Sexism and the media coverage of Hillary Clinton.

Sexism and the media coverage of Hillary Clinton.

Sexism and the media coverage of Hillary Clinton.

Women writing about politics, etc.
June 17 2008 3:14 PM

How Now, Ol' Man MSM?

A father-daughter smackdown over sexism and the media coverage of Hillary Clinton.

(Continued from Page 1)

From: Casey Greenfield
To: Jeff Greenfield

Dear Dad,

Will you accept a "false consciousness"? Or a harmless "dialectic"? Rats, I didn't think so.


That one dead, mangy horse being beaten mightily into the ground, I'll stress again that I don't dispute your claim that our beliefs frame our interpretations. My objection was—is—to the assertion that you and your powerful, sexist cronies over there in Punditania have made: that we are interpreting comments as sexist only after a bad outcome (Clinton's defeat). That's not true, and it's dismissive, and makes too easy the claim that there's nothing substantive to object to. Chris Matthews took heat in January for his Clinton smack-talking. How can you say that we're mad only now, as we look back on a failed campaign? The facts show this not to be true.

You're correct to point out that many of the egregious MSM (by the way, I'm tickled by your use of this abbreviation, Ol' Man MSM!) commentary about Hillary Clinton came from the same few gentlemen—Tucker Carlson, Chris Matthews. But, Dad, Chris Matthews wasn't "flip and sarcastic" about her. He was sexist and insulting: "The reason she's a U.S. senator ... is her husband messed around." Mike Barnicle, in the clip we've all seen, said that Clinton tended to react to Obama in debates, "looking like everyone's first wife standing outside of probate court." Even your aggregation of Keith Olbermann's screeds—sorry, were they rants? Tirades?—together with Carlson's expression of castration fears illustrates part of the problem with your understanding of the bad acts committed by these guys. Olbermann was nasty and wrong a lot of the time, but his attacks reside in an entirely different category from the Matthews/Carlson slams. The story as you're telling it here suggests, again, that Clinton supporters are looking to complain about something, anything, when in fact there is a real difference between "fair vs. unfair" (I see Olbermann as having been unfair) and "right vs. wrong" (Carlson and Matthews committed wrongs).

For a guy who never took the bar, you've made an elegant, lawyerly attempt to turn this discussion in a slightly different direction: Let's explain the pro-Obama slant in terms other than the sexist attacks on Hillary Clinton. She lost her first contest. Bill Clinton lost Iowa and New Hampshire in 1992, but by the time the New Hampshire numbers were totaled, he was "the Comeback Kid," and he benefited greatly from that in the media. Surely you're not arguing that the fact of Hillary Clinton's early loss determined and explained the negative coverage she received?

You cite the video of Hillary Clinton's tears, and the boost she received after it aired, as evidence of something other than sexism at work. You also suggest that it "proved" to be a huge break (i.e., an unintended consequence), but can we agree that there was a sexist subtext, at the very least, to the way we discussed and interpreted that episode? I'm surprised that you are willing to acknowledge the power of that video clip without seeing our interpretation of the episode—from speculation about why she cried in the first place to what character conclusions we should draw from her show of emotion—as one disturbed by sexism.

Sure, let's talk about, as you say, why sexist insults are tolerated more readily than are racist insults. But you still haven't said that you think there was significant sexism lobbed at Hillary Clinton. You're going to take the position that, what, the sexism wasn't really there, but just in case it was, we should consider it only in a conversation about racism? The twinning and the opposition of these two—racism and sexism—perplexes me, and I'm not sure why we need to discuss one every time the other comes up. But by all means, if it will give me an opportunity to rant about Nicholas Kristof's recent call for an Obama speech on sexism, then, press on we shall.

Your beloved daughter,

From: Jeff Greenfield
To: Casey Greenfield

First, I really appreciate the way you tell me what I'm going to argue and then refute it. I'll just sit here in the dark, I guess.

So—let me answer a couple of these points. I thought the treatment of Clinton's emotional moment in New Hampshire was by and large positive—very positive. Of course, it wasn't unanimous, but most of the coverage treated this for what it was: an honest expression of emotion and gratitude and weariness from a major pubic figure who—we all thought—was 24 hours away from a bad defeat.

Second, I think a good deal of the complaints about coverage came after she lost the Iowa caucuses. Moreover—and this is a point about the media I've been arguing for about 30 years—the coverage had far less of an impact on the results than the press or its critics believe. No, no, it doesn't excuse unfair coverage at all. But it's worth noting that the press didn't stop Sen.  Clinton from winning nine of the last 15 primaries. It underscores what I think is the key to the whole primary fight: Clinton lost the nomination because her campaign did not understand the rules of the game. She lost because Obama piled up an insurmountable delegate lead, primarily (no pun intended) in the caucus states. Press coverage had nothing to do with this—it was a fatal miscalculation. All anyone needs to know to understand how Obama won is that Obama netted more delegates by winning the Kansas and Idaho caucuses than Clinton did by winning the Pennsylvania and Ohio primaries.

Now to the bigger picture: You draw an important distinction between unfair coverage and snarky, nasty, insulting comments. We should add to the latter two examples that have been discussed repeatedly:

  1. The yahoos who stood help up a sign at a Clinton event that read "Iron my shirts."
  2. The Hillary Clinton nutcrackers that were on sale … somewhere.

Can you imagine, we're asked, if anyone had help up a sign at an Obama event that read "Shine my shoes"? And can you imagine anyone selling a statuette of Obama as a lawn jockey?

I hope we can agree that these examples reflect what I think is an undeniable truth that sexist insults are treated with far more tolerance than racist insults. (But do note that Sen. McCain rejected the help of a wealthy Texas fundraiser when it turned out that the fellow—Clayton Williams—had made an offensive "joke" about rape back in 1990 when he ran against Anne Richards. And you know that much-discussed comment that Clinton reminds every man of his first wife? Back in 1988, a Time magazine writer said of the first George Bush that he "reminds every woman of her first husband.") I have a tentative notion that this imbalance has something to do with the fact that, far outside of the political arena, men and women have developed a roughly equivalent arsenal of stereotypes: If women were stamped as frail, emotional, often "hysterical"—consider the origin of that word—men were dubbed as clueless, bullheaded. ("Why did Jews wander for 40 years in the desert? Because even back then, men would not stop to ask for directions") The more baleful gender stereotypes—the ones that kept women out of so many significant jobs—began to lose much of their malicious power relatively soon after the modern women's movement began around 1970.