With Sen. Hillary Clinton’s historic bid for the presidency and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s subsequent VP nomination on the GOP ticket, women were in the national spotlight in the 2008 election as never before. But while Clinton and Palin generated a good deal of media discussion around the problems facing female candidates, coverage of women voters remained narrow and mired in stereotype, shedding remarkably little light on the issues important to them.
During the Democratic primaries, the Barack Obama/Hillary Clinton matchup led corporate media to discover the existence of black women voters and race and gender as election issues—superficially, anyway. A CNN online piece (1/21/08) on black women voters reported: “For these women, a unique, and most unexpected dilemma, presents itself: Should they vote their race, or should they vote their gender? No other voting bloc in the country faces this choice.”
Of course, another quite large voting bloc faced that same choice, but CNN’s obliviousness highlighted the way that white men are often assumed not to be influenced by their own race or gender in their lives or decision-making. In the media, talking about race and gender means talking about people of color and women.
It’s not to say that race and gender aren’t factors for black women voters, but such stories took them as the primary consideration. In fact, it was only towards the end of the CNN piece—a version of which also aired on Anderson Cooper 360 later the same day—that reporter Randi Kaye divulged the most important information:
Most of the black women I spoke with say they don’t want race or gender to take center stage. They want women to vote the issues. They say they’re smarter than choosing a candidate just because of his skin color or because she’s a woman. What matters to them? Healthcare, the economy and education.
But what “most . . . black women” said didn’t persuade CNN to change the angle of its story.
After ABC’s daytime show the View and others criticized the report (1/22/08), CNN ran a followup (1/23/08), inviting two black female “experts” to discuss the issue. CNN’s responsiveness was encouraging, but Kaye and anchor Anderson Cooper seemed more interested in defending CNN’s coverage than really exploring the complicated issues at hand.
Cooper tried to argue that “the story actually emphasized that the issues were what was going to be driving black women and all people to the polls,” and then led off the discussion with the question, “Do race and gender play a role in people’s decision-making process?” —as if the segment’s critics were trying to argue against any discussion of race and gender, rather than asking for more nuanced coverage that doesn’t reduce black women to identity-driven caricatures whose options are to “vote their race” or “vote their gender.”
CNN clearly hadn’t learned its lesson. The next month, Cooper aired a special report (2/15/08) on “race, gender and politics,” which he previewed with the likewise entirely unhelpful question, “Sexism and racism—is one more prevalent, more potent than the other?” Correspondent Kaye then posed that question in Columbus, Ohio, “at a tea party for the Junior League,” pitting the victims of racism and sexism against each other, and leaving unexamined the systems and institutions that oppress them both.
The battle of the “isms” is not entirely an invention of the media, but they seem more than happy to run with it; the New York Times published an op-ed by prominent white second-wave feminist Gloria Steinem (1/8/08) that argued that a female version of Barack Obama wouldn’t have had a prayer of becoming a senator, let alone president, concluding that gender, in contrast to race, is “the most restricting force in American life.” Further down she wrote, “I’m not advocating a competition for who has it toughest,” but that disclaimer hardly changed the piece’s questionable use of racism as a foil to sexism. (In one example, Steinem noted, “Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot”—ignoring the subsequent decades of massive disenfranchisement of black voters that continues, to a lesser extent, to this day).
Several media responses followed that played into the theme; the Boston Globe (2/17/08) even ran a lengthy piece looking to science to try to determine which prejudice is more deeply ingrained in individuals. But sweeping media pronouncements about race and gender were much easier to find than truly substantive coverage.
A Newsweek cover story (1/21/08) promised in its subhead to explore “how the historic Clinton/Obama contest is raising questions of race, gender and power.” Editor Jon Meacham (who happens to be a white male) reported, “We are only just beginning to grapple with the questions of race and gender that the campaign will raise again and again through November.”
If only it were even half true. Meacham’s own piece didn’t “grapple” with these issues beyond a superficial review of how the two candidates were or were not trying to appeal to voters based on race or gender, and how they did or did not play into their race or gender’s stereotypes.
Two months later, Newsweek published an issue (3/17/08) with a lengthy special feature examining “What Women Want,” which similarly steered largely clear of issues, policy positions or their implications for women. And the women in question skewed heavily white: Only two of the 14 short pieces were penned by black women, with no pieces written by women of any other ethnic group. In fact, in all this discussion of “race and gender,” women who were neither black or white—Latinas, Asian-American or Native American women, women with a multiracial identity—remained overwhelmingly invisible.
These trends are hardly surprising in a corporate media that prioritizes horserace coverage over issues and substance. Women are an issue to the extent that media judge they might impact the outcome of the election; how the outcome of the election will affect women is of much less concern.
