Professionalism/Kennedy, Clinton, and Changing Norms of Journalism
Journalistic Professionalism is the conduct of coverage and activities according to high standards of ethics, accountability, legality and credibility. Media’s role in democracies is to scrutinize and expose malpractice.
Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ)
The SPJ believes the role of journalists is to “provide information in an accurate, comprehensive, timely and understandable manner” with the intent of promoting information flow and stimulating high standards and ethical behavior in the practice of journalism.
SPJ Code of Ethics
“Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity” . Originally adopted from the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1926, the most recent revision of the SPJ’s Code of Ethics took place in 2014. It includes four principles to maintain just public awareness:
- seek truth and report it,
- minimize harm,
- act independently,
- and be accountable and transparent.
Note the code is completely voluntary and up to the journalist to honor.
Journalists covering elections are subject to unique dilemmas that test the integrity of their ethics. There is a struggle between the newsworthiness of an event and maintaining a balanced and thorough coverage. News, be it televised or written, is driven by how remarkable it is. Unique news makes money, though this may conflict with news’ function as a public service.
Politicians are most likely to express extreme sentiments during campaigns. Reporting inflammatory speech of such figures challenges the professionalism of journalists who must report speech accurately in a manner least likely to provoke violence. Both sides must be quoted directly in context to maintain journalistic integrity.
This casebook will examine the political ramifications of journalistic depictions of Presidents Kennedy and Clinton.
John F. Kennedy Legacy
A poll of historians in 1982 ranked President John F Kennedy 13th out of the 36 presidents included in the survey. Thirteen such polls from 1982 to 2011 put him, on average, 12th. By the middle of 1963, 59 percent of Americans surveyed claimed that they had voted for him in 1960, although only 49.7 percent of voters had actually done so. After his death, this landslide grew to 65 percent. In Gallup’s public-opinion polls, JFK consistently has the highest approval rating of any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Based on these surveys, it is reasonable to state that historians rate JFK a good president, but not a great one, whereas the public tends to overestimate JFK’s abilities. How can this disparity be explained? Media coverage has manipulated our perception of JFK, exaggerating his accomplishments and undermining his faults.
During his term, JFK was portrayed as a family man with the American dream through highly distributed photos. JFK was featured on the cover of LIFE magazine 20 times, only 5 of those times after his death, which shows how heavy the coverage was during his political career. LIFE was a “humor and general interest magazine,” allowing JFK to enter American homes in a way that prioritized success in his personal life over success in the white house. The covers themselves focused on “the Kennedy’s” as a brand, with Jackie often a focus of the photos. While it was rumored that JFK was a womanizer, he was not portrayed in the media as such, selling the American people an inaccurate portrayal of his morality.
When JFK was assassinated, 68% of Americans had heard the news in an hour and 92% had heard in two hours. The shooting occurred on November 2, 1963, Friday afternoon, and continuous TV coverage ended Monday evening, which was unparalleled until 9/11 and unrivaled since. At the time, it was unimaginable that any president could get shot, but particularly Kennedy as he was beloved. LIFE magazine distributed shocking stills of the shooting, exploiting the assassination for material interest. The assassination of JFK was a turning point in journalism, where home film and photography were able to catch a crime of such gravity.
Theodore White was a journalist who had given favorable coverage to JFK and greatly influenced the 1960 election. He published his book The Making of the President, 1960 in 1961, and won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. White was a family friend to the Kennedy’s, and soon after the assassination Mrs. Kennedy reached out to him for an exclusive epilogue interview. She quoted a popular musical at the time, Camelot, “‘Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot’.. There'll be great Presidents again… but there’ll never be another Camelot again”. White wrote that she didn’t wish “Jack” to be forgotten, and placed him with Arthurian heroes. When the editors wished to cut the Camelot quote, Mrs. Kennedy insisted it remain. Reportedly, White later regretted starting the myth of Camelot. In December 1963, White’s article was published in Life Magazine, profoundly influencing the public’s recollection of JFK and starting the legacy of a golden age.
