June 26, 2019
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OK, mainstream media: Prove your coverage isn’t sexist

Charlie Neibergall | AP
Charlie Neibergall | AP
Democratic presidential candidate and former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke arrives to speak at a roundtable discussion on climate change, Monday, May 6, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa.

A presidential candidate trying to project a friendly and kind demeanor, we learn, is the boss from hell. The candidate berates staff and has a bad temper, a penchant for humiliating staff in front of others and questionable management. Are these things critical to determining fitness to be president? The mainstream media thought so as it pummeled Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., for days and weeks, repeating the same stories told by anonymous sources. I, however, was referring to Beto O’Rourke. Let’s take a look at the double standard on steroids.

When challenged for going after Klobuchar for behavior for which a male boss would escape criticism, the press said its coverage had nothing to do with gender. Fine. Now is the chance to prove that the endless parade of “boss from hell” stories had nothing to do with gender. The Daily Beast reports on the documentary about Beto O’Rourke’s 2016 Senate race:

“In the doc, Beto comes off as charismatic yet controlling-its most revealing moments being ones where he is seen dressing down his clearly overworked staff for their perceived lack of preparedness. The person on the receiving end of most of the scoldings is Cynthia Cano, his road manager. At several tense points in the film, Cano is criticized by Beto-in front of her campaign colleagues-for not leaving enough time in his schedule for media interviews, having him be late to campaign events, and not adequately prepping him for those events. . . .

“Just prior to [his concession speech], in the backstage area of the venue, [filmmaker David] Modigliani’s cameras caught Beto and his top staffers (as well as his teary-eyed wife, Amy) in an intimate huddle, where the Senate candidate apologized to them for being ‘a giant asshole.’ ”

Well, let’s see how many weeks of coverage this draws. How many former O’Rourke employees are interviewed, how many anonymous sources can be rounded up, and how energetically will the press pursue Cano to find out just how awful her boss was? (Will they call O’Rourke’s mother?)

I raise this not because I think mean bosses should be exempt from criticism or because managing staff isn’t part of being a chief executive (although I found the coverage of Klobuchar to be overwrought) but because the media now must walk the walk and treat O’Rourke in a similar fashion – unless the media takes to heart the criticism of Klobuchar and apologizes for coverage that holds women to an entirely different standard than men.

It should escape no one’s notice that after the media flogged Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., for not being “likable” enough but exempted the grouchy, irascible Sen. Bernie get-those-kids-off-my-lawn Sanders, I-Vt., from similar scrutiny, she is on the upswing and his poll numbers are falling. Not only does there seem to be a double standard for subjective evaluations, but also the media’s evaluation of highly gender-driven characteristics doesn’t seem to predict voter reaction very well. (Meaning it’s sexist and wrong.)

It has not gone unnoticed that O’Rourke’s entry into the race was greeted with wall-to-wall fawning coverage that no female candidate has received or that a trip to his barber didn’t cost him days of rotten coverage. (Compare this with the tongue-lashing Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California got for a shopping trip meant to highlight local small businesses.) I shudder to think what would have happened had Klobuchar or Harris live-streamed a beauty parlor visit.

You can argue that these small personal quirks are irrelevant – or you can argue that they give us vital information into candidates’ psyches. What you cannot do is change the yardstick depending on the gender of the candidate.

And all this should underscore an uncomfortable truth – that despite the increase in the number of female journalists, most reporters are male, most bylines are men, and editors are overwhelmingly white and male. We shouldn’t be surprised when there’s a divergence in the way women and men are covered. Perhaps less defensiveness when called out for gender disparity in coverage and more soul-searching would be in order.



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