The New York Times runs a front-page feature this morning on the debate over whether media coverage of Hillary Clinton was sexist, how much of it was and what effect it had on her candidacy. On one side you have longtime Clinton supporters, DNC head Howard Dean and CBS anchor Katie Couric, who have argued that coverage of Clinton was at minimum unfair and partly sexist, and at maximum that, as one Clinton supporter puts it, “many, many people feel [the media] compounded the missteps by the campaign and robbed her of any shot she might have had at the nomination.” On the other side, you have news-organization leaders and high-profile journalists (some of them accused of sexist coverage themselves), who say that, besides a few unfortunate remarks, the charges of sexism are being whipped up for political reasons.
The piece is worth reading, even though I have a hard time with some of the more sweeping charges of sexism. (Keep in mind that I’m  an admitted Obama voter and  a dude.) The problem here is a problem with a lot of accusations against the media: that they roll up and conflate many different things under one heading—commentary with straight news, blatant statements with interpretable ones, sexism from non-media people (“Iron my shirt!”) with the actions of media people, coverage that is sexist with coverage that’s about gender, and so on.
Put another way, the critique is a kind of rhetorical island-hopping, trying to connect the demonstrable to the arguable to the unprovable to the far-fetched. To wit:
* Many commentators said and wrote flat-out sexist things about Hillary Clinton. Therefore
* Commentators who were tough on Clinton (or obnoxious about her), on subjects that did not blatantly involve gender, must also have been motivated by sexism. Thus
* Straight-news coverage that challenged Clinton probably also derived from the same sexism. Hence
* Positive coverage of her opponents was either directly or by default also the result of sexism. (The “Would the media have said _______ about Obama if he were running against a man?” argument.) And finally
* All that coverage, taken together, was enough to deny Clinton the nomination.
The question is how far on that archipelago you’re willing to go.
Let me be clear. I’m not saying that people who saw sexism in the coverage were making things up. (I do think that—like most campaigns—the Clinton campaign seized an opportunity to work the refs, because that’s what campaigns do, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t also genuinely believe it, nor that it was untrue.)
The fact is—and the difficulty with charges of bias in general—is that sexism, racism and other isms do usually manifest themselves indirectly. They are often about tone, about emphasis, about dog whistles—and they’re often by definition unprovable. That doesn’t mean we should write them off; but it also doesn’t mean that the accuser is automatically right. Further, it’s tough if not impossible to separate the attitude toward a group (women) from the attitude toward an individual (Hillary).
(Oh, by the way, I just referred to her as “Hillary,” which I’ve seen argued elsewhere is sexist treatment—how often do the media use the intimate, diminutive, first-name basis with a man? Which is something to think about. But then you also have to think about the need to distinguish this “Clinton” with another well-known “Clinton,” to whom she’s married and came up constantly in coverage. And the fact that her own campaign pretty regularly used “Hillary” in its signage and materials. And so on.)
Anyway, let’s go back to the archipelago I outlined above:
Many commentators said and wrote flat-out sexist things about Hillary Clinton. Indisputable, and the Times article lays out many examples: Tucker Carlson saying that Clinton makes him want to cross his legs, the famous “take out the garbage” remark, and so on. Most of these examples come from pundits and opinion professionals—which does not make them any more excusable but also does not, by asssociation, prove sexism in straight-news coverage.
Commentators who were tough on Clinton (or obnoxious about her), on subjects that did not blatantly involve gender, must also have been motivated by sexism. There it gets tougher. If Carlson makes a castration joke about Clinton, why wouldn’t you assume that the rest of his punditry may be colored by the same attitude? But it doesn’t follow that negativity, even hostility = sexism. On The Huffington Post, Rachel Sklar criticized Keith Olbermann’s comment during an interview with Howard Fineman about whether Clinton could be persuaded to drop out by an influential superdelegate: “Somebody who can take her into a room and only he comes out.” Obnoxious? Totally. Misogynistic, as Sklar says? Possibly—but I’d be much more convinced if political pundits didn’t use violent imagery about politics with male candidates constantly, and to the point of cliche.
Straight-news coverage that challenged Clinton probably also derived from the same sexism. Here the bridge gets farther. The media likes to jump on frontrunners who fall behind, more so when they’re political celebrities. And I have yet to see the critique that then explains how the horserace coverage and analysis for most of 2007 treated Clinton as a favorite—not just a favorite, but, before a single vote was cast, such a prohibitive, powerfully-backed and well-funded a favorite that all challenges to her were quixotic.
