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.

The Hillary Nutcracker
The Hillary nutcracker

Jeff Greenfield, a CBS political correspondent, and his daughter Casey, an associate at a New York law firm, exchanged e-mails this week about the media coverage of the Obama-Clinton contest. Casey called her dad on what she sees as rife sexism; he insisted that she was overreading a handful of bad moments. Their exchange is below.

From: Casey Greenfield
To: Jeff Greenfield

Why, oh why, did this appear in the New York Times on Friday? "Jeff Greenfield, a political correspondent for CBS News, said that charges of sexism often came through a political prism. 'Throughout this campaign, people's perception of the press has been in line with what they wanted to happen politically,' Mr. Greenfield said. 'If my person lost, the press did a bad job.' "


I am charmed by your apparent absorption of the postmodern critical approach. You mocked me all those years for reading Jacques Derrida, Frederic Jameson, Michel Foucault, and Laura Mulvey, yet you seem to have a quaint deconstructionist (even post-structuralist?) take on the Clinton media fallout. Meaning inheres in the subject's reading, rather than in the author's intent, you're suggesting here? Come on, man, I know you don't believe that!

Sure, I know what you mean in general—witness the divergent paths our interpretations took when we watched the "giving her the finger" clip. An Obama-supporting friend and I watched that together and saw irreconcilable narratives on the same screen at the same time. Of course I believe there is a great deal of subjectivity to all of this, and that we bring an overdetermined analysis to our readings of video clips, newspaper articles, and blog comments.

In the case, though, of how Hillary Clinton was treated by the media—not just by fringe freaks, but by journalists who are supported by large, powerful institutions (e.g., MSNBC), I can't swallow your "prism" analysis. Neither can many of my fellow crazed, hysterical Clinton supporters, who have been pointing out sexism in the campaign coverage for months. Now, now that she's lost, now the Times runs pieces about the way the media treated her? How's that? If the Times had a responsibility to report this, they should have done so before she lost.

I don't feel better, reading this in the post-mortem, when it means close to nothing. The jokes and attacks Clinton took were wrong and horrible, and would have been horrible regardless of the outcome of the race. I have a hard time seeing how this is a function of Monday-morning quarterbacking.

That, Pops, is why I don't like your quote, which suggests that we see sexism in retrospect only because Clinton lost. We were mad all along; now, though, we get to be written off as sore losers.


From: Jeff Greenfield
To: Casey Greenfield

Ah, sharper than a serpent's tooth is an offspring who imputes to her father notions about whose meaning he has not a freaking clue. (Derrida, Jameson, Foucault, & Mulvey? I didn't spend a summer at that law firm!)

What I meant was the notion that, as a general principle, people angry at the media's coverage of a candidate or an issue tend to see that coverage through the prism—or should I say "frame"—of their own beliefs. When I was at CNN, any number of passionate devotees of Israel expressed their anger at a tough interview Christiane Amanpour did with then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. None of them remembered an interview she did with PLO Chair Arafat that got him so angry he pulled off his microphone and ended the interview. What I meant was well-put by … you, actually, when you write of bringing an "overdetermined analysis" to your view of video clips. When Obama supporters thought they heard Sen. Clinton wistfully raising the possibility of an Obama assassination, that was another perfect example.

So, let me get to your notion about how Clinton was covered. As you may remember, I spent some time shortly after Super Tuesday looking at this issue. What I found was that the same relative handful of examples was being cited over and over again. Some of them were convincing: Was Keith Olbermann's Countdown squarely in Obama's corner and the source of an unending anti-Clinton narrative? Yes. Was Tucker Carlson's comment that hearing Sen. Clinton made him want to cross his legs crude, even stupid? Yes. Was Chris Matthews often flip and sarcastic about Clinton? Yes. Does this in any way define the media coverage? I don't think so.

Where Clinton's coverage got most negative was when she committed the ultimate unforgivable sin for any front-runner: She lost her first contest. (If you think this was a result of sexism, check out how Howard Dean was treated after he faltered in Iowa in '04.) But that did not prevent the MSM from providing her what proved to be a huge break: playing, unedited and unmediated, lengthy video from her emotional moment the day before the New Hampshire primary. This is what led all three broadcast network newscasts that Monday night; and, in my view, it's what explains her surprising win there.

There's one more point that's crucial—it has to do with why sexist insults are treated far less harshly than racial insults—but I'll save it until I get your reply to these thoughts. Please remember that any reference to deconstructionism, postmodernism, semiotics, or hermeneutics will cause your beloved father to run screaming into the night.



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