Covering the candidates on women

As Obama and Romney try to secure the female vote, reporting quality varies

In her column, Minority Reports, Jennifer Vanasco analyzes how the mainstream media covers social minorities.

During the second Presidential debate this week, both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spent significant time playing to women voters, acting on the perception that Romney is closing the gender gap in the final weeks before the election.

Most news organizations did the expected with the candidates’ female focus, reporting on what the men said, how it played during the debate, and how the campaigns reacted afterwards. The New York Times did a particularly full political story that both relates what happened in detail and explains why it’s important.

Others focused on the most buzzed-about moment. When asked about equal pay for women, Romney responded with a story about how, when he was assembling his Cabinet as governor of Massachusetts, he asked his aides to come up with more names of female candidates. “I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women,” he said.

Most every story covering the debate mentioned how Romney’s “binders full of women” instantly became a social media meme, including a snarky Tumblr, an anti-Romney Facebook page, a website bought by a Democratic group, and a proliferation of original songs or mashups on YouTube.

Some good reporting from the Associated Press revealed that Romney actually didn’t ask for those resumes - instead, he was approached by the Massachusetts Government Appointments Project, a coalition of women’s groups that had requested and culled them because they were trying to boost “the number of women in top state government jobs.” However, a terrific Washington Post opinion piece explored why, even if Romney had requested the binders, the fact that he didn’t know any qualified women offhand from his days at Bain Capital suggests that he thinks of women as token hires. Writer Jena McGregor says that his answer during the debate gave the impression “that he thinks such groups [as MassGAP] hold the keys to special ‘binders full of women’ who can’t otherwise be found through normal human-resources channels such as leadership development programs, succession plans, and internal and external recruiting.’”

The absolute best story about women’s issues stemming from the second Presidential debate is at the 85 Broads blog on, written by contributor Meg Waite Clayton. Clayton takes the time to lay out the positions and actions Obama, Romney, Joe Biden, and Paul Ryan have actually taken on issues generally thought to be close to women’s hearts. For example, both Obama and Biden voted as senators for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which extended the statute of limitations for equal-pay lawsuits. Obama thought it was so important that it was the first bill he signed into law as President, a point he brought up during the debate. Romney has not said previously whether he supports it, though an aide said right after the debate that he opposed the act when it was passed (though ABC News now says that after the debate, he’s wavering). Paul Ryan voted against the fair pay act.

Clayton’s story continues with candidates’ history on a list of other women-centric issues, including the accessibility and insurance coverage of birth control, women’s authority over reproductive rights, rape, and parental and medical leave.

Clayton, a novelist, does here what journalism pros neglected to do: She clearly lays out the positions of the candidates with quotes and facts, stripped of opinion or analysis. (Mostly. As we all know, it is difficult to be completely objective, and Clayton’s choices about what’s important reveal her ideas about, well, what’s important. For example, she doesn’t include gay marriage as an issue that’s important to women — but if she were a liberal lesbian worried about keeping her family together or, alternately, a conservative who believes that gay marriage destroys families and hurts children, she likely would have.)

My only wish is that Clayton had added in hyperlinks, so that readers could go read the full quote or take a look at the vote for themselves.

Nevertheless, Clayton’s excellent article is a true piece of service journalism that we could all use more of in this political season, because it goes beyond the rhetoric to reveal the actual actions taken and opinions stated by the candidates. Kudos.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years.