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Rendering Reputations

A visit with Betty Winfield, Professor, School of Journalism

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: internet journalism reputation Lewis and Clark presidents

Betty Houchin Winfield has earned a reputation for her fascinating and illuminating research, whether it concerns the roles that the media play in the reputations of such public personas as presidential candidates’ wives or those individuals who undertook the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition. As a University Curators’ Professor, based in the School of Journalism, she also looks at the media’s building of “social capital” in the United States, that is, people actively participating in the democratic process. In contrast to those naysayers who claim there has been a decline in social capital in the U.S., Winfield examines how the internet may reverse this trend. In fact, many internet sites actually stimulate “bridging and bonding” of like-minded individuals that seems to result in people becoming more politically involved.

On another note, Winfield’s current book project, provisionally entitled The Nineteenth-Century Response to the Corps of Discovery: Reputation Building and Hero Status, explores the nature of reputation, prior to the advent of opinion polls and the national media, in terms of its life cycle—how reputation is born, lives, and dies. Because the Corps of Discovery offers a useful case study, Winfield has been conducting historical research to understand the public perception and reputation of the people involved in the expedition throughout different time periods, observing how some have undergone “hero-ification” while others have seemingly disappeared.

Winfield just published a project that examines the reputation of the wives of 2000 presidential candidates, especially in terms of how they are framed by the media: as the supportive wife, the gracious hostess, or the “good works” wife. According to this scheme, wives who express political opinions of their own tend to get covered negatively. Most recently, the “anti-Hillary” frame has dominated in some quarters, a clear backlash over the perception and fear of former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s political influence. That dynamic helps to explain comments such as George Bush’s observation on “Hardball,” August 21, 2000, to the effect that “My wife isn’t Hillary Clinton. She’s not going to hog the spotlight. She’s not going to push forward her own political agenda at my expense.” Rather, more often the emphasis is on the candidates’ wives as “quiet supporters,” in order to avoid the perceived threat of these women having their own publicly expressed political views.

As Winfield describes her research areas, which overlap, intersect, and draw strength from one another, I can’t help but find it simultaneously ironic and fitting that this outstanding scholar, with such a reputation of her own, would be studying the reputation of others.