Positive coverage of her opponents was either directly or by default also the result of sexism. As the Times story cites, the percentage of positive stories about Obama fell as his poll numbers rose. This post is getting long to begin with, but you could Google “Obama” and “swoon” for explanations of the numerous reasons Obama—a new face with an unusual story, drawing people to enormous rallies—may have gotten excited coverage other than his opponent’s gender.
All that coverage, taken together, was enough to deny Clinton the nomination. In one way, not so far-fetched, in that this was an extremely close race: like in Florida in 2000, anything could have made the difference. But for all the subjective, difficult-to-prove arguments, there is a nagging lack of objective evidence that media coverage or any shifts therein did anything ultimately to swing the race one way or another. Look at the Democratic polls going back to early 2007: Clinton has a solid base of support, somewhere north of 40 percent, and it never really changes—her opponents simply fall or rise in relation to her. Now this also doesn’t prove anything definitively. I can’t prove that fair coverage—however you define that—wouldn’t have eventually sent Clinton’s numbers skyrocketing above 60 percent and beyond. But it seems fairly strong evidence, at least, that what you had instead was a candidate with very high name recognition, whom the public knew for two decades, opinions about whom were pretty much fixed.
I’m droning on here, and I have to come to what I admit is a fairly wishy-washy conclusion. Some of the sexism charges are indisputable. Some of them are implausible—representative of the general belief in so much politics today that if only the media presented the right facts the right way, people would clearly vote for [name of your candidate here]. And some are in an unprovable, nebulous middle. That they’re unprovable and nebulous shouldn’t be license to work the refs—but it also shouldn’t be license for people in the media to assume that they can’t possibly be true.
Whichever way you come down on this, I hope the postmortem of the Clinton coverage reminds people of one thing: issues of bias, like most things in life, are complicated, much more so than people like to think. One last case in point: one of the most-cited examples of “sexist” coverage of the primary was a Washington Post feature about Hillary Clinton’s cleavage. It’s become universal shorthand for the unfair treatment women politicians receive. Less widely noted in those shorthand references, however, is that the author, Robin Givhan, is a woman.
And guess what? That doesn’t prove anything either. There’s no reason that an article by a woman can’t have sexist assumptions, or that it can’t simply be inane. But I also don’t think it’s coincidence that Givhan’s gender gets left out of most of those shorthand references: it is, at least, inconvenient.
To me, that symbolizes one of the big problems here. We want to latch onto convenient, neatly-packaged, answer-it-all factoids. The Post wrote about cleavage! Therefore they’re sexist! But the author was a woman! Therefore it’s fine! Al that all of this does is to give us an excuse not to look deeper—for instance, to actually read the article.
Reading Givhan’s notorious piece, it seems a little glib, a little impressed with its cleverness. But it’s also more than, “Whoa! Look at Hillary Clinton’s chest!” It is, if in a way designed to get maximum sensationalistic attention, trying to say something about what is considered appropriate public display for a woman candidate—and in particular, this woman candidate, whose public presentation has evolved over time—in 2008: “Showing cleavage is a request to be engaged in a particular way. It doesn’t necessarily mean that a woman is asking to be objectified, but it does suggest a certain confidence and physical ease. It means that a woman is content being perceived as a sexual person in addition to being seen as someone who is intelligent, authoritative, witty and whatever else might define her personality. It also means that she feels that all those other characteristics are so apparent and undeniable, that they will not be overshadowed.”
Now, you can still read that as superficial, demeaning, sexist or simply incorrect. The point is, if you really want to make sense of what’s going on in the media, where any issue is concerned, you have to read past the headline. What do you see?
[Update: TV Critic Joanne Ostrow at the Denver Post weighs in much more succinctly than I did: “I’m with Candy Crowley of CNN who says there was not sexism in the reporting, but plenty in the commentary. The trouble is the idea of a monolithic entity called ‘The Media’ is too vague; you can’t paint scrupulous reporters and showbiz yakkers with the same brush.” And then—I don’t know if the irony’s intentional—refers to (male) Pat Buchanan as “shrill” and (female) Katie Couric as “scold[ing],” for a loaded-language twofer.]