For the 126th episode of the Journalism History podcast, researcher Tracy Everbach discusses the 25th anniversary since the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky affair became national news and the problematic coverage that Lewinsky endured in 1998.
Tracy Everbach is professor of journalism in the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. She is co-author of the books Mediating Misogyny: Gender, Technology & Harassment (2018) and Testing Tolerance: Addressing Controversy in The Journalism and Mass Communication Classroom (2020).
Tracy Everbach: It’s a story of sex in the White House, which appeals to people who are interested in lurid kinds of stories.
Teri Finneman: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains.
Teri Finneman: And together, we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Twenty-five years ago, one of the biggest sex –
scandals in presidential history broke, becoming a nonstop media sensation in 1998. Attempting to quell the political crisis, Bill Clinton went on national television declaring this now infamous line, “I did not have sexual relations with that women, Miss Lewinsky.”
Indeed “that woman,” Monica Lewinsky, would go on to become a household name as the affair between the White House intern and the president of the United States became all too public. Late night talk shows piled on the jokes. Clinton was impeached. Nonstop media coverage blared and this previously unknown woman found herself publically humiliated and bullied.
On today’s show, Tracy Everbach of the University of North Texas discusses her research, Monica Lewinsky and Shame: 1998 Newspaper Framing of “That Woman,” to provide historical context of the problematic media framing that Lewinsky endured. Tracy, welcome to the show.
Why do you think it’s important to analyze how the media covered Monica Lewinsky in 1998 when her affair with Bill Clinton became public?
Tracy Everbach: Well, I can answer this from my personal perspective. Having been a journalist at the time and working in a newsroom, I have reflected back on those times and how we, the journalists, treated her and, frankly, I’m embarrassed by the way that we treated her. Um, she was treated as a joke and something salacious, and I just think seeing it now through the lens of #MeToo and feminism, the situation – I personally see the situation completely differently from the way that I saw it back then. And it always did bother me a little bit but, but –
now seeing it through the eyes of a scholar who studies, you know, feminism and journalists/journalism, I can. The poor treatment that we journalists gave her at the time and allowed for the public humiliation of a private citizen.
Teri Finneman: You note the relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky as one of the first times the mainstream media was forced to follow a story scooped by an internet source. For our younger listeners especially, give us some of the background of that and the implications of it.
Tracy Everbach: Okay. Um, well, you know, at the time, the mainstream media was still the place where most people got their news. Very different now that most people get their news from social media. And also at the time, the mainstream media virtually ignored the web to its own peril.
But they were forced to follow this story, which was broken by The Drudge Report when they reported on the dress that Monica had kept that supposedly had Bill Clinton’s semen on it, another salacious detail.
You know, so they had to follow an internet source on this, and I think a lot of journalists were very surprised by that. They always – they thought that they were the news that everybody wanted to know about and wanted to follow.
Of course, we know what happens. Subsequently, the internet allowed news to be spread by anyone and the newspaper business in particular never really harnessed it properly and ended up losing money, employees, clout, trust, all of these things because they never –
confronted head-on the internet and, you know, at one point were putting out stories for free on the internet, which if you’re gonna do that you are never going to get people to pay for it. So it was probably the start of the internet age of news.
Teri Finneman: You examined almost 200 articles about Lewinsky in the Wall Street Journal and New York Timesand found a few common themes. One was the level of personal and sexual details that mainstream newspapers ran during this time. What was the explanation that newspapers gave for running them and what kind of coverage were they providing?
Tracy Everbach: That’s a great question because when I went back and looked at this I was pretty shocked at the level of detail that was published, explicit details of things that – sexual acts that happened between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, personal details of her life, –
all kinds of things like that. I do have to say a lot of that had to do with Ken Starr, who was the special prosecutor on the case, who chose to focus on these kinds of details and, you know, address them in the hearings that he held and put them in his report that came out which was had, just had very explicit details in it of things that really nobody would want to come out about their personal sex life.
And I think the newspapers justified this by saying, “Well, this is involving the president so it’s important and we need to publish it.” But no one stopped to think that, “Well okay the president of the United States, yes, is a public figure.” However, Monica Lewinsky was a private citizen who worked as an intern at the White House and basically was taken advantage of by her boss.
