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How the media's debacle in 2016 is still undercutting women candidates for 2020

How the media's debacle in 2016 is still undercutting women candidates for 2020
Lorie Shaull/U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at L.A.'s Families Belong Together March by lukeharold is licensed under CC CC0 1.0 / Rally at US Sen 0196 Senator Elizabeth Warren" by mdfriendofhillary is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The repercussions of the 2016 presidential campaign continue to be felt on the unfolding 2020 contest. The good news is a record number of women candidates took the cue from Hillary Clinton's groundbreaking run as the Democratic nominee. The bad news is, they're being forced to deal with the media failures from previous election cycles, and that's being felt via the ongoing debate over so-called electability.


The pragmatic emphasis on finding a nominee who can win in November seems to be a key concern of many Democratic voters because of the huge threat Donald Trump poses to the country, and the overwhelming desire among Democrats to seize the country back from dangerous Republican rule. "It’s the anxiety of a party still carrying the scars of its 2016 defeat," the New York Times recently reported. "The party finds itself grappling with the strangely enduring question of the electability of women—and with the challenge for the candidates of refuting it before it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy." The Times article left out the fact that Clinton got 3 million more votes than Trump, which undercuts the idea that maybe Americans aren't ready to elect a woman president. (Most voters wanted to in 2016!)

Still, there's little doubt that the concern seems real, as reporters have had little trouble finding Democratic voters to express the electability sentiment. "I think against Trump any woman is going to have difficulty with electability, that’s just kind of a reality we have to contend with," one Iowa voter told NBC News, when asked about the possibility of a woman nominee. And yes, the electability chatter seems to be only centered on the many women candidates running for the White House, a clear case of ongoing double standards in play.

But here's the thing: The electability debate is, in large part, about the media. It's really about nervous Democrats saying, will the campaign press and Beltway media elites try to eviscerate a woman Democratic nominee the way they did to Hillary Clinton as she tried to make history? Will the press give Trump a pass against another woman nominee by regurgitating his crude, sexist insults? (The very first sentence of a recent Kamala Harris profile in The Atlantic featured Trump calling her "nasty.") Will the press once again completely lose interest in policy coverage and what a Democratic president would do if elected, the way the press waved off that kind of candidate treatment in 2016 in order to make room for both Trump celebrity coverage, and more Clinton email updates?

The truth is, the media's insatiable appetite to tear down Clinton, based on a decades-long distaste for her and her husband, didn't just keep her out of the White House: It effectively pushed back the entire idea of electing a woman president.

It's true that D.C. press has weirdly teamed up to take down male Democratic nominees in the past (just ask Al Gore). But watching the astoundingly lopsided treatment faced by Clinton's historic campaign has clearly left the impression that women candidates face a disadvantage, especially against Trump.

Today, are anxious Democrats supposed to cross their fingers and hope that journalists won’t repeat the mistakes they made in 2016? That's hard to do since there has been a near-universal refusal from news outlets to acknowledge clear failures in the 2016 coverage—failures that likely cost the Democrats the White House, considering how narrow Trump's electoral victory was. Indeed, the Clinton coverage represented a gender fiasco. (She shouts! She's angry! She doesn't smile enough!)

The press also treated Trump like a celebrity and let him get away with running a substance-free campaign, while every Democratic utterance was dissected in an obsessive search for hypocrisy and bad faith. The campaign press corps essentially eliminated policy coverage in 2016. One study found that “In just six days, The New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.”

And it was no fluke. "Media coverage of Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign was a gender debacle," Media Matters for America noted in 2014.  “[The] Press featured ‘news’ segments on Hillary's hair style, examinations of the Clinton ‘cackle,’ and even a 750-word rumination on the ‘startling’ amount of cleavage then-Sen. Clinton ‘displayed’ on the floor of the U.S. Senate." At the time, Salon's Rebecca Traister detected "a nearly pornographic investment in Clinton's demise" among male pundits.

A key, lingering problem today is that the press created this mess with its dreadful performance in 2016 but refuses to concede its central role while covering the unfolding 2020 campaign, and specifically while covering voters who might be reluctant to put another woman up against Trump. Voters are reluctant, in some part, because of what the press did to Clinton. Yet what the press did to Clinton is mostly omitted from 2020 "electability" coverage, since acknowledging that salient fact would require journalists to take ownership of their 2016 failures. And they don't want to admit to the deeply sexist behavior that created a raging double standard.

So instead of admitting guilt, we get amorphous reporting that vaguely references the trauma many Democratic voters still feel over how Clinton was 'treated' in 2016. "Since Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 defeat, more people have acknowledged the higher standards faced by female candidates, who research shows are disproportionately punished for traits that voters accept in male politicians, including ambition and aggression," the Times reported last week. But wait—the newspaper now concedes Clinton faced a higher standard and was "disproportionately punished." But by whom? Answer: By lots of journalists who work at the Times.

Let's face it: It's pretty hard to cover the 2020 race if you're going to pretend 2016 didn’t happen.

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