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The President and the Media – Bill Clinton and George W. Bush’s First Three Weeks Essay Sample

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The President and the Media – Bill Clinton and George W. Bush’s First Three Weeks Essay Sample

The president of the United States of America, it is said, has his best chance of enacting a domestic legislation in the first 100 days, which are also known as the Honeymoon period because the press supposedly gives the president a less critical coverage in these first few months. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, however, wrote on January 31, 1993, that journalists “(w)ith their relentlessness focus on the short term, the backstage conflict, the flap of the day, [they] may be unduly magnifying Clinton’s woes.” (Kurtz, 1993, p. A1) On the same day another article on the front page of the same newspaper said that the White House had been unable to control the media effectively and it was therefore the White House’s own mistake (Balz and Devroy, 1993). During Clinton’s first months the media did not let go as one editorial cartoon illustrates.

The cartoon shows Clinton as game that is carried away by savage hunters (Sewell 1996). The question this paper will address will be whether the press was especially harsh on Clinton and whether this was due to an inability of the White House transition team to control the media or whether the media just did their job in investigating a new administration. The first three weeks of the front-page Washington Post coverage after the inauguration will serve as a means for finding out how harshly the media has treated the president. For the purpose of comparison the first three weeks of George W. Bush’s presidency in 2001 will also be analyzed. The question that will be considered here is whether the Bush administration received a better, worse, or same treatment from the media. Finally, there will be a discussion of whether the 100 days theory still holds true today if it ever has been true.

Many presidential scholars have argued that the first year in a presidency is the most important one that if the goal is legislative success (Pfiffner 1996). Many journalists also agree such as Ted Koppel from ABC’s Nightline who said on Larry King Live on January 4, 2001 that “(h)ow long the honeymoon lasts will depend on how well he handles himself during those first 100 days.” (Maggs and Barnes 2001) Legislative accomplishments, so Pfiffner, are often accomplished in this period and the successes and failures in this first year often set the tone in which the president deals with Congress.

Furthermore he argues that early successes can forecast later ones while early failures will be negative for the future of the president (Pfiffner 1996). John Maggs and James A. Barnes, however, claim that the First 100 Days is just a myth and they show based on historical evidence. Most modern presidents had not a good beginning but survived this time and their achievements came later in their presidency. They contend that it is not reasonable to compare presidents with others, such as Theodore Roosevelt and his 30 days.

These early days are usually marked by high approval ratings and favorable treatment by Congress but it is also a time in which presidents make the most mistakes. President Reagan, who historians consider to have had one of the best first 100 days, made one of his greatest mistakes in that period by pushing for tax cuts and higher military spending, which resulted in a decade of deficits. Thus one should not judge a president by his performance in these first 100 days (Maggs and Barnes 2001). Jarol B. Manheim even argues in his 1979 study of the news conference that the honeymoon period is one where the media is testing the president instead of giving him, as the honeymoon assumption alleges, “a period when accommodation and good fellowship predominate” (Manheim 1979, p.60).

The analysis of the Washington Post showed that the coverage of President Clinton administration in the first three weeks was much worse than the one during George W. Bush’s. With this kind of analysis there can be, however, problems. First of all one has to define what constitutes negative coverage. For my paper the article has to be predominantly negative in tone or subject, which can manifests itself in blaming the president. For example writing that a certain action is a break of a campaign promise constitutes negative coverage. Still analyzing newspaper articles based on their tone as well as their message can only be subjective. Also not all the articles written are significant for this analysis because they are neither negative nor positive in tone. That’s why I have tried to analyze only clear cases. For President Clinton I have found 33 stories, which were positive, 21 were negative of 54 stories in which the president had a significant part. For George W. Bush the picture looked much different: There were 49 positive stories and 8 negative ones of those that I considered significant. Despite the error factor there seems to be more negative coverage of Bill Clinton, which can be either blamed on the media or on problems that the president has created. Most likely it will, however, be a combination of both.

The first three weeks of the coverage shows that 9 of the 54 stories analyzed were on the subject of the ban on sexual discrimination of gays in the military. The first story came on January 22 only two days after Clinton’s inauguration and is still considered positive. When it was evident that the House would not support the bill lifting the ban and supporting Clinton’s executive order, the media turned against him. Defense Secretary Les Aspin told the press on CBS’s Face the Nation that Clinton would compromise but not give up his pledge to lift the ban. U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter, Jr. helped Clinton on January 29 when he ruled that the ban on gays in the military was unconstitutional.

