press had constructed for her, and they decided to give her a break, believing what they saw versus how they heard it characterized.

Hillary and Bill ran against the media’s depiction of her, their narrative of her, and she won the public’s sympathy.

And how quickly that narrative has now turned. She has risen from the dead. She’s the comeback kid. But she should be careful; Obama has a new and effective narrative attached to him now as well, one even more potent than being the revived frontrunner. As one AP headline put it: “N.H. returns Obama to underdog status.”

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.