WaPo columnist Margaret Sullivan had a serious problem with her industry’s coverage of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016. Too many reporters and opinion journalists were, in Sullivan’s opinion, blatantly sexist in their treatment of Clinton. As examples, she points out that people commented on everything from Clinton’s clothes to her “witchlike” laugh and “shrill” voice. And then there’s the “likeability” debate. (Insert heavy sigh here.) It’s all still fresh in her mind.
Not wanting to let the same thing happen in 2020, Sullivan is attempting to jump out in front of the field and begin calling out the press for doing what she perceives as the same thing to the crop of female candidates seeking the Democratic nomination next year. And she’s ready with a list of examples as to just how “sexist” the coverage is becoming already.
One of the reasons it’s so fresh is that we’re hearing echoes of it, already, in the early coverage of the female Democratic lawmakers who have declared their 2020 candidacies.
The long-ago love life of Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) has been parsed, as has what music she partied to as a Howard University undergrad.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s uncertainty about how to eat fried chicken has been ruthlessly mocked.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy was in trouble even before she declared because of the senator from Massachusetts identifying herself as Native American.
Sullivan goes on to quote someone as saying that even minor flaws in women are disqualifying while men get a pass. This is pretty much entirely anecdotal, but if somebody wants to provide some concrete examples of how male candidates “get a pass” on anything, I’d be happy to listen. Sadly, Sullivan fails to provide any such thing.
Just take a look at the examples she’s cited thus far. Are you saying that Kamala Harris having an affair with a senior Democratic politician who admits he “helped her career” is either not newsworthy or wouldn’t be brought up if she were a man? Please. I don’t personally care who she dated, but it does represent a morality question for some voters. And the list of men who’s extramarital affairs have made headlines is massive. (Shall we discuss Hillary’s husband or John Edwards for starters? And don’t even get me started on Donald Trump and various porn stars and Playboy bunnies.) Also, Harris’ claim about smoking pot while listening to music by rappers who had yet to put out an album was a silly story, but it has nothing to do with her gender. The men get “fact checked” for far less all the time. Just ask Trump.
We’re also to believe that mocking Kirsten Gillibrand’s awkward efforts at eating fried chicken on camera is somehow sexist. But I didn’t hear anyone complaining when Trump was taken to task repeatedly (including by yours truly) for eating New York style pizza with a knife and fork. And if you want to claim that the coverage of Elizbeth Warren’s Native American troubles took place because she was born with ovaries you’re living in a fantasy world.
This is the same phenomenon we witnessed in both of Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns, only switching out race for gender. Nearly every criticism of Obama was attributed to racism by at least some liberal reporters, even if it was a strict policy discussion. This discussion isn’t really based on legitimate complaints of sexism. It’s a preemptive defense of the Democratic candidates and an attempt to silence criticism.
If you find any journalists fretting over these women’s candidacies because they might be suffering from PMS or menopausal hot flashes, or tripping over their long dresses when boarding Air Force One, I’ll join you in condemning such things. But all candidates will have their histories explored and dissected as we work through this process, and that applies to the women as well as the men. You need to decide whether you want equal treatment for women or preferential treatment. Sullivan is looking for the latter.