University of New Hampshire
Mentor: Lisa C. Miller, M.A., Associate Professor of English
The Scandal that Turned American Media Upside-Down: Examining the Backlash of the President Clinton/Monica Lewinsky Affair
On January 21, 1998, the media world was rocked by allegations of a presidential affair with a former White House intern. The combination of political "scandal" along with the advances of Internet reporting and 24-hour television news stations produced an atmosphere of fierce competition among news outlets to produce up-to-the-minute "breaking developments." For over a year, the affair was broadcast into millions of American homes via television, newspapers, radio and the Internet. For some, the affair was a source of daily discussion. For others, it was a source of daily depression. How did American media get to where it is?
The purpose of my research was to determine whether the quality and quantity of the affair's media coverage affected the public's view of journalism. To determine how people responded to this coverage, I devised a two-page survey exploring the public's view of both the affair itself and the media. I mailed the survey to 200 Durham residents, selected at random. At the same time, I researched several months of coverage in four newspapers. This allowed me to examine my own opinions about the media coverage, and also to develop an overview of each paper's presentation. The final part of my research involved speaking with media professionals about their perspective on the affair. I interviewed several people, including Jim Graham, a reporter for the Concord Monitor, Geneva Overholser, of the Washington Post, and Bill Kovach, co-author of Warp Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media.
After analyzing the survey results, I found that the respondents fell into one of three categories: those whose opinions concerning the media remained unchanged because they didn't follow the affair, those whose opinions remained unchanged despite the media coverage, and those whose opinions changed in response to the affair's coverage. Although my analysis of the newspapers' coverage is ongoing, I did observe that the two national papers carried more stories written by their own staff than did the local papers, most likely because each has a larger audience than the two local papers. However, the fact that the local papers carried very few stories written by their own staff indicates that their audiences were not as interested in the affair. The most positive outcome of my research was observing journalists' self-examination. Several media professionals have written books and given other responses offering suggestions on how to improve the media and make it more credible for the 21st century. Hopefully, the result will be an increase in quality news for future generations.