We can discuss a little more about that because she was painted as the seducer, but the fact is she was, you know, when this happened, she was 22, 23 years old and he was her boss. And it – no one stopped to think, “Well, you know, perhaps it’s not a good idea to publish the intimate details of a 22- or 23-year-old’s sex life and, and that that would follow them for the rest of their life.” So it kind of looking back was a pretty heartless decision to publish those kinds of details.
Teri Finneman: How did feminists react to the Clinton/Lewinsky affair both in general and in the newspaper?
Tracy Everbach: You know, that was an interesting topic that I stumbled upon because Lewinsky –
at the time said, “You know,” well or after the fact said, “Where were the feminists? You know, they weren’t – they weren’t stepping in and defending me.” Her explanation was that Bill Clinton was a president who was very friendly to women and portrayed himself as a feminist and so that it was hard for feminists to go against him because he had done so much for them.
Um, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I mean, there were some feminists who stood up for her, including Gloria Steinem. And the media coverage kind of treated feminists as if feminists are just one entity. You know, whereas there many different kinds of feminism and there are many different types of feminists. There wasn’t just one feminist movement and so it – but it was portrayed that way, that you know, “Oh –
feminists are just this one entity” and they all supported Bill Clinton and not Monica Lewinsky. Um, and that’s not exactly accurate about what happened.
Teri Finneman: You write that Lewinsky was framed as a naïve intern, a sexual predator, and a jealous girlfriend. What were some of the word choices used in newspapers to describe her?
Tracy Everbach: That was another thing that I was kind of surprised and disgusted about. I mean, I was reading an article, an editorial in the The Wall Street Journal, you know, supposed to be such a respected newspaper and it – the very last line of it was about her, “Indict the little tart.” I was like, “What?” The Wall Street Journal, “Indict the little tart”? I mean, that’s just so crude and insulting.
Um, and, yeah, she was framed as being promiscuous, she was called a “bimbo,” she –
was called a “slut,” she was portrayed as “sex crazed”. And then of course, you know, Bill Clinton called her “that woman,” when he said, when he famously said, “I did not have sex with that woman,” um, so she kind of was portrayed as you know a person who, who did not have a good reputation and continued to be portrayed that way for decades afterwards.
Teri Finneman: What was the third wave of feminism like at this time? Talk a little bit more about the overall climate for women in America in the 1990s and how that maybe helps explain what you found.
Tracy Everbach: Yeah, that’s, that’s a really interesting phenomenon because we, you know, we can go back and we can look at the second wave of feminism, which basically one of the tenets of second wave feminism was that men –
sexualized women. So the male gaze – women are sexualized by the male gaze and women are posed and portrayed and exist to feed the male mind.
Well, in third wave feminism, there was this idea, this notion that you could be – that women could be empowered by their sexuality. So, you know, you could be sexually aggressive or sexually assertive and that that was empowering. However, a backlash to that I think can be seen in the way that Lewinsky was portrayed because she was portrayed as being, you know, as the aggressor with Clinton. You know, supposedly she flashed her thong at him and she seduced him. That’s the way the framing went. And so it, it kind of backfired –
and backlash on her. It wasn’t seen as, “Oh, she’s sexually empowered.” It was seen as, you know, “Oh, she’s a stalker, she’s a seducer, she’s a slut.” So this whole notion of, of women’s empowerment through sex really was overshadowed by the old tropes that a woman who is sexually assertive is, you know, undesirable and slutty and that whole double standard that a man who enjoys sex and wants to have sex is looked at as you know, “He’s a stud,” but a women, a woman who enjoys sex and wants to have sex is looked at as “a slut” or “a bimbo.”
So I saw that come out in the coverage, and it kind of shattered that whole third wave feminist notion of sex being empowering.
Teri Finneman: So in the 25 years since the Lewinsky coverage, how much progress do you think has actually been made by journalism in how women are treated in media framing?
