The Tipping Point

Clinton, the media, and a mysterious $100 tip

Here’s a tip for politicians as they make their way through Iowa’s restaurants, diners, and coffee shops: leave one.

On the trail last month, Clinton and her entourage stopped for lunch at Maid-Rite, a diner in Toledo, Iowa. Clinton was served by a waitress, Anita Esterday, who just happened to be the archetype of Clinton’s target demographic: a single mom, working two jobs. Clinton mentioned Esterday and her situation in several of her subsequent stump speeches. Three weeks later, NPR’s David Greene interviewed Esterday in an attempt to explore “how everyday people get caught up in political campaigns”—and in that interview, Esterday said of Clinton, among other things, “I don’t think she understood at all what I was saying…I mean, nobody got left a tip that day.”

Cue much ado:

After the story aired yesterday at 5 p.m. EST, it was picked up—and picked apart—by several blogs. The Clinton campaign sprang into damage-control mode, contacting news organizations with its side of the story: that Clinton and crew had left a $100 tip, in cash. According to NPR, “Clinton spokesman Phil Singer wrote to NPR in an e-mail: ‘The campaign spent $157 and left a $100 tip at the Maid-Rite Restaurant. Wish you had checked in with us beforehand.’”

Cue more ado:

The Clinton camp then countered Esterday’s no-tip claims on a campaign Web site, The Fact Hub, which is dedicated to correcting “false” claims made about Clinton and her campaign. (The information, according to the site, comes courtesy of, a fact-checking site overseen by the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.)

Cue even more ado:

The AP ran a story on the tip defense—picked up even by the International Herald Tribune—highlighting the Clinton campaign’s claim that it left a cash tip, backed up by a quote from Maid-Rite’s manager, Brad Crawford, about Esterday’s missing money: “If she got left out it wasn’t because they meant to leave her out. If something happened with the disbursement, it’s probably my fault.”

NPR today has an editor’s note about the story in which the organization expresses regret for not checking with the Clinton campaign before it ran the story with Esterday’s quote:

Esterday said ‘nobody got tipped that day,’ and NPR should have checked with the Clinton campaign before the story aired to see if any tip was left and how it was done. We regret that this was not done. On Thursday, Esterday was sticking by her story.

It’s unfortunate that such a good idea—actually talking to the people politicians use as props in their stump speeches—devolved into such a kerfuffle. While there have been few if any overblown references to “Tipgate,” at least as far as I’ve seen, I worry that the hit NPR took in this case will discourage it from airing this kind of reporting in the future. Which would be unfortunate, because NPR was onto a great idea with the Esterday piece: who better to give us insights into the politicians most Americans know only through the media than the people who interact with them? As Greene noted in the original NPR story, “the way Clinton eased the waitress into her rhetoric is something repeated day after day, by all the campaigns. But in the process, people like the waitress don’t always have their stories told.”

In the difference between ‘political prop’ and ‘person’ lies telling information about the way candidates actually regard the people whose lives, they claim, they’re hoping to improve with their presidencies. If we’re going to blend the line between “battleground” and “staging ground” when it comes to Iowa, New Hampshire, and other early-primary states, we can at least learn from the knowledge that people, well, on those grounds have gleaned about the candidates. And the only way to achieve that is by classic man-on-the-street (or, as the case may be, waitress-in-a-diner) reporting.

So here’s another tip, this one for journalists: please follow Greene’s example. Please give us more of that.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.