Why Does the D.C. Press Portray Women as Mean?

Since it was founded in 2007, Politico has published thousands of articles and columns. (It's published almost 50,000 mentions of Barack Obama alone.) But according to site's online archives, only recently has Politico described a public figure as a "ruthless attack dog."


That person? Gabby Giffords, the former Democratic Congresswoman from Arizona who was shot in the head in 2011 when a gunman, brandishing a 9mm Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol, opened fire at Gifford's outdoor shopping center event, shooting 19 people, six of whom died.

Why "ruthless attack dog"? Because Giffords is running tough, accurate gun safety ads through her PAC, Americans for Responsible Solutions, against Republicans in various states to highlight the fact the GOP stonewalled any efforts to pass gun legislation, even after the school massacre in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.

Talk about incongruity. The 44-year-old recovering gunshot victim was labeled "mean," tagged for having "unleashed some of the nastiest ads" of the year, and brandishing a "bare-knuckled approach" to politics. It fit into a larger pattern of Giffords "harshly attack[ing] her Republican foes," according to Politico.

The misguided Politico piece has received plenty of deserved criticism this week, especially for denouncing someone who got shot in the head as "angry" and "mean" when she's trying to pass laws to diminish the number of Americans who get shot in the head.

But additional elements in play make the piece even more distressing, and highlight continuing trends in political news coverage. It's impossible to ignore the fact that Giffords, as a woman in a predominantly male field of campaign politics, was singled out for being the poster child for disconcertingly "mean" and "angry" politics this election cycle. And that she was singled out on almost laughably thin evidence. (Politico's sole example of a "liberal leaning" critic of the ad was the Arizona Republic, a paper that endorsed GOP presidential candidates in the last four election cycles.)

A Democratic woman goes toe-to-toe against the mostly-male gun lobby in America and she's the one whistled for a foul by Politico's etiquette police? She's the one depicted as a convenient victim because the life-threatening injury she suffered represents "quite the conundrum" for those who might otherwise attack her and who now feel "helpless" to respond to her supposedly nasty ads?

As Hillary Clinton prepares for perhaps her second presidential run, it's worth reflecting on how prominent women are often treated and slighted by the Beltway press. How they're frequently held to a different standard, warned against getting too emotional, to the point where making factually accurate campaign ads in 2014 leads to wide-eyed Politico declarations of being "mean" and "angry" and "ruthless."

"In a midterm cluttered with negative ads," the article announced, "Giffords' commercials stand out for their intensity" based in part of the on the "emotional display."

This is all fairly loaded language, applied in a negative way that we rarely see for the attack ads of male politicians and strategists. An "emotional and gut-wrenching attack ad" from Americans for Prosperity earlier this year was positively described as a potential "nightmare" for opponents, for example. And Politico magazine itself recently praised a political ad from the sixties attacking an opponent of President Lyndon Johnson for evoking "an emotional response," encouraging "voters to become angry or frightened." These are the ads of savvy players engaged in smart hardball tactics, successfully putting their opponents on the defensive.

But not Giffords, according to Politico. When she gets emotional, it's "nasty" and "mean." And she's not alone.

"Any emotion that Hillary Clinton shows has always been used against her," Jessica Valenti wrote in a June Guardian column. (Recall that New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd claimed Clinton had faked a display of emotion during a New Hampshire campaign appearance, just days before that state's pivotal 2008 primary.)

Addressing the mainstream media's mocking reviews of Clinton's recent book, Hard Choices, claiming it was "boring," "safe," "dry," and lacked excitement, Valenti noted that Clinton has routinely been attacked in the press whenever she wasn't boring and safe and dry:

After all, whenever she's hinted at being anything other than measured and guarded, Clinton has been attacked as hysterical, a ballbuster or worse. So if people are bored by Hard Choices, they should blame the misogynist expectations of Washington, not the careful crafting of a seasoned politician.

Valenti's point is crucial for understanding the restraints that woman often operate under inside the Beltway: If they're emotional, they get attacked, but if they're not they can be branded as cold and calculating. ("Ruthless.")

And then there's the closely related issue of likeability. In 2009, a Politico article about Kirsten Gillibrand, a rising star Democratic senator from New York, was headlined "Gillibrand Unpopular Among Peers," and reported "within the high school gossip circle that is New York's congressional delegation, Kirsten Gillibrand's nickname is 'Tracy Flick.'"

That's a reference to the character from the book and movie Election -- a character who's described as "one of those people who manages to get very far in life while being thoroughly unlikable."

The Times' Dowd joined in [emphasis added]:

The 42-year-old Gillibrand, who has been in the House for only two years, is known as opportunistic and sharp-elbowed. Tracy Flick is her nickname among colleagues in the New York delegation, many of whom were M.I.A. at her Albany announcement.

On year earlier, New York magazine observed that like Flick, Hillary Clinton is "blonde, she's driven, she's oddly sexless (even as she is sexualized by others), she's competitive and ruthless, and sometimes you wonder whether she has the emotions of normal people."

Yikes.

Meanwhile, why isn't Politico outraged by Republican Rep. Bobby Schilling from Illinois whose recent attack ad "features indignant veterans scolding a Democratic House member about cuts to "veterans benefits" that never happened." Does that not qualify as "mean"?

How about Georgia Republican David Perdue whose "smarmy" campaign ad makes the outlandishly false claim his opponent, Democrat Michelle Nunn, helped fund groups linked to "terrorists."

Neither of those set off any bells at Politico, but Gabby Giffords did.

Additionally, there was something disturbing about a recent Arizona Republic editorial (featured prominently in the Politico piece) that found fault with Giffords' group and its campaign ads. What was disturbing was how the newspaper's scolding employed such a condescending tone towards the former Congresswoman.

Do the people who control your messaging know they are marring the legacy of a congresswoman known for her decency and good judgment, who practiced civility in office with such consistency she did not just reach across the aisle but found cherished friends there?

[...]

Perhaps the Tucson shooting changed Gabby Giffords. Perhaps she is the one who controls the message. But we doubt it.

Why did the Arizona Republic assume that Giffords has no idea what the "messaging" is for the group she founded? Why did the paper assume that the woman who survived an assassination attempt and created a PAC to battle the gun industry doesn't know what the ads her group created look and sound like?

Maybe Giffords, the gunshot victim, was just too busy being "mean," "angry," and "ruthless."

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