June 15, 2008

Was Clinton Coverage in Media Sexist or Fair?

By Katharine Q. Seelye and Julie Bosman

Angered by what they consider sexist news coverage of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, many women and erstwhile Clinton supporters are proposing boycotts of the cable television networks, putting up videos on a "Media Hall of Shame," starting a national conversation about sexism and urging Clinton's rival, Senator Barack Obama, to address the matter.

But many in the news media - with a few exceptions, including Katie Couric, the anchor of the CBS Evening News - see little need for reconsidering their coverage or changing their approach going forward.

Rather, they say, as the Clinton campaign fell behind, it exploited a few glaring examples of sexist coverage to whip up a backlash as a way to create momentum for Clinton.

Phil Griffin, senior vice president of NBC News and the executive in charge of MSNBC, a particular target of criticism, said that although a few mistakes had been made, they had been corrected quickly, and the network's overall coverage was fair.

"I get it, that in this 24-hour media world, you've got to be on your game, and there's very little room for mistakes," Griffin said.

"But the Clinton campaign saw an opportunity to use it for their advantage. They were trying to rally a certain demographic, and women were behind it."

His views were echoed by other media figures.

"She got some tough coverage at times, but she brought that on herself, whether it was the Bosnian snipers or not conceding on the night of the final primaries," said Rem Rieder, editor of American Journalism Review.

"She had a long track record in public life as a serious person and a tough politician, and she was covered that way."

Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, said: "I have not had a lot of regretful conversations with high-ranking media types and political reporters about how unfair their coverage of the Hillary Clinton campaign was."

Among journalists, he added, the coverage "does not register as a mistake that must not be allowed to happen again."

Taking aim from the inside, though, was Couric, who herself has faced biting criticism as the first solo female anchor of an evening news broadcast. Couric posted a video on the CBS Web site Wednesday about the coverage of Clinton.

"Like her or not, one of the great lessons of that campaign is the continued - and accepted - role of sexism in American life, particularly in the media," Couric said. She went on to lament the silence of those who did not speak up against it.

Candy Crowley, covering the campaign for CNN, said that for the most part, she did not see a drumbeat of sexism in the daily reporting, "but I certainly did see it in the commentary."

Still, Crowley said, "it was hard to know if these attacks were being made because she was a woman, or because she was this woman, or because, for a long time, she was the front-runner."

The perception that sexism tainted coverage of the Clinton campaign - a view expressed on Internet postings and in conversations among women - appears to be gaining ground more in political circles than in the mainstream news media.

Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic Party, who says he was slow to pick up on charges of sexism because he is not a regular viewer of cable television, is taking up the cause after hearing an outcry from what he described as a cross-section of women, from individual voters to powerful politicians and chief executives.

"The media took a very sexist approach to Senator Clinton's campaign," Dean said in a recent interview. "It's pretty appalling," he said, adding that the issue resonates because Clinton "got treated the way a lot of women got treated their whole lives."

Dean and others are now calling for a "national discussion" of sexism.

Clinton may have begun that discussion in her concession speech last Saturday when she said that women deserved equal respect, along with equal pay, and that "there are no acceptable prejudices in the 21st century in our country." She was referring to what emerged as conventional wisdom during the campaign that racism is no longer tolerated in America, but sexism is.

Cable television has come under the most criticism. Chris Matthews, a host on MSNBC, called Clinton a "she-devil" and said she had got as far as she had only because her husband had "messed around."

Mike Barnicle, a panelist on MSNBC, said that Clinton was "looking like everyone's first wife standing outside a probate court." Tucker Carlson, also on MSNBC, said: "When she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs."

The establishment news media were faulted too. The New York Times wrote about Clinton's "cackle," and The Washington Post wrote about her cleavage.

"Largely, the problem was on cable and in the blogosphere and on the Internet, and that's a relatively small audience," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "But while it was limited, it was limited to influential people."