Case Study: How Hillary's Image Is Being Manipulated in the Media

By Peter Daou

In recent days, #HillaryMen joined the Clinton campaign and Democrats who excoriated the New York Times for its irresponsible and patently false story about Hillary’s emails.

However, there is another Times article that, taken with countless similarly framed pieces in other major publications, constitutes a much graver risk to Hillary’s candidacy. Here are selected snippets of the story, which is about Hillary’s newly introduced climate plan:

Hillary Rodham Clinton seized on an issue Monday that increasingly resonates with Democratic voters…

Mrs. Clinton’s strategists see climate change as a winning issue for 2016. They believe it is a cause she can advance to win over deep pocketed donors and liberal activists in the nominating campaign…

It is also one that can be a weapon against Republicans in a general election. Polls show that a majority of voters support candidates who pledge policy action on the warming climate…

The Clinton campaign emphasized that her targets cleared a bar set last week by the billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer…

Although Mrs. Clinton has emphasized fighting global warming as a priority in earlier speeches, the role of a single large donor, Mr. Steyer, in apparently influencing the details of her proposal was suggested by her press secretary, Brian Fallon…

Democratic strategists say they now see climate change as a resonant campaign issue. A January poll conducted by The New York Times, Stanford University and Resources for the Future found that two thirds of Americans said they were more likely to vote for political candidates who campaign on fighting climate change…

This issue now polls better than any other issue for Democrats,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former top climate change official in the Clinton administration. “It’s in Clinton’s interest to talk about the issue, both for primary voters and to highlight Republican vulnerabilities in the general election.”

To the casual reader, it may not be entirely obvious how damaging this type of reporting is for Hillary's candidacy. But in aggregate, articles like this that appear regularly in major media outlets paint a portrait of a scheming, unprincipled politician. That portrait is often reflected back in polls and interviews – and ultimately at the ballot box. 

Nowhere does the Times piece suggest Hillary actually believes in tackling climate change. Nowhere does it mention that she says she is doing this for her daughter and granddaughter. Nowhere does it grant her a shred of humanity or leadership on one of the existential challenges facing the world.

The message is brutally clear: Hillary is a brazen opportunist, “seizing” on the climate issue to please a “billionaire” because it “polls better” and “strategists say they now see it as a resonant campaign issue.”

In industry parlance, this is a "process" story, highlighting not the facts or the specifics of the policy but the behind-the-scenes details of how the candidate arrived at it. It is meant to showcase the reporter’s access to insider information, revealing the strategic decision-making process behind a campaign.

Process stories – and the potent anti-Hillary frames they deliver – were one of the single most effective weapons against Hillary in 2008, painting a nefarious image that she was unable to alter or escape. Although Hillary is subjected to the most vitriolic language imaginable, the majority of negative coverage she endures comes in this form: a seemingly innocuous news article, editorial or blog post that manages, paragraph after paragraph, to deliver character-destroying frames.

In The Great American Brainwash: Half a Billion Dollars to Turn the Public against Hillary, I explain how these memes work and where they originate:

From a report on Karl Rove’s Crossroads: “An expensive and sophisticated effort is underway to test and refine the most potent lines of attack against Mrs. Clinton, and, ultimately, to persuade Americans that she does not deserve their votes. While the general election is 16 months away, Republican groups are eager to begin building a powerful case against the woman they believe will be the Democratic nominee, and to infuse the public consciousness with those messages. The effort to vilify Mrs. Clinton could ultimately cost several hundred million dollars, given the variety and volume of political organizations involved.” 

So far, Hillary has withstood decades of such coordinated attacks, emerging stronger than ever for this presidential run. That doesn’t mean these GOP brainwashing tactics and the cornucopia of fabricated anti-Hillary themes permeating mainstream media coverage and commentary aren’t a serious threat.  

Any signs of erosion in Hillary's favorability are touted as dire warnings for her campaign. Reading polls at this stage is like reading tea leaves, but we can't entirely discount hints of trouble to come. There is a reason no woman has ever won the presidency. The notion that Hillary has a clear or easy path to the White House is absurd. The path will get more difficult with each passing day and every single dose of poisonous framing delivered by the media, pundits, politicians and online commentators will taint the public's perception of Hillary.  

My direct exposure to the propaganda mechanisms employed in coverage of the Clintons goes back nearly 15 years, when I first began using political message boards to protest the transgressions of the Bush presidency. As blogs emerged as a platform for activism, I used them to focus primarily on media criticism, looking at how Bush was continually portrayed as “firm” and “resolute,” even in stories that had little to do with those attributes. I became fascinated by Inoculation Theory, the Overton Window and other similar theoretical constructs that describe how the public receives and processes political messages.

In 2004, my position as an online communications adviser in John Kerry’s McPherson Square war room put me at the epicenter of the swiftboat attacks, where I watched the media and punditocracy enable one of the most despicable smears ever perpetrated against a decorated veteran.

In Kerry’s case, as in Bush’s, the corporate media’s central role as a purveyor of character-shaping narratives was obvious, though largely unspoken.

In 2006, I was hired by Hillary as a digital strategist and witnessed an entirely new level of media malfeasance. The sophistication of anti-Hillary propaganda was mind boggling, the ubiquity of negative frames jaw dropping. There was virtually nothing written or said about Hillary from the left, right, or center that didn’t contain at least one typical anti-Hillary meme (calculating, polarizing, over-ambitious, robotic, disingenuous, secretive, defiant, scheming, etc.).

It pains me to say this, but her 2008 campaign, where I worked, didn’t fully appreciate the damage those frames were doing. My primary motivation for launching #HillaryMen with Tom Watson is to make sure it doesn't happen again.

It may be comforting to think that in the digital age analytics trumps all, that data will win the day, that social media is the great equalizer, and that Periscope, YouTube, Meerkat, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook or some other platform will circumvent the ‘innerati’ (journalists, pundits, politicians, and public figures who shape the national conversation). It is also lulling to know that in spite of the wall of words arrayed against her, Hillary is still the popular frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.

But the toxic muck that constitutes Hillary coverage has consequences. Tech platforms that allow the campaign to interface directly with the public still won't keep opinion-makers in the media from infiltrating and infecting the public discourse, affecting how voters view Hillary.  

As the 2016 race unfolds, electing the first woman president could become an increasingly elusive goal as Hillary’s support is steadily eroded through the insidious and calculated dissemination of negative frames and narratives.

Although falsely reporting that Hillary is the target of a criminal investigation is unforgivable and damaging, it is the crafty and intentional misuse of process stories by the mainstream media and pundits that will ultimately cost her more in the months to come – and perhaps even derail her candidacy. 

For #HillaryMen, exposing and combating these insidious techniques is a mission.

UPDATE (8/15/15): This CNN headline is a quintessential example of negative framing of an otherwise positive story:

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Peter Daou and Tom Watson founded #HillaryMen to provide actionable analysis of the 2016 campaign focusing on the gender barrier in U.S. politics. Peter is a former senior digital adviser to Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative. He is a veteran of two presidential campaigns (Kerry '04 and Clinton '08). Tom is an author and Columbia University lecturer who advises companies and non-profits on social activism.