The response from the media was not favorable, however, as the Washington Post, for example, sees not only the possibility that this ruling could strengthen Clinton but could also be seen as something that would make an complicated situation much worse (Marcus and Dewar 2001, p.A1). The last story within the time frame of my analysis was published on February 1 and dealt with the increasing pressure against lifting the ban from the religious conservative right. Spurred by the media, religious groups and media outlets had started to wage a war against Clinton. In the end, the controversy was ‘solved’ by instituting the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which was found no support from both gay groups and the military. The surfacing of this issue so early in president Clinton’s term led to a steep decline in his popularity after only 2 weeks in office. Also more gays rather than less were discharged from the military in the following four years (Burke 2000).

Another issue that dominated the news was the withdrawal of the Baird nomination. Bill Clinton wanted to have a first woman attorney general and he had selected Zoe E. Baird as his choice. Already before the inauguration it became known that Baird had two illegal immigrants working for her in her house in the 1990s and that she knowingly had violated immigration law. However Clinton and his transition team did not see Baird’s admission and apology as a problem because they continued to push for her confirmation. The first story on January 20 was not considered either positive or negative and was therefore left out of the analysis. It just referred to the apology of Baird and that Clinton was not withdrawing his choice.

Only two days later, on January 22, Clinton withdrew his nomination, which was according to the Washington Post an “embarrassing defeat on Clinton’s second day in office” (Marcus and Isikoff 1993, p. A1). The story was still in the news on February 10, at the end of my study. It lays down in detail the “attorney general saga,” which makes President Clinton appear to be driven by only one reasoning in his search for a possible attorney general, namely to find a woman, and it also alleges that Clinton was not following up on his campaign promise to put more minorities in the administration (Marcus and Balz 1993). This is one of the most negative articles found in this study but it fits in the general tone of most of the articles at the time.

The problem was to find a way to draw away the media’s and the public’s attention from both these issues and turn their attention toward Clinton’s central agenda, his economic plan. The Washington Post wrote that even though there were tough decisions concerning Bosnia and Iraq the gay ban issue dominated the already mentioned show CBS’s Face the Nation (Barr 1993, p. A1). Bob Woodward writes that both George Stephanopoulos, Clinton’s senior policy adviser, and Llyod Bentsen, the secretary of the Treasury, were in agreement that the economic plan would be ready in mid-February but would be “hardly juicy enough to make news” (Woodward 1994, p. 102). There were two articles on the economy and five stories on Clinton’s Health Care plan, starting with and article on January 26 when he nominated his wife to head the campaign.

All of these articles tended to be positive. There was one article on one of Clinton’s major campaign promises, a National Service bill. The problem was that Eli Segal, a long-time friend of Clinton and director of the White House of National Service, announced to the press that the plan was to start small and then increase. For the Ann Devroy from the Washington Post, this sounded more like scaling back the whole program, which she put in her predominantly negative article (Waldman 1995). Overall positive articles dealing with Clinton’s agenda were in the minority, as articles that either dealt with relatively unimportant issues such as the gays in the military issue or with serious problems such as the Baird nomination or other areas in which Clinton could not follow his campaign promises.

The coverage of George W. Bush, at least in the Washington Post, is a contrast, which could not be starker. Even those few articles that I have considered negative do not have a similar negativity as the Clinton articles in 1993. Even though during the nomination, the issue of Bush’s loss in the popular vote made the headlines, the overall articles tended to be overall positive. The first article that I have classified as negative deals with vouchers and was published on January 24. My decision to put it in the negative category was motivated by the fact that the article seems to emphasize the negative aspects of the idea that would give vouchers to parents of failing schools. Mathews writes: “Educators worry, though, that Bush’s package could cost them money.” (Mathews 2001, p. A1) There was no overriding theme in the coverage and numerous campaign issues received positive coverage, such as abortion, education, and the economy as well as tax cuts. One reason for the positive coverage could be that Bush just did not commit as many mistakes as Clinton in his first few weeks. Another reason could be, however, fact that the Washington Post, as well as other news organizations, sent new reporters to the White House (“White House”).

