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Super Tuesday media musings, Part I: why media forced Edwards out of the race

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

February 5th, 2008

I’ve kept mum on my dog in the presidential race because as the director of a non-profit women’s media justice group, I don’t feel comfortable endorsing political candidates. And with the brilliant Rebecca Traister writing about primary season media coverage through much the same lens and with the same attention to detail I tend to, I haven’t felt the need to weigh in on media bias in campaign coverage as much as I would normally have; there’s only so much time in the day, and with folks like Traister on the case — and with WIMN’s Voices bloggers such as Shireen Mitchell, Veronica Arreola, Michelle Garcia and guest blogger Avis Jones-Deweever regularly offering their own important insights about the highly problematic pitting of race against gender, feminists against feminists, Blacks agains Latinos, and Black women against themselves in recent months — I’ve felt less of a need recently to do my usual monitoring of biased, double-standard-laden, obnoxious, substance-free horse-race election coverage.

But there are two quick primary-season-related elements of discussion that I haven’t seen make it into the public debate — and so, on the eve of Super Tuesday, I offer the following thoughts (part I below, part II — in which I remind media not to be so shocked that all feminists don’t think alike — in the next post):

I. In which media find some things more inexcusable than ovaries and dark skin

I believe that the primary (pardon the pun) reason the Democrats are left with only two contenders to choose from tomorrow is because corporate media — threatened by the only top-tier candidate whose campaign was staunchly anti-corporate, populist and, horror of horrors, consistently against media consolidation — crafted a narrative around John Edwards as a non-viable also-ran from the get-go, a narrative that hobbled his fundraising, limited his reach and became a media-fulfilling prophesy.

Until the summer of 2007, I couldn’t understand why Edwards was generating scant media attention, and why what little attention he did get was mostly dismissive. After all, consider that John Edwards looks in every way like the politico media have always annointed as Their Guy: a charismatic and wealthy white man with politician hair, a smile made for kissing babies, Baptist beliefs and even a family story rife with overcoming-tragedy pathos built for headline-making drama. Meanwhile, just as head-scratchingly, the same media that typically treat female politicians like little girls playing dress-up and subject politicians of color to racist screeds and reflexive dismissal were getting all hot and bothered imagining a Clinton-Obama race for the Oval Office… and telling America that this wasn’t only possible, it was the most probable outcome.

How was it, I wondered that throughout 2007, Hillary Clinton (dubbed the front-runner from the moment she dipped her toe in the electoral waters) and Barack Obama (seemingly recruited to run by the press as much as by Dem leadership) were generating the kind of journalistic ink that female politicians and leaders of color rarely receive? Though they have absolutely suffered their respective shares of those dusty old media biases (from headlines about Hillary’s cleavage, marriage and tear ducts to queries about whether Barack is “Black enough” and whether America “is ready” for an African American president), both of these non-traditional candidates were treated as the only serious contenders vying for the Democratic nomination. Having written about and monitored double standards in media coverage of female politicians for the past decade, I just couldn’t figure out why media were so roundly willing to get over their collective baggage to elevate to such political heights a white woman who calls herself a feminist and a Black man who calls himself a progressive. These are, after all, the types of candidates media usually do their utmost to squelch.

Then I heard John Edwards debate the Democratic contenders at the Yearly Kos convention in August, and it became clear. Faced with a candidate who was taking a hard line against the corruptive influence of corporate capital over political leadership and legislation, who was refusing to accept lobbyist money, and who was speaking out against media consolidation, all of a sudden it didn’t matter so much that Edwards had the ethnicity, the genitals, the bank account and the religious pedigree media look for when deciding whom to endorse. His anti-corporate, pro-populist rhetoric was far from the stuff of media-happy soundbites, so much so that corporate media were willing to partially suspend the race and gender biases that the industry usually uses to torpedo the political ambitions of women (of all ethnicites) and people of color.

At the risk of being redundant, I want to be very clear: I’m not saying that journalism in 2007 and 2008 has not been riddled with sexism or racism; clearly, these long-standing ideological scourges have filtered into reporting, commentary and punditry in both explicit and implicit ways. But the overall seriousness and validity with which the Clinton and Obama campaigns have been covered in corporate media has been a groundbreaking, historical shift. I just wonder if this shift would have happened if not for an industry-wide discomfort with a white, male candidate considered even more of a threat than people who look and sound like Hillary and Barack.

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