the tonya harding controversy: an analysis of image restoration strategies

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Memorial University of Newfoundland]On: 31 July 2014, At: 20:18Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Communication QuarterlyPublication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rcqu20

    The Tonya Harding controversy:An analysis of image restorationstrategiesWilliam L. Benoit a & Robert S. Hanczor ba Associate Professor in the Department of Communication ,University of Missouri , Columbia, MO, 65211b Doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication ,University of Missouri , Columbia, MO, 65211Published online: 21 May 2009.

    To cite this article: William L. Benoit & Robert S. Hanczor (1994) The Tonya Hardingcontroversy: An analysis of image restoration strategies, Communication Quarterly, 42:4,416-433, DOI: 10.1080/01463379409369947

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  • The Tonya Harding Controversy:An Analysis of Image Restoration Strategies

    William L. Benoit and Robert S. Hanczor

    This essay critically analyzes Tonya Harding's defense of her image in Eye-to-Eyewith Connie Chung, applying the theory of image restoration discourse (Benoit,1994). The principle strategies employed on her behalf are bolstering, denial, andattacking her accuser (defeasibility plays a relatively minor role). While thesestrategies are generally appropriate, they were not developed very effectively in thisinstance. The discourse portrayed Harding in a fashion that was inconsistent withthe audience's probable impression of her. Her lie about when she first learned ofthe attack severely undermined her credibility, and the discourse did not remedythis obstacle. Several others contradicted her assertions, and she did not challengeapparently incriminating evidence. Accordingly, we evaluate this as ineffective, andpublic opinion polls confirm our judgment. Finally, we discuss implications of ouranalysis.

    KEY CONCEPTS Tonya Harding, Eye-To Eye with Connie Chung, Nancy Kerrigan,image restoration, Olympic skaters

    WILLIAM L. BENOIT (Ph.D., Wayne State University, 1979) is an Associate Professor in theDepartment of Communication, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211. ROBERT S.HANCZOR is a doctoral candidate in the same department.

    Communication scholars have displayed a keen interest in sports generally, and sportsand the media particularly. A variety of studies have been conducted into therelationship between communication and sports (see, e.g., Brummett & Duncan,1990; Bryant, Brown, Comisky, & Zillmann, 1982; Bryant, Comisky, & Zillmann, 1977;Gantz, 1981; Hocking, 1982; McDermott, Hocking, Johnson, & Atkin, 1989; Parente,1977; Prisuta, 1979; Reid & Soley, 1979; Trujillo & Ekdom, 1985; Wanta & Leggett, 1988).However, relatively little work has been conducted on image restoration discourse (apolo-gia) by sports figures.

    Kruse (1981) examined the occurrence of apologia in team sport, concluding thatapologia of sports figures "do not differ strategically from the character defenses offered bythose in the sociopolitical wor ld" (p. 280). She identified bolstering (attempts to offsetnegative feelings by portraying oneself in a favorable light) and expressions of regret orremorse as recurrent features of the relatively brief image restoration discourses of sportsfigures.

    After disclosure of Billie Jean King's affair with her former secretary, Nelson (1984)analyzed defensive discourses by King and her husband, her peers, and the media. Kingused bolstering and differentiation (she may have been a lesbian in the past, but she was notan active lesbian). Both her peers and the media tended to use bolstering and transcen-dence (arguing that her privacy is a more important issue than her sexual practices).

    Thus, scholars have shown an interest in communication and sports generally, and only

    416 Communication Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 4, Fall 1994, Pages 416-433

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  • modest interest in apologia by sports figures specificallydespite multiple opportunities forsuch work (e.g., the "Black Sox" scandal, Mike Tyson's conviction for rape, Pete Rose'sgambling on baseball, Michael Jordan's huge losses betting on golf). Nevertheless, sportsfigures, when engaged in defensive rhetoric, do dominate the news. As such, their rhetoricprovides a venue for image restoration that is deserving of close analysis. Understandingrhetoric's functionwhat works and what doesn'tmay be gained from a close analysis ofcelebrity discourse as well as from political discourse. Thus, this study examines TonyaHarding's image restoration efforts following the attack on Nancy Kerrigan.

    The 1994 Winter Olympic Games were indelibly marked by the tumultuous contro-versy over the possible involvement of American figure skater Tonya Harding in the attackon her teammate and rival, Nancy Kerrigan. This story, which dominated the discoursesurrounding the Olympic Games, continued to surface in the popular press and inmade-for-television dramas long after the Olympics were over.1 Harding has emerged asone of the most notorious figures in America today. On February 10, 1994, Hardingpresented her side of the story on Eye-to-Eye with Connie Chung.

    This particular controversy merits scholarly attention for several reasons. First, the factthat the Olympic Games are a cultural spectacle guarantees enormous public exposure.Katz (1980) characterized the Olympics as a media spectacle, a "high holiday" in televisionbroadcasting. Farrell's (1989) description of the Olympic Games as a "social drama"suggested how public emotion can be stoked by the media to raise ratings. Rothenbuhler(1988) developed a "celebration" hypothesis, in which viewers see the Games as a holidayor celebration where they attend to the schedules and rituals of the Games, watch theevents with groups of close friends and family, and share in the Olympic ideology ofsportsmanship, self-sacrifice, and competition. Rothenbuhler (1989) also described how theOlympics became a "civil religion" that enables spectators to overcome their inherentcynicism of most televised sports and approach the Games with reverence. Riggs, Eastman,and Golobic (1993) argued that resolution of the political conflict between the United Statesand the Soviet Union has forced the media to contrive new and unnecessary conflicts toperpetuate the social drama of the Olympics.

    During the 1994 Winter Olympics, the media shamelessly exploited the suspicions thatTonya Harding was involved in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan to fuel conflict and interest inthe Games. A Gallup poll on January 26 found that 73% had seen or heard a great dealabout "the controversy surrounding Tonya Hardingthe Olympic figure skater whoseex-husband was arrested for attacking another figure skater," and 20% had seen or heardsome about it. Only 2% said that they knew nothing about it.2 This is hardly surprising,because in addition to the many newspaper articles on the topic, Harding's possible role inthe attack was the topic of 16 stories on the major television networks news programs in thesecond half of January.3 The February 10 episode of Eye-to-Eye with Connie Chung waswidely watched, garnering a 17.4 rating and a 28% share, the highest rated show in its timeslot ("Ratings Week," 1994, p. 31). This controversy buoyed the ratings of the Olympics:"Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan combined with the gold medals of Tommy Moe,Bonnie Blair, and Dan Jansen to produce the highest-rated Olympics in the history of U.S.television" ('"94 Winter Games," 1994, p. 1B). Thus, the possible involvement of TonyaHarding in the attack on Nancy Kerriganinteresting in itself but hyped by the mediawasin the forefront of the American consciousness.

    A second reason for studying this controversy is that it is possibly the first and certainlythe most prominent example of a sports figure accused of involvement in the deliberateinjury of a rival. Athletes have been disqu