The Rovian Research Behind Maureen Dowd's Anti-Hillary Screeds

By Peter Daou and Tom Watson

The shameful episode of the New York Times and its grossly irresponsible and false story about Hillary’s emails has brought the crisis of ethics in U.S. media to the fore.

As of this writing, the leadership of the Times has neither apologized nor taken appropriate responsibility for their bungled and dangerous story, despite an extraordinary letter from the Clinton campaign's Communications Director and a well-deserved backlash among the commentariat. Instead, we are treated by the paper to yet another exercise in anti-Hillary vitriol from Maureen Dowd. As usual, Dowd's writing seethes with Hillary hatred. What's worse is that in this column, Dowd uses the tragic death of Beau Biden as a platform to smear Hillary.

We’ve spent the better part of 2015 writing about the complex process by which Hillary’s integrity is assaulted by reporters, bloggers, columnists and pundits. We’ve made the case that her political fortunes will rise and fall depending on how well her campaign and her supporters fight back against this process of character assassination.

To that end, Peter has identified the key anti-Hillary memes (categories and subcategories) that have permeated coverage for decades:

• CALCULATING (Scheming, crafty, manipulative)

• SECRETIVE (Suspicious, paranoid, uncommunicative)

• POLARIZING (Divisive, alienating)

• UNTRUSTWORTHY (Corrupt, deceitful, dishonest, unethical)

• OVER-AMBITIOUS (Will do or say anything to win)

• INAUTHENTIC (Disingenuous, fake, unlikable, insincere)

• INHUMAN (Machine-like, robotic, abnormal, cold)

• OVER-CONFIDENT (Inevitable, defiant, imperious, regal)

• OLD (Out of touch, represents the past)

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

From a revealing 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. 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.” 

Crossroads' goal is to indoctrinate the public with anti-Hillary narratives, to insert carefully tested negative memes into the public debate.

Voters need to understand that what they think they know about Hillary is often the result of sophisticated propaganda techniques, where tightly-crafted talking points are focus-grouped and deployed by shadowy GOP groups then magnified by the mainstream media and pundits.

This is the subtext to Maureen Dowd’s new, vicious attack against Hillary. Dowd’s words are chosen meticulously: they fit perfectly into the narratives and frames that have been developed for over two decades to smear Hillary. Each of these terms is taken from Dowd’s new op-ed – many are verbatim matches with our compendium of anti-Hillary memes:

“Acting all innocent, disingenuous, egregious transgressions, militant fans, craving a championship, surreptitious, wanting to win at all costs, calculating, history of subterfuge, crafty, sketchy value system, seamy, Faustian bargain, sheen of inevitability, robotic, queenly attitude, suspicious mind-set, unsavory.”

Delivering such excessive negativity in one piece is not opinion writing. It is not journalism. It is a personal vendetta aided and abetted by the New York Times, with the intention of spreading potent sexist frames crafted by conservative opposition researchers.

Dowd's history of Hillary-bashing is notable:

Dowd has written more than 200 columns on Hillary, most of them negative. A detailed analysis by Oliver Willis and Hannah Groch-Begley published last summer found that “Dowd has repeatedly accused Clinton of being an enemy to or betraying feminism (35 columns, 18 percent of those studied), power-hungry (51 columns, 26 percent), unlikable (9 columns, 5 percent), or phony (34 columns, 17 percent). She's also attacked the Clintons as a couple in 43 columns (22 percent), many of which included Dowd's ham-handed attempts at psychoanalysis.”

The abuse continues. Just this past April, Dowd wrote that Hillary is a "granny" who "can't figure out how to campaign as a woman" after she "scrubbed out the femininity, vulnerability, and heart" required to do so during her 2008 presidential run. Claiming Hillary is now trying to shift her image after she "saw the foolishness of acting like a masculine woman," Dowd asserted that the candidate "always overcorrects," and is now "basking in estrogen." Dowd concluded, saying hopefully Hillary will "teach her Republican rivals...that bitch is still the new black" instead.

At #HillaryMen, we’ve dubbed this endless invective directed at Hillary in the media the “wall of words” and we’ve argued that it is the single biggest obstacle on her path to becoming America’s first woman president. Although Dowd is the master of anti-Hillary memes, she is hardly alone. In a three-week period following Hillary’s announcement, we compiled the following terms used to describe Hillary in major publications:

“Slithering, imperious, musty, petulant, paranoid, stale, scornful, regal, devious, deceitful, robotic, abnormal.”

To reiterate: these are from the corporate media, not fringe rightwing websites. This is the gender barrier in action, the willingness – even eagerness – to take down the first woman with a viable shot at the White House.

This process doesn’t occur in a vacuum. As we've written:

There is a larger dynamic at play. The rise of social media has fostered a cauldron of misogyny, where psychological violence against women is commonplace. The verbal abuse directed at Hillary – and let's not pretend some of these attacks are anything other than abuse – is a permutation of that problem.

To provide more context, below is an extended excerpt from Peter’s post, Case Study: How Hillary's Image Is Being Manipulated in the Media.


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.

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 with 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.


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.