campaign desk

Play Misty for Me

The media on The Moment
January 8, 2008

MANCHESTER, NH – In less than twenty-four hours, it got so much attention that it ceased to need an explanation. ABC News is now calling it, simply, ‘The Moment.’ In caps.

Yep–that (slightly) choked-up voice, those (slightly) misty eyes: Hillary Clinton’s Shocking Display of Emotion. The ‘tears heard round the world,’ or whatever you want to call them. Those tears didn’t fall–Clinton didn’t cry, as some suggested–but it hardly matters. CJR’s Paul McCleary predicted that the Display would get a lot of play in yesterday’s Primary Eve news cycle, and he was right. Within a few hours, we were treated to the following breaking news stories:

“Hillary Tears Up On The Campaign Trail” (Wall Street Journal)

“Clinton Shows Emotion in Final Hours” (Boston Globe)

“An Emotional Clinton vows to Fight On” (Reuters)

“Emotional Clinton says, This is personal” (AP)

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“Clinton Finds Emotion on the Trail” (CBS

“An Emotional Clinton Reflects on How She Does It” (The Trail)

“Clinton chokes up with emotion, as her eyes mist” (The Swamp)

“Clinton gets emotional, then tears into frontrunner” (Chicago Tribune)

“Clinton is teary-eyed, emotional in speech” (Dallas Morning News)

“Question draws out a usually guarded Clinton” (LA Times)

“A Chink in the Steely Façade of Hillary Clinton” (Washington Post)

“Clinton Emotional” (Huffington Post)

Clinton’s Emotions didn’t just pervade the news during yesterday’s Political High Holy Day; they dominated it. The AP led its article about eleventh-hour squabbles between the candidates–headlined “McCain, Romney Tussle for Vital NH Win”–with this: “Her voice quavering, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton struggled Monday to avoid a highly damaging second straight defeat in the Democratic presidential race.” And as TIME‘s Mark Halperin pointed out, each of the three major network TV news outlets led–yes, led–their evening news coverage with The Moment.

Which is, frankly, ridiculous. And even more so when compared to the local news coverage here in New Hampshire, which generally either downplayed or full-on ignored the “story.” The Manchester Union Leader and the Concord Monitor, for example, didn’t cover the incident in their pages. (The Monitor made a brief mention of it in its blog.) Local TV news here aired a piece about it in its evening news shows, but the local coverage was much more matter-of-fact than its national counterparts’. Compare, for example, the cynicism levels in the following outlets’ narrated nut graphs:

ABC News’s World News Tonight: “Clinton is hoping that showing that other side will bring women, in particular, to the polls.”

WMUR-TV, ABC’s Manchester affiliate: “It was a moment of humanity from a candidate who has been a focus of both the Democratic and Republican races.”

ABC proceeded to use its coverage of The Moment to spring into an analysis of The Moment’s ostensible cause–Clinton’s struggle against what is now the Obama Juggernaut–and to highlight the attacks her campaign has been waging against his. Its story concluded with a note about Obama’s “politics of hope.” WMUR, on the other hand, followed its brief report about The Moment with an even briefer interview of an undecided voter who had attended the Clinton event. (Yet that may have been an undecided voter or two too brief. Here’s the only voice, the only reaction that WMUR viewers heard in the segment: “I don’t know, [Clinton] seemed to show care for the issues in her little breakdown. But the fact that she isn’t as emotionally stable as some of the male candidates may hurt her.”)

It’s worth asking why, precisely, their national-media counterparts pounced on the Clinton story with such speed, ferocity, and, occasionally, thinly veiled glee. (“Click here to watch the video of Clinton getting emotional,” announces Fox News’ Web site. Directly below that, “Click here to see photos of Clinton’s emotional moment.”) The pack mentality is part of it, perhaps, but there’s more to it. Guys may cry, after all, but tears, culturally, are a Female Thing. And the word ’emotional’ is rarely used as flattery. (See John Edwards, who responded to a reporter’s question about The Moment with this: “I think what we need in a commander-in-chief is strength and resolve.”) As The Moment lives on in the media, we’ve witnessed comparisons of Clinton to Howard “Dean-Scream” Dean or to prior candidate-crybabies (Ed Muskie in ’72, Pat Schroeder in ’87). But if we’re going to play the comparison, the most obvious and immediate foil for Clinton is Mitt Romney, who had a misty-eyed moment very similar to Clinton’s last month on Meet the Press. And how much coverage did his moment get?

As it happens, The New York Times this morning published an op-ed by Gloria Steinem endorsing Clinton and the gender revolution she believes Clinton’s candidacy represents, all while arguing that “there is still no ‘right’ way to be a woman in public power.” The press’s simultaneous amplification and shorthanding of Clinton’s display of emotion support Steinem’s point: Clinton’s gender, in a still-sometimes-sexist society like ours, may be more problematic than we allow ourselves to acknowledge or believe. After her emotional event yesterday, Clinton held a rally in Salem, NH. About eleven minutes into it, two men interrupted her speech, shouting at Clinton and hoisting handmade signs. The signs, and the hecklers, screamed, “Iron–My–Shirt.”

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