Tracy Everbach: Not much. [Chuckles] Um, no, I mean I hate to say it. I do think that the same tropes still exist. I do think that women are still stereotyped and shamed, especially those who don’t fit the mold of, you know, the perfect woman. We can look at and see how powerful women are portrayed and still are stereotyped. We can look at political women like Sonia Sotomayor Kamala Harris, and they still receive, you know, scrutiny and questioning of should they be – do they deserve to be in the positions where they are?
Look at all the negative coverage and harassment Nancy Pelosi has received over the years. Um, we can even look in sports how, how women are portrayed as not belonging there. It’s a, you know, they’re not supposed to be in that realm and we can look at the coverage of the Williams’ sisters in tennis, you know, the negative portrayals of them.
We also can look at popular culture and look at the negative kinds of things that have been thrown at Britney Spears or Taylor Swift, Lizzo. You know these, these are all women, icons in our culture, yet they all have endured some kinds of criticism, harassment, negativity that they don’t belong where, where they are, even –
though they have achieved a lot and have risen to the top of their fields. Um, so I do – I do sadly see a lot of derision towards women still in media.
Teri Finneman: Your research was spurred by the 2015 TED Talk about Lewinsky – that she gave called “The Price of Shame,” in which she criticized and dissected her treatment in news media. Since then, Impeachment: American Crime Story has aired, bringing the matter back to public attention again. Why do you think this moment in history endures in media into the present?
Tracy Everbach: I think it’s – I think it’s complicated. I think, you know it’s a story of sex in the White House, which, you know, that appeals to the lurid, you know, to people who are interested in lurid kinds of stories. Um, but it also dealt with the betrayal of a friend because –
Linda Tripp supposedly was Monica Lewinsky’s friend, and she’s the one who released the information to the Starr investigation about her friend, released phone conversations and, you know, private information that her friend had given her, so there’s that element, too.
Um, it’s also a story of a boss taking advantage of a young woman. Um, you know, it also involved Hillary Clinton, who[chuckles] was married to Bill Clinton. And Hillary Clinton is one of the most powerful women in America. And her choice to stay with Bill after, after this happened is, is another element I think that, that interests people.
And then just the whole redemption of Monica Lewinsky with the work that –
she does now on protecting victims from shaming and bullying. So I think that that’s, that’s part of the compelling story as well because she went from being a, you know, young woman who got caught up in a worldwide [chuckles] – I was going to say “national,” but I think it got attention worldwide, a worldwide, you know, scandal and then found a way to reframe the whole thing and reinvent her life. And I think that that’s a – that’s a very compelling story as well.
Teri Finneman: We usually go back much further in history on our show, so just going back 25 years, ah, feels so recent.
Tracy Everbach: [Laughs]
Teri Finneman: Ah, still, it is history and our final question of the show for all of our guests is: Why does journalism history matter?
Tracy Everbach: Well, obviously, we need to look at how we covered issues in the past so that we as journalists can continue to pursue our goal of ethically and accurately covering the news. So, there have been positive changes even in recent years in the way that we portray different groups in media.
Um, an example I can think of is – back in the ’90s and when I worked for a newspaper – we used to publish all these mug shot of people who were wanted by the police. Well, invariably those would be, you know, pictures of Black people and so that I think went on to give the portrayal that Black people are criminals. And every now and then there might have been a mug shot of a white –
person, but there’s definitely – if you look at studies, there’s discrepancy in the way that these mug shots were used. So many media organizations have moved away from that, realizing that that’s a problem. And I think that the Black Lives Matter movement brought a lot of attention to that. I also think there have been some subtle changes in the way we portray women, especially women who have been abused by powerful men and I think that the #MeToo movement has had a lot to do with that and has raised a lot of awareness among the public about it.
Um, so we have been able to look at things that we’ve covered in the past and make changes to be more equitable and accurate and ethical. Um, we still have a long way to go though.
Teri Finneman: All right, well thanks so much for joining us today.
Tracy Everbach: Thank you.
Teri Finneman: Thanks for tuning in and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter @JHistoryJournal. Until next time I’m your host, Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Morrow, “Good night and good luck.”
Featured Image: Clinton – Lewinsky Headlines, San Jose Mercury News 1998, Jeanne René (2014) via Flickr