Fighting Words

Gwen Ifill listens through the ears of Clinton and Obama's supporters

Gwen Ifill had an interesting point yesterday on Meet the Press about what could pivot the tight Democratic election one way or the other. She was referring, initially, to Bill Clinton, but the point is actually just as applicable to how the press covers the two candidates:

You know, there’s a real important lesson that’s being learned here. Bill Clinton—who you would think would have known the lesson already—figured it out first, which is that you have to be careful in an election like this in the language you use. You have two firsts out here. And there are huge groups of people who support each first, roughly women for Hillary and roughly blacks for Obama.

Here’s a problem…. They hear offense; they hear insult. Bill Clinton found that out. He said something—whether you believe it was innocent or not—but he said something which struck a tone with a lot of African-American voters, and he’s been trying to make it up ever since.

The same problem exists, however, for people who are supporters or just observers of the Clinton campaign…. There’s a great groundswell sub rosa argument among women, who feel that this election is being unfairly taken from them; feminists who hear every insult, which is, you know, we heard what happened this week on NBC with the reporter who made the comment about Chelsea. That sort of thing starts to—it just starts a little roll going among people who are feeling aggrieved anyway. So if you make a comment and you say, “Barack Obama, he’s a kid,” or “Barack Obama, he’s like Jesse Jackson,” that rings a bell in the ears of a lot of African-American voters and other supporters of Barack Obama. If you make a sexist or demeaning comment about a woman, that also strikes a bell among a lot of women voters. And that’s the problem in a tipping-point election, when any, any version of that kind of insult can affect the outcome probably more than the superdelegates.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.