The double standard

Boston Globe – by Caryl Rivers – March 3, 2008 

THE “SATURDAY Night Live” skit that showed reporters fawning over Barack Obama and tossing him puffball questions, while grilling Hillary Clinton like a felony suspect, wasn’t too far off the mark.

The media coverage of the Clinton campaign will be, for years to come, a textbook case of how the coverage of female candidates differs from that of males. Women have to walk a very thin line when they run for high office. On the one hand, they have to appear tough, nothing at all like a sniveling female, and when they do talk tough, they are called “shrill.”

The media loved Hillary when she put her hand on Obama’s and said it was a privilege to be on the same podium; they hated her when she slammed him for giving out what she called misleading information on her healthcare plan. (After googling “shrill” and “Hillary” after that encounter, I stopped at 20 pages.)

At the same time, the news media have gone into a deep swoon over Barack. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz said, “Look, I haven’t seen a politician get this kind of walk-on-water coverage since Colin Powell a dozen years ago flirted with making a run for the White House. I mean, it is amazing.”

Meanwhile, Hillary’s credentials have been the subject of intense scrutiny. Weeks ago, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews dissed her as a cheated-on wife for whom voters feel sorry. “Let’s not forget, and I’ll be brutal,” Matthews said, “the reason she’s a US senator, the reason she’s a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner, is that her husband messed around.”

It’s certainly fair to question to what degree Hillary’s experience as first lady should count on her resume. But the media in general have not given as much critical scrutiny to Obama’s record. As Gloria Steinem noted in her much-discussed New York Times op-ed piece, what if Obama had been a woman, with the same resume? A female candidate with his resume would have been laughed at if she said she wanted to run for president.

And while, fortunately, media coverage of the campaign has been largely free of racism, the same can’t be said for sexism. On the blog Mediacrit, Ashleigh Crowther noted the widespread coverage of Hillary’s laugh. Patrick Healy of The New York Times dubbed it the “Clinton Cackle,” Frank Rich of the Times called it “calculating,” and pundit Dick Morris called Clinton’s laugh “loud, inappropriate, and mirthless. . . . A scary sound that was somewhere between a cackle and a screech.”

And then there was Hillary’s cleavage. When she appeared on the Senate floor with a modest décolletage, you would have thought Pamela Anderson had wandered into the chamber in a bustier. According to Media Matters for America, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on July 30, MSNBC gave 23 minutes and 42 seconds to segments discussing Clinton’s cleavage. CNN devoted 3 minutes and 54 seconds to the story, while Fox News devoted none.

CNBC’s John Harwood thought it was all part of some master plan. “When you look at the calculation that goes into everything that Hillary Clinton does, for her to argue that she was not aware of what she was communicating by her dress is like Barry Bonds saying he thought he was rubbing down with flaxseed oil,” he said on “Meet the Press.”

Then, of course, came the “pimp” episode. MSNBC reporter David Shuster suggested on the air that the Clinton campaign had “pimped out” 27-year-old Chelsea Clinton by having her place phone calls to Democratic Party superdelegates.

The media coverage of Ted Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama was nothing short of worshipful. The media spun a narrative about the torch being passed directly from John F. Kennedy to Obama; from one mythic young man to another, and no antiheroic women in between, thank you. No surprise that the nearly all-male titans of 24-hour cable fell in love with this classic male epic.

Of course, the Obama narrative is tailor-made for the news media. He’s a fresh face, he’s calling for an end to the divisive politics we all hate, and to many he embodies redemption for America’s racist past. But the first female president would not exactly be chopped liver. It would also be a huge departure from our patriarchal past, and that idea has been greeted with lukewarm enthusiasm by the news media in general. As Clinton said, her election would be “a real challenge to the way things have been done, and who gets to do them, and what the rules are.”

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