Are Female Presidential Candidates Getting Treated Fairly by the Media?

presidential candidates
UltraViolet is calling on mainstream media outlets to be fair and impartial in covering candidates for the 2020 elections. (Image Credit: UltraViolet)

The 23-person field vying for the Democratic nomination for presidential candidates includes six women: Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, Tulsi Gabbard and Marianne Williamson. Two of them (Harris and Warren) are seen as having decent odds of taking the nomination, while Klobuchar is a potential dark horse.

But will these women be torpedoed by press coverage that holds them to a different standard than their male counterparts? The women’s advocacy organization UltraViolet Action says that is a very real danger, and decries the sexist coverage so far exhibited by the mainstream media.

According to Shaunna Thomas, co-founder and executive director of UltraViolet, “The 2020 Democratic Primary includes an amazing field of candidates that represent the growing diversity of our country and party – they span a range of genders, races and sexual orientations. That’s a good thing for the Democratic party and a good thing for our country.”

As Thomas notes, it is certainly an accomplished group and is truly diverse, including Latino, African American, Asian and gay candidates. Nonetheless, there appears to be media bias negatively affecting female candidates, and she writes, “Our country has seen what can happen as a result of inequitable media coverage of presidential candidates. This cannot be our reality in 2020.”

In an open letter sent to executives at MSNBC, CNN, ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, Fox News, Univision, Telemundo and PBS, UltraViolet Action states: “[T]he historic number of highly qualified women candidates in the race are given significantly less attention and media exposure than their male peers. And when the media does focus on women candidates, there is often a default to sexist tropes about women in leadership or a lack of focus on the substantive backgrounds and policies of the women candidates.”

The letter further notes, “Concerns about “electability” are often leveled at women presidential candidates using metrics not considered for their male counterparts.” Nearly two dozen organizations have signed the statement, including CREDO, Emily’s List, MoveOn Political Action, NARAL, NOW, Pantsuit Nation, and Women’s March.

UltraViolet Action’s letter was a response to the absence of women moderators on CNN’s April 22 town hall which featured a Q & A with five of the 2020 contenders: Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senators Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders. UltraViolet Action is demanding that at least fifty percent of town hall and debate moderators are women, and that fifty percent are people of color. The letter also demands that the media take female candidates as seriously as their male counterparts, and they want to see male candidates get asked about sexism, maternal health, abortion access and sexual violence as frequently as are women. During the town hall, only female presidential candidates were asked questions about sexism, including questions about gender pay gap, messages to young female voters, and what could be done to “level the playing field and empower working women.”

These are not women’s problems for women to solve; any candidate, regardless of gender, ideology or other identification, will need to address them. The letter demands that reporters “Ask male candidates about issues that impact women including sexism, maternal health and mortality, abortion access, sexual assault/violence.” This is particularly urgent, writes UltraViolet, given that a sexual predator occupies the White House, abortion rights are under attack, and there is a maternal health crisis with Black women dying in high numbers.

Ultimately, UltraViolet Action demands that the media cover women candidates as seriously as they cover men, pointing to a Northeastern University School of Journalism study which showed that the media devotes less coverage to female candidates, and that this coverage is more likely to be negative, and not focus on the substantive backgrounds and policies of women candidates.

According to the study, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand trailed Sanders, Booker and O’Rourke in terms of positive words used in articles about them. (The data was last updated in late April, prior to Joe Biden’s entry into the race). The Northeastern study explores several fertile areas for analysis, including the double standards applied to male and female candidates. Clark University political science professor Valerie Sperling notes that Hilary Clinton was criticized for shouting during her presidential run, whereas Bernie Sanders is not assailed for this same tendency. Cal State San Bernardino professor Meredith Conroy, author of the book, Masculinity, Media and the American Presidency writes that female candidates receive less policy coverage than males candidates, and that even positive coverage of a women’s personality can be a problem as it can reduce her to that dimension, and reinforce a narrative of who is or is not a serious candidate.

UltraViolet Action is a national advocacy organization driving feminist cultural and political change. Co-founded by Shauna Thomas and Nita Chaudhary, it works to improve the lives of women of all identities and backgrounds. UV states, “We leverage culture, politics, the news, and our rapid-response model to mobilize millions of people, quickly. We founded UltraViolet on the principle that with a combination of organizing, technology, creative campaigning, and people power, we can win.”

The organization focuses on violence, reproductive rights, healthcare, economic security, immigrants’ rights, criminal and racial justice, particularly related to women of color, Indigenous women, immigrants, and LGBTQ people. The organization is noted for campaigns to hold accountable powerful sexual abusers and their enablers. Such figures have included singer R. Kelly, Les Moonves, Steve Wynn, and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. UV Action has also campaigned in favor of the Affordable Care Act, and Senator Tammy Duckworth’s bill allowing infants on the Senate floor.

UltraViolet’s activism about the process of media coverage, as well as the candidates themselves, provides a strong model for how feminism is working to build awareness about gender bias and its impact on public discourse. By urging media outlets to examine their own lack of gender equality, UltraViolet is facilitating a healthier electoral process.

Author: Tim Lehnert

Tim Lehnert is a writer and editor who lives in Cranston, Rhode Island. His articles and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Providence Journal, Rhode Island Monthly, the Boston Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. He is the author of the book Rhode Island 101, and has published short fiction for kids and adults in a number of literary journals and magazines. He received an M.A. in Political Science from McGill University, and an M.A. in English from California State University, Northridge.

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