It has often been asked what kind of a role the media plays or should play in the democratic system. Journalists have argued at times that their function was as someone who informs the people and at other times they have given themselves a “watchdog” function. Oftentimes the press can be seen as waging a war against the president and at the same time trying to push for it’s own agenda. Yet it has often been said that no one has elected the press to perform the function of setting an agenda. There are journalists such as ABC’s John Cochran, who has said on NPR’s On the Media: “You need to get away and-talk to other people about the administration, because just because a president says this is something that’s at the top of the agenda doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what should be at the top of the agenda.” (“White House”) Quite on the contrary the people have elected the president to act in their behalf. More and more in recent years, opinion has become more acceptable in the mainstream press as in earlier times the idea of neutrality had dominated. With the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War, the press and the public have seen elected officials more cynically and skeptically (Dionne 1996).

Journalists covering the White House have one of the toughest jobs. Oftentimes they have to write reports when there are no real stories or something that would qualify as news. They have to follow the president wherever he goes, may that be Middle East peace talks or a golf match with his best friends. Every day there is at least one story on the White House on the front page of every major newspaper and the Washington Post is no exception.

The White House, in their attempt to control the news, has curtailed the access of the media and, if they are doing a good job, journalists will only get the president’s message. From the point of view of the White House, however, there is also no option. If the White House does not try to influence the media, they will set the agenda, which the president has to avoid. This is especially true in an era when “going public” is the best way for a president to influence the political system (Kernell 1997). President Gerald Ford never recovered from his public relations disaster after the pardon of Richard Nixon. Mark Rozell argues that if the administration had better influenced the media to their advantage it “could have blunted the severity of the negative reaction and enabled Ford’s presidency to recover form the controversy” (Rozell 1993, p. 454).

Labeled the first television president, John F. Kennedy was able to manipulate the media to his own advantage. He maintained a continuous dialogue with the media and he was able to use the right timing as well as medium for particular messages (Berry 1987). With a more organized, Richard Nixon tried to control the media when he created the White House Office of Communication, and who especially successful in influencing the media when he went to China and the Soviet Union in 1972 and at the same time won a landslide reelection victory. Every president since then has agreed with the necessity to put their spin in the media. President Reagan was one of the most successful presidents at influencing the media. The “line of the day,” something everyone involved with the White House follows, was a very popular tool of Reagan’s administration. Other means involved public appeals, which both Reagan and Clinton perfected, and limited access for the press (Maltese 1992).

Even though history has shown that, based on the coverage of CBS News, The New York Times, and Time Magazine, presidents receive an overall favorable coverage by the media (Rozell 1993) it is not difficult to understand why the media does not like to be treated by the White House in this way. As journalists they do not like to be controlled. In their effort to find the “real” story they will often go beyond what the official message of the White House is. Claire Shipman of NBC News says:

I think the, the harder thing to fight (referring to boredom) is the message the White House is constantly trying to hand out to you. It’s harder to step back and say hey – that might be their story, but that’s not my story. (“White House”)

Not only did the media in the early weeks of the Clinton presidency the media mostly ignored the president’s agenda and put the ban on discrimination of gays in the military and the withdrawal of the Baird nomination as the most important aspects of the agenda, the administration was also ineffective in their attempt control the media. Stories like the one dealing with the National Service bill or one on a consumption tax increase on January 25, 1993, were clearly perpetuated by a problem within the White House communication office. This also applies, of course, to the Baird nomination debacle and the gay ban but in these areas the media seemed to have pushed the issues. Once the atmosphere had turned negative, as in Clinton’s case, there was hardly any sign of a change in tone. This led also to a decline in public approval of the president, a downward spiral that is difficult to break out of. Yet later years prove that this is possible when Clinton announced himself as the Comeback Kid.

The analysis of Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s media coverage has shown that there are great differences between the two. Clinton received a great deal of negative coverage already in the first three weeks. A repeal of the ban of gays in the military and an ill-chosen nomination for Attorney General were the focus of the news coverage, while the economy and even Clinton’s health plan had to take backstage. This was in part due to the failure of the White House Office of Communication but also due to a press that had decided to turn negative, as Howard Kurtz notes in the same Newspaper that was analyzed. George W. Bush, by far, had not such a hard time in his first three weeks. The Washington Post’s articles were almost all positive with a few exceptions. Neither the Ashcroft nomination nor election problems propelled any significantly negative coverage. One has to assume, however, that this will not continue forever. It could neither be proven that there is a honeymoon period for presidents nor that first 100 days are decisive for the rest of the term. It has been shown there is a need for effective control of the media and yet that this is no guarantee for positive coverage.


