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Rachel Maddow and Melissa Harris-Lacewell on women candidates v. women’s rights (oh, and Chris Matthews remains an imbecile)

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

September 17th, 2010

There’s a reason so many media critics — and so many feminists — have intellectual crushes on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. Mixing genial bemusement with a never-back-down fervor for asking questions no one else in corporate news will, The Rachel Maddow Show regularly covers topics unaddressed anywhere outside of indy media, and does so from a perspective we simply never otherwise hear on the cable news dial.

This election primary week is a prime example, as Maddow’s reporting throughout the week — and her interview with the also-lefty-crushworthy Princeton professor and The Nation columnist Melissa Harris-Lacewell last night — illustrates:

A transcript isn’t available yet. In the clip above, Rachel offers a key piece of rationality that went missing from most corporate broadcast outlets in coverage of the 2008 presidential election cycle: “Although ‘women candidates equal women voters’ seems to make sense, also check the evidence that women vote for their own interests, not just for their own chromosomes,” she explained.

It’s a point I made many times in my monitoring of 2007 - 2008 election media, but which until now we’ve only been able to hear in independent, non-commercial media outlets such as GRITtv with Laura Flanders (and in a few key Daily Show and Saturday Night Live segments, or in Rebecca Traister’s new book, Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women).

Noting that fewer women voted for McCain/Palin in ‘08 than Bush/Cheney in ‘04, Maddow issued a none-too-subtle heads-up to fellow journalists:

“If past is any prologue about this specific phenomenon…of modern conservative Republican women drawing in women voters, we don’t just have to speculate. There is quantifiable information here, and it suggests that the issues on which the candidates run can matter to women voters much more than the fact that the candidate herself is a woman.”

Maddow went on to discuss the extremist right-wing stances of the 2010 GOP, including their purge of moderate Republicans in favor of “radical crusaders” who would force rape victims and 14-year-old incest survivors to birth their rapists’ babies, and how this gives lie to the pretense of the libertarian, “freedom”-loving ethos many new Tea Party-style candidates tout. Harris-Lacewell proved the perfect guest to delve deeply into the topic, noting with grudging respect the groundbreaking nature of the current crop of untested, inexperienced conservative women gaining power in the political sphere, while also explaining in no uncertain terms that biology does not and cannot trump policy:

“Let’s be completely clear about the facts here. There is no place in the world and no time in history where restricting women’s reproductive rights makes a people or a nation more free or more equal. These extreme positions on abortion are without any question a war on American girls and women. And the fact that there are women who are both complicit and participatory in it is really neither surprising nor unprecedented. It has always been true, and it is incredibly important that despite the fact that we can be very proud of these women as women and as politicians, the question is, how do women as citizens fare on the other side of them either being elected or not elected…Look, I’m from a people who really did experience the need to hold on to a God who would see them through difficult times, including generations of Black women who in slavery were forced to bear the children of their rapists. And I do believe because I’m a person of faith in an interceding God that can help people through difficult circumstances, but I’m also an American who believes that the point of government isn’t to make life so hard for half of our citizens that the only force there to help them is God. We as a government and a people deserve and should do better. ”

[Pardon any typos in my hasty transcription above.]

This full conversation between Maddow and Harris-Lacewell perfectly illustrates what I and other feminist media critics have been writing for years: we need not just gender diversity in journalism, but diversity vis-a-vis political perspective as well. For decades, countless studies have shown that women and people of color are underrepresented in nearly every aspect of news content, production and ownership. What’s worse, there is even less in the way of ideological diversity in contemporary corporate media: progressive perspectives, especially feminist perspectives, are virtually invisible, as Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting has repeatedly documented (most recently in a study of the extreme pale male-ness among authors and reviewers of political books). Rachel Maddow is the only journalist on corporate TV news to regularly have conversations such as the one above, or to host guests like Harris-Lacewell without tarring as “fringe” or “radical” her very grounded, measured progressive feminist commentary. (Once she became an MSNBC analyst Harris-Lacewell has begun popping up on other news chat shows on the network, but rarely do Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Hardball with Chris Matthews or The Ed Show delve in depth into women’s issues outside of political football.)

Contrary to those knee-jerk conservatives who see commie red under every headline, the segment above doesn’t prove that “The Liberal Media Is Out To Indoctrinate Us All…Hide Your Children!!!” — in fact, how rare this sort of discussion is, how much a jolt it is to actually hear such a conversation on mainstream television, should handily expose the myth of the “liberal media.” Though exceptionally well-done, The Rachel Maddow Show is still an exception to the tone and topic-roster that dominate public debate.

A bit of media backstory may help contextualize just how rare this kind of election discussion is within the broadcast landscape.

In 2007 and 2008, I spoke extensively at colleges and conferences (vintage lecture tour titles: “When Anchormen Attack!” and “White Male Electile Dysfunction”) and regularly blogged and published op-eds about how the sexism and racism in media coverage of the presidential race was not only biased and polarizing, it also undermined the democratic process by depriving voters of the substantive policy information we really needed about our potential leaders. [Note: I still speak across the country on these topics — if you’re interested in organizing a lecture or media literacy workshop on gender, race, and class and the media in election years and beyond (or on a variety of other media topics, including reality TV), contact Women In Media & News.]

As a media critic, I was particularly peeved at the ludicrous gender-essentialist thinking on the part of reporters, news anchors and analysts who assumed that women would vote en masse for anyone in a skirt, regardless of their positions or public policy records. Anchors like MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and CNBC’sDonny Deutsch regularly asserted that the uber-conservative Sarah Palin would help Sen. John McCain score with women (and feminists, even!) angry that liberal Sen. Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic primary, as if all women want in their female leaders are… girl parts. If it was annoying back then, it was even more so this week when Matthews was at it again, proving that the benefit of hindsight is lost on pundits blinded by misogyny. Here’s Matthews explaining the primary victory of hard-right (anti-masturbation, anti-evolution, anti…everything) DE Senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell during a live primary-night roundtable on The Rachel Maddow Show:

“Rachel I have to say the power of women voters… you’ve got to look at it. Step back from the ideology and the cultural issues. There are an awful lot of women that felt frustrated by Hillary Clinton’s failure two years ago and I’m telling you it’s cropping up, I hear it, and I hear anecdotally I admit, but I really… look at this picture here. These are women and they may be conservative women, but they’re women none the less and they may be joined by other women who just feel it’s time for more women to win these offices. And I wouldn’t put that apart from the general election calculus right now.”

Watch the video in all its asshatty glory (hat tip to Crooks and Liars for the clip):


In 2007-2008, when Matthews (and Donny Deutsch, Joe Scarborough, Tucker Carlson, George Will, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and others on MSNBC, CNN and Fox News) prattled on about women voters as if we were intellectually incompetent children unable to vote in our own interests, the TV landscape assured that there were no progressive women present to correct them. What a difference two years makes. On Tuesday, when I watched in disgust as Matthews clucked about frustrated Hillary voters supporting O’Donnell because they “just feel it’s time for more women to win these offices,” Maddow was there to instantly interrupt his backwards political calculus. “Chris,” she jumped in:

“It is impossible for me to imagine, though, that people who are disappointed that Hillary Clinton did not beat Barack Obama in the primaries are voting in large numbers for a candidate as extreme as Christine O’Donnell. I mean, yeah, chromosomes are there, but the politics are completely opposite. [She laughs.] I mean, I don’t think women voted, I don’t think women identity politics and voting could explain two different votes for two different candidates this far apart.”

Last month, at a comedy benefit for Gulf birds threatened by BP’s environmental catastrophe, This American Life’s Ira Glass asked Maddow whether she sees herself as a journalist, an advocate, or some hybrid thereof. “My mission is to increase the amount of useful information in the world,” she replied.

And so she does.

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One Response to “Rachel Maddow and Melissa Harris-Lacewell on women candidates v. women’s rights (oh, and Chris Matthews remains an imbecile)”

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