Posted on April 16, 2019
Why aren’t we hearing more in the media about presidential candidates (clockwise, from top left) Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Tulsi Gabbard? Could it be because they all lack a Y chromosome?
If you’re tired of reading about the endless debate of whether Joe Biden’s habit of physically demonstrating his affection is appropriate or the countless stories of how awesome it is that Pete Buttigieg learned Norwegian to read a book, you’re not alone.
If you’re thirsting for discussion of actual issues that affect the country and policies to address those issues, you may be in for a drought. Given the media’s track record on covering the 2020 Democratic race so far, we’re more likely to get an ocean of coverage about men.
The media loved the feel-good story of the record number of women running for office in 2018 — and winning. But it’s almost as if the nation’s newsrooms — still disproportionately white and male — figured that they had given women pats on the head, and now it was time to get back to concentrating on white male candidates, who (in too many of their opinions) are the only ones who have a real shot at beating Donald Trump next year. Likely because the women aren’t “likable” enough. And the more they push that line, the danger is that more voters might believe there’s no alternative.
The gushing coverage of Buttigieg (whom I like, don’t get me wrong) and the emphasis on what are being described as the B-Boys (Biden, Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke, and now Buttigieg) is, in the words of Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post, a “self-fulfilling prophecy” (this was written before Buttigieg started receiving so much attention). This is especially true when the media concentrate on who’s ahead in the latest polling, even if it’s way too early for horse-race journalism:
Somehow, despite a remarkably diverse Democratic field — which includes a record number of women, a gay man and several people of color — the B-Boys (that is, Beto, Biden and Bernie) — were off and running.
The news media undoubtedly was part of the equation. With more than 18 months to go before the 2020 election, the love and attention was not being dished out in equal measure. …
When many Democratic voters put sheer electability (unseating President Trump) as the top priority, this media-driven momentum takes on even more power.
That’s potentially dangerous.
It would be a shame — and counterproductive — if premature judgments end up transforming all this diversity and talent into a shrugged-off bunch of also-rans.
I’ve got news for the media. Primary and caucus voters are going to decide this contest, not pundits.
If white guys are the best Democrats have to offer, why are there a record number of black women mayors currently serving in U.S. cities? Lori Lightfoot made history as the first black (and openly gay) woman to be elected as mayor of Chicago. Her opponent, Toni Preckwinkle, was another African-American woman, who, even though she lost, remains the second most powerful politician in the city as president of the Cook County Board and the Cook County Democratic Party. And although Chicago has a celebrated Democratic machine, it’s not exactly liberal and had nothing to do with delivering Lightfoot’s win.
This NPR story quoted the head of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University about the rise of African-American women, who remain Democrats’ most consistent and loyal voters:
But the rapid rise of black women mayors in large American cities is a sign that black women are making strides in an area where all women have long been absent, said Debbie Walsh, the center’s director.
“One of the challenges that we’ve seen over time for women, in general, is women in executive leadership,” Walsh said. “There’s an assumption that women in legislative positions, whether federal level, state level or even at the city level work well in committee, work well on councils. It fits for the stereotype for women.”
“Breaking that final glass ceiling of women as executives really opens up a world of possibilities. To be the person who is the final decider, the place where the buck stops, is something that we think voters may be more hesitant about,” Walsh continued.
A Politico piece saw sexism in coverage but also attributed the imbalance to voters who might fear another woman on the top ticket.
With an all-male cast of Democratic candidates soaking up most of the oxygen and posting better polling numbers, there is now more evidence to suggest that gender bias is a real problem for female candidates.
At the same time, other evidence suggests that female candidates may not be at a significant disadvantage in lower-level races. Indeed, Smith and Paul didn’t find significant evidence of gender bias in operation even in primary match-ups (though this result is highly limited, given they compared only the two aforementioned pairings). This finding coheres with the hopeful results we saw in the 2018 election, when an unprecedented number of female members of Congress were elected. But it also leaves open the question of how well women will fare when it comes to the highest profile race of all: the presidential election.