Accordingly, after Clinton’s defeat, the black woman’s “dilemma” was dispatched and the intersection of race and gender forgotten. But women weren’t entirely dropped from journalists’ to-do lists; now it was the drama of the jilted white female Clinton voter that they honed in on, the new critical “swing voters” in the election. In 2000 it was “soccer moms,” in 2004 it was “security moms,” but whatever the favored nom du jour, the device lets media appear to be inclusive while in fact ignoring all but a narrow subsection of women.
“What’s a woman to do?” puzzled the New York Times (8/31/08) when Sarah Palin entered the race. “At the very least, Ms. Palin’s selection unleashes gender as a live issue again, just when Democrats thought they had it under control.” Reporter Kate Zernike suggested that “it was an awfully complicated week to be a Hillary supporter”—despite the fact that the majority of Clinton supporters did not find Palin’s nomination terribly complicating: Exit polling (National Election Pool, 11/4/08) found former Clinton supporters overwhelmingly voting for Obama/Biden over McCain/Palin, 83 percent to 16 percent.
But media were more interested in inventing horserace narratives than explaining those differing positions. “Look,” said NBC’s political director Chuck Todd (Today, 9/10/08), “Sarah Palin is speaking to her generation of women.”
ABC World News (9/9/08) promised to examine “what women want,” though really they meant a certain kind of woman: “Women, more specifically white women, are paying closer attention” to Palin, reported correspondent Barbara Pinto. But what did ABC dig up about these women’s desires concerning political candidates? A handful of quotes ranging from “She’s got a lot of chutzpah” to “They won’t vote for her. Even though they are kind of taken with her.”
Likewise, the generally more thoughtful Now on PBS took a look just before the election (10/31/08) at “What Women Voters Want.” But the segment would have been more appropriately titled, "What White, Middle-Class Mom Voters in Colorado Want," since women in that narrow slice of the demographic pie took up nearly all of the 25-minute segment.
While the piece did better than most in explaining real issues—host David Brancaccio explained the Lilly Ledbetter Supreme Court case and the subsequent Equal Pay Act, for example, and posed some on-camera questions about abortion and family leave—it was remarkably devoid of analysis of what the candidates' stances were on issues of importance to women, and thus how their potential presidencies could impact women. Roe v. Wade was only touched on, and despite a long discussion of whether Sarah Palin would "have women's best interests in mind," her record on opposing reproductive rights and comprehensive sex education for teens was completely absent.
Palin’s nomination and the issues raised about her family situation—childcare for working mothers, teen pregnancy and so on—could have been an opportunity for stories about the candidates’ positions on those issues. Where were the reports on the results of Bush’s efforts to push abstinence-only education, which McCain and Palin would have continued? How often did the news report that teen pregnancy rates actually went up last year for the first time in 15 years?
How often was the Ledbetter equal pay case mentioned in the media during election season? According to a search of the Nexis news media database from the Iowa caucus to election day (1/3/08-11/4/08), once on CBS (9/14/08) and ABC (9/14/08), nine times on CNN (Ledbetter appeared as a guest once—4/22/08), and not a single time on NBC or Fox. And it wasn’t for lack of visibility; Lilly Ledbetter campaigned for Obama, and he even brought her up in one of the debates. Somehow, though, she failed to become a “Joe the Plumber”-style media star.
Social Security, welfare and the minimum wage are all women’s issues—women dominate low-wage occupations, part-time jobs and those with no or limited benefits, and as a result they’re more dependent on welfare and Social Security —but they’re virtually never covered as such in the media.
It’s not just the focus on the horserace, although that does play a big part. Policy issues were the focus of 5 percent of election stories in FAIR’s study of television primary coverage (Extra!, 5-6/08) and 10 percent in the New York Times’ own self-study (10/12/08); when media devote the overwhelming majority of their election coverage to polls, strategy and who’s ahead today, all issues get short shrift.
But it’s also about good old sexism in the corporate media world. Women hold only 37 percent of newspaper newsroom jobs across the country, a number that hasn’t budged in at least ten years (ASNE, 8/25/08), and are only 26 percent of news directors at local TV stations (RTNDA, 7-8/07). In a 2005 FAIR study (Extra!, 5-6/05), women made up 24 percent of syndicated columnists and between 10 and 20 percent of op-ed writers at the New York Times, Washington Post and L.A. Times.
As it happens, women in the media do bring up women’s issues more often than men do, so a dearth of female voices means a dearth of coverage. And when women’s issues aren’t talked about in the media, they aren’t likely to be prioritized in the political discourse—whether female candidates have put cracks in that famous glass ceiling or not.