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

Dad,
   
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.' "

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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.

Casey

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.

Love,
Dad

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.

Love,
Your beloved daughter,
Casey

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.

Compare that with the stereotyping of blacks—white America wasn't even aware that we could be stereotyped until Richard Pryor and Co. showed up—as a happy-go-lucky servant class or as sexually rapacious predators. Plug these into the history of race that runs across America's history like a scar, and I think it goes a long way to explaining the difference in how the two have been treated. (I also think the Clinton campaign will turn out to have been an influential force in lessening this distinction.)

So, that's where I'm coming from, as you zany, wacky kids with your disco and your cockamamie clothes like to say. You had the first word, but go—have your fun—take the last one, too.

Dad

From: Casey Greenfield
To: Jeff Greenfield

Dad—

Aha, some common ground! You say that the coverage had less impact on the outcome than people think it has. Your emphasis on what you see as a lack of significant causal relationship between sexist coverage and the outcome of the race underscores my point: The outrage here is not that Hillary Clinton lost, but is that she was treated the way she was. Your comment to the Times about our post hoc finger-pointing suggests something else. Whether she lost because she played the delegate-amassing game incorrectly, or whether she lost because jerks said they feared for the family jewels when they saw her face, the point is that the jerks did say those things, and for the most part, they got away with it. It didn't become wrong the day she lost; it became wrong the moment Tucker Carlson said it.

Even if she won nine of the last 15 primaries, despite the snark and bile hurled in her direction, you can't be sure of the impact at the margin (voters who, maybe, voted against her in the races she lost as a result of the outrageous insults by Matthews & Co.). I don't agree that those nine victories stand as proof that the sexist coverage had little to no effect. How can we know what would have happened if the Times (or you) had called out Chris Matthews six months ago?

On the race and sex issues:

You're right that "shine my shoes" and a lawn jockey icon would have been met with denunciations and outcry across the land. But what of, for example, the "Curious George" Obama-as-monkey T-shirt sold by a right-wing crusader in Georgia? Protesters objected to that, sure, but I think you're making the case that this kind of iconography just doesn't find public airing these days. I think that's not true. Our racial history runs not like a scar; it's a jagged, open wound.

The "first husband" comment is silly, and it has no place in a presidential contest, but to dignify these ludicrous comments a bit more, I'll say this: To slur George H.W. Bush as a "first husband" is to call him dull, uncharismatic, behind the times. That's not great, but would it be so terrible to have a first husband in the Oval Office? To call Hillary Clinton—in the specific context of "a look" she gives her male opponent during a debate—a "first wife outside a probate court" is to suggest something far less benign. Greedy, scary, ball-busting (again with the jewels), irrational: not someone who should be president.

You make a good point about the public vocabulary men and women use to generalize about each other and to insult each other, thereby blowing off steam. I think, though, that your take on that is quite optimistic. (Dare I say naive?) The legendary failures of men—to place socks in hampers, to choose sex over the Giants on HDTV, to listen to reason—don't unsettle the assertion that men are in charge, which, for the record, you are. The gender-insult score sheet can't be "roughly equivalent" as long as the world's power imbalances tilt so heavily in the XY direction. As you yourself said, we interpret this stuff through a prism, and words take on distinct meanings when applied to distinct groups. I might be misreading you, but I'm catching notes of, "Say, when do we get White History Month?"

I don't understand why we need to evaluate charges and examples of sexism against charges and examples of racism: Both are wrong, outrageous, and everywhere. And they are different. You've made the point that race and sex are treated differently in the culture—why, then, do we have to pair these two up over and over? See, this is why I was so surprised and angry when Nicholas Kristof suggested Obama give a speech about sexism, a nice bookend to pair with his Philadelphia race speech. This conversation is now "Let's hear what Obama has to say about social ills, even those of which he has no personal experience"? What? We praised Obama for speaking so broadly and deeply about an issue important to the country and to him personally—and he did it under scrutiny during the Rev. Wright crisis. Now he is supposed to speak about ... sexism in the same way? How's that again? What's next, the rights of the differently-abled? Way to condescend, yet again, to Hillary Clinton supporters, by suggesting that all we wanted in this election was a paean to gender equality.

Anyway. Thanks, Dad, for talking with me about this at such length. Here's $5; buy your colleague Katie Couric a latte, on me. Thank her for her statement on this issue, and ask kindly if she'll break it down for a sometimes-bullheaded guy (that's you).

Love,
Casey

Jeff Greenfield is the senior political correspondent for CBS News.

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