The Clintons vs. The Media

One of the great annoyances of the Clinton campaign is that they are continually trying to distract from the real issues and differences between the candidates by depending on side shows. The biggest was when they brought in their top performer, Bill Clinton, who proceeded to destroy his legacy of being called the first black president by resorting to a racist strategy to attempt to prevent a real black from being elected. In Wisconsin they are relying on ads arguing that twenty-two debates are not enough and that Obama doesn’t deserve to be president because he won’t agree to a twenty-third. Yet another side show is the attacks on the press.

There certainly have been some inappropriate comments from the news media, but that is part of the territory. Eugene Robinson notes that attacks on the media have been a part of the Clinton strategy:

The theme of press bias, however, is woven through the Clinton campaign’s narrative of the story thus far. There are two basic allegations: that journalists look at Obama uncritically while subjecting Hillary Clinton to microscopic scrutiny; and that we react with hair-trigger reflexes when attacks on Obama have the slightest whiff of racism but don’t seem to notice, or care, when Clinton is subjected to rank sexism.

The first charge is just bogus, in my view. Like Clinton, Obama has developed position papers on all the major issues. Clinton has been able to highlight the differences between her proposals and Obama’s — for example, the fact that her plan for universal health insurance includes a mandate, whereas Obama’s does not. In debates, she has had the chance to challenge his approach and defend her own. It is not the media’s fault if voters do not agree with Clinton that nominating Obama would be a “leap of faith.”

It is true that the candidates’ stump speeches are markedly different: Clinton’s is about competence and diligence, Obama’s about hope and change. But journalists didn’t write those speeches, campaign speechwriters did. And any reporter or commentator who failed to note that Obama is an exceptional public speaker would be guilty of journalistic malpractice.

Reporters are busy combing through Obama’s personal, professional and financial history, just as they have examined the lives of the Clintons. Obama has facilitated this process by releasing his tax returns, which Clinton has declined to do. It is not unfair to point this out.

The contention about racism vs. sexism is harder to dismiss out of hand. Being unapologetically racist or sexist is no longer acceptable in this country, at least in most settings. The social censure for being publicly racist, though, is well codified; the perpetrator must recant and repent, and may never completely eliminate the taint. There’s also a pretty solid consensus on what’s racist and what isn’t. The views on sexism are less settled.

When John Edwards, in one of the early ensemble-cast debates, mentioned Hillary Clinton’s attire, I think everyone agreed he had made a mistake. Yet it’s not always out of bounds to comment on a presidential candidate’s wardrobe and appearance, or else we wouldn’t have chuckled at Edwards’s $400 haircut or Mitt Romney’s game-show-host mien.

When people refer to Hillary Clinton as strident, is that a sexist code word? I think it probably is.

But when her speaking voice is described unfavorably, is that blaming her unfairly for physiology that’s obviously beyond her control? Are male journalists just not used to hearing a woman’s voice speak with presidential authority? Or are they making a valid observation about dynamics and tone, which are within her power to modulate?

Is sexism in the coverage of the Clinton campaign excusable? No, and we deserve to be called on it. But it wasn’t the media that decided she should take for granted all those states that Barack Obama has been winning.

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