Katie Hill Coverage: Victim or #MeToo Perpetrator?

Katie Hill Coverage: Victim or #MeToo Perpetrator?
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File
Katie Hill Coverage: Victim or #MeToo Perpetrator?
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File
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Freshman Rep. Katie Hill was once lauded by the press as the next Nancy Pelosi and rapidly rose to become vice chair of the House Oversight Committee. In the space of just one week, all of that came crashing down with her admission of an inappropriate relationship with a campaign staffer and her subsequent resignation. How have the media covered her story in the era of #MeToo?

The timeline below shows the number of mentions of “Katie Hill” on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News since June 2018 using data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive, processed by the GDELT Project. (Click on the chart for a larger image.)

MSNBC was the first of the three news channels to begin covering her in July 2018 and has consistently paid more attention to her than the other two outlets. From June 2018 through the end of last month, MSNBC mentioned her 101 times, CNN 87 times and Fox News 61 times.

MSNBC’s mentions of Hill abruptly tailed off last month, with the channel mentioning her only a single time during October, focusing largely on her role as a victim of “revenge porn” – her characterization of nude photos of the congresswoman with a female campaign staffer. (Hill has blamed her husband -- with whom she is in divorce proceedings – along with “hateful political operatives” for releasing the photographs.)

The chart below compares the total number of mentions of Hill on each channel in October 2019 compared with the 16 months before, showing just how stark MSNBC’s radio silence on the story has been.

The publication of the nude photographs has received widespread condemnation. Yet eight years ago there was little such sympathy when nude images of then-Rep. Anthony Weiner were published by many of the same outlets.

In fact, the Weiner story combined received more than 22,904 mentions across the three channels compared with just 329 mentions of Katie Hill (just 1.4% as much), as seen in the timeline below. Interestingly, the majority of the Weiner coverage occurred in 2011 and 2013, when the only allegations against him involved consensual sexting, while the later criminal allegations of sexual communication with a minor received only a fraction of the attention.

The concept of “consent” has been propelled to the forefront of discussions by the #MeToo movement, which has argued that a relationship between an employer and employee cannot be consensual by virtue of their power difference.

Despite this, nearly a quarter of worldwide online news coverage from Oct. 21-28, as monitored by the GDELT Project, that mentioned “Katie Hill” and either “relationship” or “affair” also emphasized that the relationship with the campaign staffer was “consensual” or repeated the statement from Hill’s resignation letter that it was a “consensual relationship.”

Hill’s sexuality has also been a prominent framing point in media coverage over the past week. Roughly 47.5% of coverage from Oct. 21-28 mentioning Hill also mentioned “bisexual” or “bisexuality.”

In contrast, just 7.8% of online coverage over the same period mentioning “Katie Hill” also mentioned “MeToo.” Even Nancy Pelosi’s statement regarding the congresswoman’s resignation made no mention of #MeToo, instead characterizing her actions as mere “errors in judgment.”

Hill’s relationship with her campaign staffer thus appears to have been framed largely as a consensual relationship between two adults rather than as a political candidate taking advantage of her influence over a staffer.

In the place of a #MeToo framing, coverage has largely focused on the release of the nude photographs. In all, 43.6% of articles mentioning Hill also mentioned either “consent” or “revenge porn,” portraying her as a victim rather than a #MeToo perpetrator.

Similarly, 46.7% of online news mentions of Hill over this period mentioned the word “smear,” repeating her characterization of the story as a “smear campaign.”

In the end, perhaps the biggest takeaway from the Katie Hill story is that both the media and Congress are still trying to find their way in the new era of #MeToo, especially with regards to what defines a “victim” versus a “perpetrator.”

RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.



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