Primary source:

The Washington Post from January 20, 1993 till February 10, 1993 and from January 20, 2001 till February 10, 2001 were used for the media analysis. Here only front-page articles that had at least one mentioning of the president were considered. Washington Post articles that are quoted are also listed under the secondary sources.

Secondary sources:

Balz, Dan and Ann Devroy. 1993. “First Days Offer Clinton ‘Powerful Lessons’.” The Washington Post, 31 January, p. A1.

Barr, Stephen. 1993. “Hill Backs Gay Ban, Aspin Says; He Seeks Help of Joint Chiefs.” The Washington Post, 25 January, p. A1.

Berry, Joseph P. Jr. 1987. John F. Kennedy and the Media: The First Television President. Lanham: University Press of America.

Burke, John P. 2000. Presidential Transitions – From Politics to Practice. Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Denton, Robert E. Jr. and Gary C. Woodward. 1985. Political Communication in America. New York et. al.: Praeger.

Dionne, E.J. 1996. They Only Look Dead. New York, et. al.: Simon & Schuster.

Kernell, Samuel. 1997. Going Public – New Strategies of Presidential Leadership. 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.

Kurtz, Howard. 1993. “Coverage Quickly Turns Sour as Media Highlight Troubles.” The Washington Post, 31 January, p. A1.

Maggs, John and James A. Barnes. 2001. “Why 100 Days.” National Journal 33:2, p. 118 (Infotrac).

Maltese, John Anthony.1992. Spin Control – The White House Office of Communication and the Management of Presidential News. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press.

Manheim, Jarol B. 1979. “The Honeymoon’s Over: The News Conference and the Development of Presidential Style.” The Journal of Politics 41:55-74.

Mathews, Jay. 2001. “Testing, Yes; Vouchers, No, Say School Officials in Area.” The Washington Post, 24 January, p. A1.

Marcus, Ruth and Dan Balz. 1993. “A Campaign Promise Has Clinton Cornered; The Attorney General Saga.” The Washington Post 10 February, p. A1.

Marcus, Ruth and Helen Dewar. 1993. “Pact on Gay Ban Remains Elusive; Judge Orders Pentagon to End Policy.” The Washington Post 29 January, p. A1.

Marcus, Ruth and Michael Isikoff. 1993. “Clinton Withdraws Baird’s Nomination.” The Washington Post 22 January, p. A1.

Pfiffner, James P. 1996. The Strategic Presidency – Hitting the Ground Running. 2nd ed. Lawrence, University Press of Kansas.

Procter, David E. and Kurt Ritter. 1996. “Inaugurating the Clinton Presidency: Regenerative Rhetoric and the American Community.” pages 1-17 in The Clinton Presidency: Images, Issue, and Communication Strategies edited by Robert E. Denton, Jr. and Rachel L. Holloway. Westport and London: Praeger.

Rozell, Mark J. 1993 “The Limits of White House Image Control.” Political Science Quarterly 108:453-480.

Sewell, Edward H. Jr. 1996. “The Bad Days Are Part of It: Editorial Cartoonists on Clinton’s First Year.” pages 77-103 in The Clinton Presidency: Images, Issue, and Communication Strategies edited by Robert E. Denton, Jr. and Rachel L. Holloway. Westport and London: Praeger.

Simendinger, Alexis. 2001. “Early Action, Early Trouble.” National Journal 33:2, p. 132. (Infotrac).

Weisskopf, Michael. 1993. “Energized by Pupit or Passion, the Public is Calling; ‘Gospel Grapevine’ Displays Strength in Controversy Over Military Gay Ban.” The Washington Post 1 February, p. A1.

Waldman, Steven. 1993. The Bill. How Legislation Really Becomes Law: A Case Study of the National Service Bill. New York: Penguin Books.

Woodward, Bob. 1994. The Agenda – Inside the Clinton White House. New York et. al.: Simon & Schuster.

“White House Press Corps.” NPR’s On the Media, January 6, 2001. http://www.wnyc.org/new/talk/onthemedia/transcripts_010601_whitehouse.html.

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