Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Hillary Clinton media sexism myth

Now that Hillary Clinton has so passionately and eloquently called on all her supporters to help elect Barack Obama, it sort of feels besides the point to analyze the details of what happened in the Democratic primary season. But the notion that the media's sexism played a major role in sinking the Clinton campaign, and that this might sway some of her supporters on Election Day, is pervasive enough that I think it's worth explaining why the argument is unfounded and ahistorical.

Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has been one of the many people trying to stoke the anger over this idea:

There has been an enormous amount of sexism in this campaign on the part of the media, including the mainstream media. ... And there are a lot of women in this country who -- there's two issues here. One is one candidate is ahead and one is not. That happens all the time in primaries, and you get over that. What you don't get over is deep wounds that have been inflicted on somebody because they happen to be a woman running for president of the United States.
And when Clinton held back from endorsing Obama for a few days after Obama officially clinched the nomination, the McCain campaign immediately began harping on the theme of media sexism as a vehicle for reaching out to Clinton's supporters. From the following Meet the Press:
MR. RUSSERT: Kelly, John McCain has spent the week reaching out to Senator Clinton, praising her, condemning the media for the way they treated her, trying to embrace some of the constituencies that are important to Senator Clinton--women, blue collar workers, Hispanics. What did the McCain campaign watch and how did they react yesterday as opposed to Tuesday?

MS. O'DONNELL: Well, I think they viewed the span between Tuesday and Saturday as helpful to them. If there was still a sense among Hillary Clinton's supporters that they had somehow been wronged or disappointed, that's an opportunity for John McCain to embrace Hillary Clinton as he did. Now, throughout the campaign, we saw him much less contentious when it ever came to Hillary Clinton. He would always save his fire for Obama. So he's been preparing for this because they knew all along her voters could potentially be their voters. So it was certainly a warm embrace over and over in these last several days.
(In fairness to McCain, he's also tried to win them over with his musical taste.)

But what exactly is the media-sexism meme really about? It's often just assumed, with no support, that she must have been deeply wronged. But when supposed examples are given, the list often includes:
(That list is mostly quoted from this National Review article. Not surprisingly, conservatives such as the author of that piece are giddy at the prospect of the Democratic party being torn apart by overblown accusations of prejudice.)

And while they're not "media," one of the most commonly cited examples of anti-Hillary sexism is a couple guys who stood up in the middle of one of her campaign events and chanted "iron my shirts" out of the blue.

One woman who watched a YouTube clip show that purported to string together evidence of anti-Hillary media sexism wrote this in the comments section of a blog:
Just got through watching this with my 18 yr. old daughter and frankly, I was crying like a baby. ... Hoped it would be different for her when I brought her home from the hospital 18 yrs. ago. ... To see what is systematically being done to her by the press / blogosphere / public at large just fills me with such rage and such despair.
Well, I'm not going to say people shouldn't be upset about the existence of sexism in "the public at large." Sure there's sexism in society, and it's deplorable that she lost any votes due to sexism. But that has more to do with sexism among ordinary citizens. I see no reason why Hillary supporters should get upset -- let alone "filled with rage and despair" (!) -- about sexism in the media.

Of course, the rules of political correctness say that you're not allowed to criticize ordinary citizens. No, anytime you're making a scathing social critique, you always have to pick some authority figure to level the charges against. "The media" is often a handy scapegoat -- it's so huge and amorphous that it's very hard to refute any assertion that _____ exists in "the media." I could make up any ridiculous claim, like "The media is obsessed with turtles" or "The media has an anti-avocado bias," and I'm sure I could find evidence to support it if I wanted to.

By the way, I mentioned that the charge has been repeated often. Well, repeated where? In ... the media! And what do you think is the ratio of (a) references to supposed media sexism to (b) actual sexist comments made in the media? I would guess it's at least 100 to 1. Well, (a) is favorable to Hillary since it creates the impression that she's being treated unfairly. That suggests a pro-Hillary bias in the media.

Anyway, let's start with the easiest case: the "iron my shirts" idiots. I suspect that the reason this is so often mentioned is that it's one of the few clear-cut examples of sexism: the guys were implying she should be doing housework instead of running for president.

And yeah, I know most instances of sexism aren't clear-cut and that we need to be cognizant of more insidious sexism, etc., etc. But Hillary Clinton's supporters often seem to forget that it wasn't her vs. Mr. Generic Presidential Candidate. We're talking about her vs. a black candidate named Barack Obama in a country with a long, terrible history of racism (and a candidate whom many voters incorrectly believe to be a Muslim just a few years after we were attacked on our own soil by Muslim terrorists). It would be odd, very odd, to just assume that Clinton faced more prejudice than Obama did. So the burden of proof is on Clinton supporters if they're claiming she was the one who was more badly hurt by prejudice. (This is especially true given the large number of votes Hillary received that were cast by racists and/or Republicans who didn't actually prefer her on the merits.)

Here's the problem: the "iron my shirts" incident doesn't make sense as evidence that she was hurt by sexism. The guys yelling that phrase were completely unsympathetic. Does anyone honestly believe they persuaded a single person not to vote for her? In fact, the incident probably helped her, since people tend to sympathize with her more when they perceive her as a victim of sexism.

David Shuster's "pimped out" comment was obviously foolish. It was an overstated criticism of someone campaigning for their parent who's running for president -- something that's usually not criticized at all no matter what gender anyone is. But I fail to see how the "pimped out" incident proves sexism by even the person who said it, let alone the media at large. What it shows is that talking heads get paid to churn out hour after hour of vaguely titillating pseudo-analysis about politics, and sometimes they get desperate for points to make and resort to dumb comments that don't make much sense like "Chelsea Clinton is being pimped out."

As an aside, that incident also shows that while the Clinton campaign should have been focused on trying to ... you know ... convince actual voters to vote for her (i.e. bottom-up politics), the campaign was wasting its contributors' money on futile top-down strategies like trying to make people lose their jobs for making isolated dumb comments. Not only did they use that strategy against David Shuster to get him briefly suspended, but they also used it against Samantha Power, the woman who was advising Obama on foreign policy and has been acclaimed for her work fighting genocide. I've read some of her book A Problem from Hell and have watched an interview with her; she has at least as much passion and intellect as Hillary Clinton herself. Do Clinton's fans really see making that brilliant woman lose her job (the Obama campaign fired her under intense pressure) as a ringing victory for women's rights because Power called Clinton a nasty word ("monster")?

I still have to address "Chris Matthews," "cleavage," "voice," and some other stuff, but that'll have to wait till tomorrow...


John Althouse Cohen said...

Case in point!

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