The presidential campaign is about to get ugly
“Lock her up,” thundered the crowds. The bumper stickers went: “The Good, the Bad, the Ugly” with those adjectives, in order, over the Republican elephant symbol, the Democratic donkey symbol — and a photograph of Hillary Clinton.
She’s sick, she’s a criminal, she’s — God forbid — unlikeable. She’s shrill, she needs to smile more, she’s not someone you would want to have a beer with.
In case anyone has forgotten just how cruelly biased the 2016 presidential campaign was, the coming weeks are about to remind us.
In fact, we’re in for a one-two punch of cultural prejudice — sexism and racism both — after Joe Biden named Kamala Harris as his running mate yesterday. Because the Trump campaign has found it difficult to attack another elderly white man, the vice-presidential candidate offers a more promising target.
Reporters, news executives, and others in the news media should be on red alert. It’s going to be a perilous tightrope walk to cover this inevitable ugliness without making it much, much worse. How do you examine without amplifying?
Already, the gender part of this equation is getting some thoughtful media examination — suggesting that perhaps something was learnt since last time around.
In New York magazine’s The Cut, author Rebecca Traister made an astute point about how one vice-presidential contender — Karen Bass, a California congresswoman — was being widely praised for her humility. When photographs are being taken at political events, for example, Bass literally avoids being in the frame.
She is a non-threatening “worker bee”, according to some media portrayals. One Politico article stated: “She’s a politician who cringes at having her picture taken and is content to let others grab headlines ... In many ways ... the anti-Kamala Harris.” As my colleague, Monica Hesse, put it last week, such modesty is apparently a top requirement — and its absence brings a scolding. “For clearly stating she would love the job, Georgia’s Stacey Abrams was deemed overly self-promotional: ‘Stacey Abrams feels entitled to power, which is why she shouldn’t get it,’ read the headline on a Washington Examiner column,” Hesse wrote.
Now add racial prejudice and things get even worse, especially given President Donald Trump’s well-documented history of attacking women of colour. Like, the congresswomen of “The Squad”, whom he told last summer to “go back” to their countries of origin — although three of the four were born in the US. His particular antipathy for black women reporters, such as PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor, is another tell.
Already social media is a mess of racism and sexism. A recent image circulated on Facebook that put an image of former national security adviser Susan Rice on a box of Uncle Ben’s Rice, labelling it “Uncle Bama’s Dirty Rice”.
It is a reminder of every slanderous attack on the Obamas, and particularly on former first lady Michelle Obama, the Harvard-educated lawyer of whom one Trump campaign official in 2016 said: “I’d like her to return to being a male and let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.”
“Disrespect that is a dual assault on their race and gender” is what awaits a black, female veep candidate, said Errin Haines, The 19th’s editor-at-large, on CNN’s Reliable Sources.
“She can expect to be attacked, vilified and criticised for daring to have ambition, capability and a voice in American politics.”
So what can the news media do? Ignoring this certain ugliness isn’t the answer. Enhanced awareness and providing context is at least a partial one. News organisations should be constantly asking themselves, “How are stories framed? What language is used? Are we reinforcing unconscious stereotypes?”
And certainly, don’t contribute to the mess with thoughtless language as journalist Virginia Heffernan did in a recent Los Angeles Times opinion piece, where she compared the veepstakes to the ABC reality show, The Bachelor: “ ... it’s a little weird to watch an old man set out to choose a younger woman to take to the ultimate fantasy suite, the White House.” One can only cringe.
But as we cringe, we also can get better at identifying and calling out the problem. A group of influential women including former Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Planned Parenthood chief executive Alexis McGill Johnson, who call themselves “We Have Her Back”, sent a letter to top news executives last week demanding a new approach —- and more thoughtful preparation, starting now.
“A woman VP candidate, and possibly a black or brown woman candidate, requires the same kind of internal consideration about systemic inequality as you undertook earlier this year,” the letter said, referring to the recent reckoning in many American newsrooms about racial opportunity and coverage. “Anything less than full engagement in this thoughtful oversight would be a huge step backwards for the progress you have pledged to make to expand diversity of thought and opportunity ...”
They are right. Those conversations need to happen, immediately and intensively — especially as convention and debate coverage looms, with all its potential pitfalls.
Granted, Harris must be evaluated on her experience, her past decisions and her ability to step into the top job.But not on whether she is ambitious (she is, guaranteed), likeable (that’s a trap), her body type or whether she is sufficiently self-effacing. And certainly not on whether she really ought to smile more.
If by some miracle, she makes it successfully to Inauguration Day, she won’t have a problem smiling.
• Margaret Sullivan is,/i> The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was The New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of The Buffalo News, her home-town paper
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