Why might presidential races be different? One plausible theory is that in seeking the Oval Office women are competing less for a service position and more for a position of perceived power and authority—indeed, virtually the most masculine-coded authority position imaginable.
How many times do we have to say it? Hillary Clinton received nearly 3 million more votes than Donald Trump.
If local voters can elect so many black women as mayors, surely voters on the national scale can muster up the courage to vote for a woman as president. In Illinois alone, there are an eye-popping number of black women in office.
But pundits insist that we’ve got to nominate a white guy to beat Trump. Got it.
Just like all Democratic voters, black voters want a candidate with the best chance to beat Trump, as was described in a recent Washington Post story about the National Action Network convention, a group founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton. But there are contrasting arguments as to who that candidate might be.
“The old white guys have been in the political arena. They know what the job entails,” said Yvonne James, a 79-year-old New Yorker who carried a canvas bag at the convention with images of the Obamas and other “strong black men and women” stitched onto it. “So if it boils down to them or somebody who’s kind of new, let’s go with the experienced choice.” …
It’s been 15 years since Democrats last nominated a white man for president, choosing John F. Kerry, who would go on to lose to George W. Bush in 2004. With so many strong alternatives this time, some Democrats say, they aren’t keen on doing that in 2020.
“That’s the American norm; people vote for what they know. But the old, safe norm is what got Trump in there. I think it’s time to shake up things a little bit,” said Tiffany James, the 37-year-old head of NAN’s South Carolina branch. She arrived at the convention in a shirt that read “Black Women 2020” — promoting a push to put their agenda front and center.
On the plus side, CNN is giving every announced candidate his or her own town hall, publicizing them in advance, giving candidates plenty of time to answer questions, and reporting on them afterward, both on air and online. Most of the Democratic candidates are being interviewed on various MSNBC shows. Candidates are making their own calls on whether they’re willing to go on Fox News.
To counteract the Buttigieg-learned-Norwegian stories, Vogue came out with a piece listing hobbies, pets, and other human interest stories about women candidates. Elizabeth Warren was a star debater in high school, and her dog, Bailey, won a “poll” with Iowa caucus-goers. Kamala Harris cleaned test tubes in her scientist mother’s lab and mastered Indian cooking. Amy Klobuchar learned about Minnesota on bicycle rides with her dad and attended the University of Chicago Law School with former FBI Director James Comey, who described her as “annoyingly smart.” Kirsten Gillibrand interviewed the Dalai Lama, ran two marathons and plays on the congressional women’s softball team (remember when the media in 2012 obsessed about Paul Ryan and his workout routines?).
The coverage remains way too uneven. An opinion piece in the online magazine Dame lamented the unfairness of that fact:
So is it all that surprising then, that we see tremendous gaps in coverage between the growing pile of white male candidates and Senators Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Kirsten Gillibrand, and Representative Tulsi Gabbard — five female veteran lawmakers—contending for the Democratic nomination? …
When Beto O’Rourke says that he wings speeches and is “born” to lead in a race with numerous prepared, engaged women who had to fight sexism even after being elected to high office, who come to the table with policies they’ve sponsored and proposals at the ready, it is an ugly reminder of the work women have to do to be considered competent versus the unearned entitlement of men. …
The quality of media coverage of women seeking power, the speed with which men ignored, dismissed, and diminished women as voters and opponents, the ways we treat women’s bodies as public property — these were all issues raised in 2016. That we are still grappling with them again shows how deeply embedded misogyny is and how unserious we are about truly resolving it.
In January, a Glamour story celebrated the fact that multiple women in a presidential contest no longer seems out of the mainstream:
“This field of wildly qualified, incredibly impressive women is making the most consequential political race of our lifetime look and feel more like the reality we all aspire to — basic equality — and that is such a positive thing for the American public to be witnessing,” writes Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Now, if only the mainstream media saw it that way. Please — give women candidates as much overall coverage as certain men.
Originally posted on Daily Kos on April 14, 2019.