William J. Clinton Legacy
Many historians commonly refer to Bill Clinton as one of the most successful presidents the United States has ever seen. He is credited for turning the greatest fiscal deficit in American history into a surplus, presiding over the greatest level of economic prosperity since the early 1960s, and remaking the image and operations of the Democratic Party. No other democrat had been re-elected for a second term since FDR. Besides minor controversies over political decisions, from a presidential standpoint, there was nothing out of the ordinary.
David Brock’s 1993 article His Cheatin’ Heart claimed and cataloged cover-ups and “damage control” by “the Clinton machine” of Clinton’s extramarital sexual encounters since before the 1992 election campaign, including repeated prevention of news publishing. Brock contends the Gennifer Flowers taped conversations and Clinton’s subsequent TV apology comprised “tacit admission of infidelity” during the 1992 election but quotes reporter Eleanor Clift “‘the press is willing to cut Clinton some slack because they like him and what he has to say.” (See also Brock's book The Seduction of Hillary Rodham.)
The article claims “For at least a decade, Clinton has been prone to extramarital affairs, often more than one at a time, and to numerous one-night stands.” Brock’s reveal came to be known as Troopergate thanks to the source: four of the Arkansas state police security detail for the governor. Brock states “[the trooper’s] ‘official’ duties included facilitating Clinton’s cheating on his wife” and suggested that Clinton considered himself outside the law and his actions constituted an abuse of power similar to Kennedy’s “private foibles.” The article also linked Kennedy and Clinton’s press tactics to prevent the first mention of scandal and keep the press from obtaining a reputable source, as well as discredit those who might go on record.
This, for Brock, was the larger issue than the president’s personal morals. “...Clinton’s private activities have caused lies to be told, threats to be made, and cover-ups to be undertaken, an issue of public integrity is raised, and the public’s right to know outweighs a public figure’s claim to privacy or journalistic discretion… Clinton and his surrogates continue to regard his private behavior as a political time bomb. Their effort to try to thwart publication of the story is itself newsworthy — and quite illustrative of how this information was kept from voters during the 1992 campaign”.
Brock names a “Paula,” later believed to be Paula Jones, who filed a civil suit in Arkansas in 1994. Dismissed, appealed, and postponed several times, the Supreme Court case Clinton v. Jones ruled in 1997 the lawsuit could move ahead even though Clinton is still in office (claim of presidential immunity overruled). Through this suit, Linda Tripp’s records of her calls with Monica Lewinsky and evidence of Lewinsky’s, Jones’ and other liaisons became public record. Brock later lauded then apologized for the Troopergate story’s damage to the political image of Clinton, suggesting his professional ethics are confused by political leanings and changing public perception.
By late 1998, the infamous Monica Lewinsky scandal surfaced, and Clinton’s face was plastered on the cover of every national news publication. Suddenly, journalists were no longer interested in the politics, but more inclined to report on the bedroom both inside and outside his marriage. Known for a worldwide scandal and the second president to be impeached by the House of Representatives, the Clinton legacy seemed to be completely diminished in just a few short years.
After office, Clinton never shied from the public eye. Two decades later, the media brings up the same scandal over his accomplishments since. He began the Clinton Foundation Climate Change Initiative (CCI) which partners with public and private sectors to fight climate change and grow economies. He tours the world and writes novels. He influenced the 2008 Presidential Election, campaigning for his wife, Hillary Clinton, and then supporting Barack Obama. In 2013, Clinton was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his public service, the nation’s highest civilian honor. The award celebrated its 50th anniversary since its founding by JFK, 50 years after his assassination.
While some media continually portrays Bill Clinton as a promiscuous, presidential embarrassment, seemingly the American people disagree. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, two-thirds of Americans have a favorable opinion of the former president. This ties his highest favorability rating when he was inaugurated in January 1993. Despite scandal, Clinton has maintained a favorable average of 56% since his election. Regardless of race, gender, age, or party, polls show record-high margins of favorability.
