By Brigitte L. Nacos
In 1984, after Geraldine Ferraro became the first female politician to be nominated by a major political party as candidate for the office of vice-president of the United States, she learned a thing or two about gender bias in mass-mediated politics. It wasn’t only her Republican opponent George H.W. Bush who questioned the congress-woman’s foreign policy credentials and his wife Barbara who referred to Mrs. Ferraro with a word that rhymes with rich. Media stars and the rest of the press made comments, asked questions and expressed doubts that revealed deeply-seated gender biases.
Nothing seems to have changed in the nearly 24 years since
then. Take Republican Senator John McCain’s reaction when a supporter took a
page from Barbara Bush’s 1984 play-book against Geraldine Ferraro in an effort
to cut another female candidate—Hillary Clinton—down to size: As reported in
Post, “On Monday night, when a woman at a town hall asked how Republicans
could beat Clinton--calling her a word that rhymes with witch--McCain smiled as
the crowd laughed and said it was an "’excellent question.’" 1984 all
Given her experience then, Ferraro is well suited to comment on Hillary Clinton’s treatment during the Philadelphia debate among Democratic contenders for the presidential nomination. This is an excerpt from Mrs. Ferraro’s letter-to-the-editor published in the New York Times a day before tonight’s debate in Las Vegas:
“Watching this debate [in Philadelphia], I saw two hours of Senator Clinton being bombarded with personal attacks, not only by her opponents but also by the moderator Tim Russert. Yes, she’s the Democratic front-runner, and that makes her fair game for challenges on the issues. But when it got so personal that even Bill Richardson, one of her opponents, had to say “Enough,” I had to agree. Barack Obama has said that, when he was attacked for 15 minutes in a prior debate, he didn’t raise his race as an issue. Fifteen minutes is not two hours, though, and I feel sure that, if Senator Obama had been subjected to so sustained an attack, plenty of other people would be talking about racism, even if he wasn’t. But then, as I’ve said before, in this country it’s still O.K. to be sexist, but not to be racist. I’ll be watching the coming candidate debates on CNN, and if the Republican front-runner, Rudolph W. Giuliani, is the sole subject of two hours of personal attacks, I’ll rethink my position. It will help if, next time out, John Edwards and Senator Obama stick to substantive policy disagreements with Senator Clinton. If they can’t, they’ll only prove themselves unworthy of our party’s nomination.”
That’s precisely what I saw and heard and thought as I watched the event in Philadelphia and that’s the way I expressed it here on my blog. Moreover, while other candidates—Democrats and Republicans alike—had their less than stellar moments during the numerous debates in the last several months, none of those males were criticized for their weakness by media as was Senator Clinton. Not to suspect--not to know that gender bias was at least one of the motivations here—even if based on unconscious sentiments on the part of the male cast would be disingenuous.
Mrs. Clinton’s front-runner status figured into the attack as well. But as
Mrs. Ferraro rightly points out, Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani has not
been the target same sustained media attacks as Mrs. Clinton during Republican
debates. Of course, it was not Hillary and her campaign that created the
perception that her nomination was inevitable. No, the talking heads in the
media created the inevitability myth and once it had become the conventional
wisdom, they set out to take her down with a great deal of help from the rest
of the fourth estate. A competitive race is more fun to cover than one with a
Voters would be far better off, if these debates were not hyped by the media into do-or-die competitions but rather promoted as civilized conversations about the best ways to solve the many problems and issues the country faces. Since the media strive for drama and conflict, they make sure to provoke it.