Gender bias in public life is so pervasive that, to borrow legal parlance, the burden of proof should probably rest on those denying its influence, not asserting it. Yet while bias is entrenched in virtually everything, that fact doesn’t always explain surface-level disparities in how we treat the sexes.
“We have reached an instructive moment in 2016’s presidential election,” Rebecca Traister began a column this past Sunday in New York Magazine’s “The Cut.” She juxtaposed news media enthusiasm for Joe Biden to enter the race with skepticism about Hillary Clinton’s chances to win it. Candidates with matching credentials, but media coverage tilted in the man’s favor. An advantage clearly based on gender.
Traister’s widely circulated column goes on to note that the vice president and former Secretary of State share a striking number of policy achievements and blemishes: “it would be hard to find two contemporary Democrats whose weaknesses reflect each other so precisely, yet who currently enjoy such vastly different reputations.” She cites their similar records on Wall Street, criminal justice, and the Iraq War, among other issues. “The point is not to tally up flaws,” Traister explains, “but to recognize how those flaws are absorbed, understood, and overlooked in one candidate but not another.” Specifically, in this case, via media spin.
Books have been written on how little progress has been made in media treatment of female presidential candidates, up through Clinton’s 2008 bid. Calls for Clinton to stop “hiding behind allegations of sexism,” as a US News & World Report writer put it, often stem from the sort of callousness that perpetuates sexism. But legitimate charges of bias are undermined when observers cry foul for the wrong reasons. It gives sexism naysayers needless credence. The New York column is an instructive example.
For starters, “media bias” is a loose term. If someone says a newspaper is biased, is that an indictment of its editorial board, columnists, Op-ed contributors, or newsroom? Less often, it’s the latter, although those categories are routinely conflated.
Public perception can be scornful of women, but is the media at fault for reporting on that truth? Traister writes of Clinton:
“She is, we’re often told, a big, unpopular, untrustworthy, inauthentic problem for Democrats; her campaign is in danger of foundering; she should, perhaps, suspend it.”
“We’re often told” suggests a slanted media portrayal, yet all the sources Traister links to are, in fact, news reports on poll findings.
“Certainly I get sexist emails from Hillary haters, but I’m not seeing much, if anything, in the mainstream media that relates to gender,” said Karen Tumulty, a national political correspondent at The Washington Post. “Half of my crazy emails say we’re out to get Hillary. The other half say that we’re protecting her because she’s a woman.”
Moreover, attitudes toward Clinton and Biden must be understood within the predictable campaign narrative. A frontrunner with a tremendous fundraising advantage and lead in national polls, while primary opponents accuse the party of “facilitating a coronation ceremony,” deserves close press scrutiny. Equally anticipated is media excitement over a boisterous candidate who could inject life into a rather listless race. Traister deems gender the primary explanation for this disparity. Yet the same thing has happened whenever mutterings surface about the presidential prospects of another former Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice. The point is not that gender is moot, but that horserace promotion can be superseding. As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote Wednesday, optimism for Biden reflects “the difference between a courtship in its dawn and a marriage in its dusk.”
Clinton’s marriage with the press may suffer irreconcilable differences. As David Uberti reported in CJR, Clinton’s reluctance to field questions from reporters is even worse than expected. Critics went wild in July when Clinton staffers corralled reporters with rope at a New Hampshire parade. “The media’s summer fling with Joe Biden,” as Politico put it, is evidence to Traister “that the press has never managed to love, let alone idealize, Hillary Clinton.” Clinton has clearly precipitated some of the tension. The recent dump of State Department emails affirms her camp’s chronic press paranoia, which at times comes across as outright contempt.
A misreported front-page story in the Times earlier this summer regarding an FBI inquiry into Clinton’s email practices underscored once and for all, to some Clinton backers, that the Times has a vendetta. While that claim seems tenuous, it’s even harder to reduce that coverage to the product of gender bias. The Times columnist Maureen Dowd, for example, is a notoriously brutal critic of the Clintons, hardly because of sexist dispositions. Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s public editor, offered a useful takeaway from the July episode: “No one should expect a free ride for Mrs. Clinton. But she certainly deserves a fair shake.”
None of this is to dismiss the idea that there is gender bias in political coverage. Female-specific descriptors such as “shrill” or “frosty” are unfortunate reminders. (Traister’s unusual example was that inept male speech-givers are excused as “savvy retail politicians”—but her claim is negated by a quick search showing that term used for Clinton in The Atlantic, CNN, and Wall Street Journal.) Commenting on the looks and wardrobe of female politicians, while shallow and often sexist, does occasionally have some merit, like when Carly Fiorina chose a bright pink suit for the “undercard” GOP debate, a clear peacocking maneuver; not so tasteful was a Washington Examiner reporter’s quip about her nail polish in April. But looks coverage isn’t always restricted to one gender. “Right now there are more comments being made about Donald Trump’s hair than Clinton’s,” Tumulty noted.
MSNBC’s Chris Matthews deserved the fallout he got for absurdly attributing Clinton’s entire political career to pity for having endured her husband’s affairs, just as it would be wrong to pin Biden’s popularity solely to sympathy after his son’s recent death. And, by now, we media can safely refer to the former first lady as “Clinton,” not just “Hillary,” though she did choose to brand herself that way in 2008.
Bias abounds in politics, no doubt. Fiorina is one woman among 16 men pursuing the Republican nomination, a contest The New Yorker has called out for rampant misogyny. Traister, an accomplished writer on gender issues, closes with the important observation that there’s no blueprint for what a presidential female looks like. When candidates are held to sexist standards, it prolongs that prejudice to respond with silence. But crying foul on dubious grounds runs afoul of that goal.Danny Funt is a senior editor at The Week and a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt