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Lawrence and Bennett: Rethinking media politics and public opinion

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Lawrence and Bennett. 2001. Rethinking media politics and public opinion: Reactions to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. PSQ 116 (3).

In Brief

A response to Zaller (1998), "Monica Lewinsky's Contribution to Political Science".

Background

Zaller advanced what the authors call the "3Ps" model: Only Peace, Prosperity, and Policy moderation affected Clinton's approval ratings; the Lewinsky scandal did not. Zaller therefore concluded that the media affects public opinion but little: Lewinsky coverage caused only short-term changes in popularity; in the long term, only the 3Ps matter. Basically, Zaller (1998) argued that Zaller (1992) was wrong. Ironically, Lawrency and Bennett respond that Zaller (1992) was correct all along, and Zaller (1998) was wrong to assert that Zaller (1992) was wrong.

Argument

Lawrence and Bennett do not dispute the stability of Clinton's popularity, but they focus on a different idea: The popular distinction between public and private behavior. In repeated polls, people thought that the Starr investigation had more to do with partisan politics than with a public crime by Clinton. In the popular mind, his affair was a private matter--and this was so as a result of media coverage. Clinton's team pressed the public/private distinction heavily, and the press largely supported it (at least the NYTimes did). Because people accepted this distinction, the Lewinsky scandal did not seriously affect Clinton's popularity.

Thus, the media do matter, as Zaller once believed (in his 1992 book).

Counterfactual

The authors speculate that the public would not have supported Clinton if his affair with Lewinsky was the result of sexual harrassment (rather than consensual). In this case, they would have seen it as a public matter. As evidence, they note that there were two moments during the investigation when allegations of sexual harassment were made against Clinton, and both moments were followed by drops in support for the public/private distinction. The authors see this as evidence in their favor: The media's portrayal of the affair as a private matter (and the White House's argument as such, including Hilary's claim of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" against her husband) prevented the Lewinsky affair from seriously undermining judments of Clinton.