Changing Media and Cultural Mores: David Brinkley on Covering JFK, Clinton

Renowned television journalist David Brinkley (1920-2003) admitted he contributed to the clean-cut and false image of John F. Kennedy as a faithful family man while, decades later, undermining the image of Bill Clinton, with different standards. “I can’t explain why,” he said, that journalists had different standards for public figures in Kennedy’s time than in Clinton’s time. Full interview at…

I would suggest that media is always influenced by culture and markets. Before the cultural revolutions in ideas about sexuality and women’s rights, there was simply no market for reports on Kennedy’s sex life. Thirty years later, in the 1990s, the culture and media market was obsessed with sex and newly attuned to women’s rights.

Yet Clinton’s base of support was not willing to abandon him on grounds that he treated women badly. Paradoxically, two decades after Clinton’s impeachment trial, the same people who judged him harshly decided essentially that the private morality of Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president, was not relevant. Or maybe this is not a paradox. Partisans simply judge those they like and support differently from those they dislike or don’t support.

And the same people who gave Bill Clinton a pass were harshly critical of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged behavior as a high school and college student. Yet Kavanaugh (and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991) received the strongest support from people claiming that “family values” were most important.

Another way of looking at this is that American culture and media remain in transition on issues of sexual morality and women’s rights. With the “me too movement,” a consensus of no tolerance of impropriety was perhaps beginning to emerge by the end of the second decade of the 21st century.

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