Cleavage Column Draws Critiques And Support, and an Ombudsman’s Defense

By: Joe Strupp

More than a week after The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan’s devoted an entire column to Hillary Clinton’s alleged low-cut outfit, the controversy over the piece reached new heights this weekend as Sunday talk shows and numerous newspapers referenced the piece.

Among them was “Meet the Press,” on which the column drew complaints from NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, but support from John Harwood of The Wall Street Journal, who said, “When you look … at the calculation that goes into everything that Hillary Clinton does, for her to argue that she was not aware of what she was communicating by her dress is like Barry Bonds saying he though he was rubbing down with flaxseed oil.”

On CNN’s Reliable Sources, host and Post colleague Howard Kurtz cited the piece, saying “Now, you’re probably thinking, why are we in the media wasting our time on such sartorial nonsense? Maybe because we care so much about how we look, so we assume politicians must have the same obsession.”

At least one host, ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos on “This Week,” headed off talk of the column before it could start, saying during a Clinton discussion, “I’m not going to that cleavage story,” adding then, “it had to come up.”

Fellow newspapers also weighed in, from The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. to the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, with both support and critique of the idea that Clinton’s cleavage was worth reporter’s notebook space.

Ian Bishop of the New york Post on Saturday called it, “the Great Cleavage Controversy,” while syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman ripped Givhan, writing “Only in Washington would a fashion reporter get tips watching C-SPAN2. But the Post piece managed to make a media mountain out of a half-inch valley.”

On Saturday, Judith Warner in The New york Times declared, “I always thought that middle age afforded some kind of protection from prying eyes and personal remarks. I thought this was the silver lining to growing up and growing older. Clearly, I was wrong.”

At issue was the July 20 piece by Givhan, a Pulitzer Prize winner, which said, among other things, “It was startling to see that small acknowledgment of sexuality and femininity peeking out of the conservative — aesthetically speaking — environment of Congress. After all, it wasn’t until the erly ’90s that women were even allowed to wear pants on the Senate floor. It was even more surprising to note that it was coming from Clinton, someone who has been so publicly ambivalent about style, image and the burdens of both.”

Since then, the column has received an avalanche of interest, even prompting Clinton’s campaign to structure a letter seeking donations around the column. The Post reported that the letter stated donors should “take a stand against this kind of coarseness and pettiness in American culture.”

On Sunday, Post Ombudsman Deborah Howell came to her defense with her own column on the controversy Sunday.

While Howell noted that Clinton’s potential provocative clothing is not the top issue on which a presidential vote for her should be decided, she defended it as a fair topic for a fashion writer. “Does this have anything to do with whether Clinton should be president? Not a thing. But do we want to read the column about her cleavage? Yes indeed. It was the most viewed story on the Web site all day.”

Givhan, who is out for the next week, could not be reached for comment Monday.

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