Influence of Journalism on Power
The role of media has portrayed President Kennedy as a martyr and one of America’s greatest Presidents, although historians consider him to be a sub-par President. Contrarily, President Clinton, who held office during national success lost a great deal of respect at the hands of journalists. Such evidence can be found in searching political cartoons of each man and analyzing the connotation (see cartoon analysis figures).
Elections are the keystones of democracy and enable citizens to decide to whom they will acknowledge as the holder of power on their behalf. The role of the media is to cover these events truthfully as what voters know about candidates is almost entirely second hand from television, newspapers, radio, magazines, etc. Therefore the selectiveness of what the media reports has the power completely transform the outcome of elections and public perception of the President. According to David Halberstam, the role of television has greatly changed the game in last 15 years.
For future expansion of this chapter, further analysis may be conducted on other Presidents and their reputations as painted by the media. Suggestions include President Franklin Roosevelt and his paralytic illness; President Nixon and the Watergate Scandal; President Regan and the Iran Contra Affair, etc. A greater analysis on the different types of journalistic medium may be conducted, comparing the effects of introducing radio as a news source, then television and eventually social media. Alternatively, focus on specific influential journalists such as Theodore White and their professional impact.
Additional resources here:
- SPJ Missions - Society of Professional Journalists. (n.d.). https://www.spj.org/mission.asp
- SPJ Code of Ethics - Society of Professional Journalists. (n.d.). https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp
- Brinkley, A. The Legacy of John F. Kennedy. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/08/the-legacy-of-john-f-kennedy/309499/
- Rothman, L. (May 26, 2017). See the 20 Times John F. Kennedy Appeared on the Cover of LIFE Magazine. Time Magazine. http://time.com/4763638/jfk-covers-life/
- Sheatsley, B. & Feldman, J. (1964). The Assassination of President Kennedy: A Preliminary Report on Public Reactions and Behavior. The Opinion Quarterly. http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2746986.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A6553024f3daaab464ea7c7a89b88ed05
- JFK Archives. LIFE Magazine: November 29, 1963. http://jfk-archives.blogspot.com/2014/12/life-magazine-november-29-1963.html
- Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2018, May 04). Theodore H. White. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Theodore-H-White
- Piereson, J. (2013, December 11). How Jackie Kennedy Invented the Camelot Legend After JFK’s Death. The Daily Beast. https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-jackie-kennedy-invented-the-camelot-legend-after-jfks-death
- White, T. H. (1963, December). For President Kennedy: An Epilogue. Life, 158-160.
- Legacy of the Clinton Administration. (2012). PBS. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/clinton-legacy-clinton-administration/
- Bill Clinton. (2018, January 30). Miller Center. https://millercenter.org/president/clinton
- Brock, D. (2012, September). His cheatin' heart. The American Spectator. https://spectator.org/49976_his-cheatin-heart/
- The Washington Post Company. (1998, December). Jones v. Clinton Time Line. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/pjones/timeline.htm
- The Washington Post Company. (1998, September 13). Clinton Accused Time Line. The Washington Post, p. A32.
- Baker, P. (1998, November 14). Clinton Settles Paula Jones Lawsuit for $850,000. The Washington Post, p. A1.
- Felten, E. (1998, March 23). Clinton's Apologist. The Weekly Standard. https://www.weeklystandard.com/eric-felten/clintons-apologist
- President Clinton impeached. (2009). History.com. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/president-clinton-impeached
- Clinton Climate Initiative. (2016, June 08). Clinton Foundation. https://www.clintonfoundation.org/our-work/clinton-climate-initiative
- Rucker, P. (2013, November 20). Obama honors Clinton and his legacy with Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/obama-honors-clinton-and-his-legacy-with-presidential-medal-of-freedom/2013/11/20/0709f802-51fa-11e3-a7f0-b790929232e1_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.9371ee909012
- Gallup, Inc. (2012, July 30). In U.S., Bill Clinton at His Most Popular. http://news.gallup.com/poll/156362/bill-clinton-popular.aspx
- Wojtasik, Waldemar. (2013). Functions of Elections in Democratic Systems. Political Preferences. 4. 25-38
- Halberstam, David, (January 11, 1981). "How Television Failed the American Voter," Parade, p. 7.