A new book looks at media bias in coverage of women running for president. Scott McLemee considers the talking points.

January 16, 2008

The people running Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign probably haven’t made time to leaf through the University of Illinois Press’s most recent catalog. Too bad for them. They could have placed an early bulk order for Erika Falk’s Women for President: Media Bias in Eight Campaigns. The official publication date is next week. It seems like a book that Clinton’s staff would find useful – and not just as a projectile to bounce off the heads of members of the press corps.

Falk, who is the associate program chair for the master’s degree program in communications at Johns Hopkins University, analyzes decades of media reports on female presidential candidates. The first was Victoria Woodhull, who campaigned on the ticket of the Equal Rights Party during the election of 1872. The most recent was the bid by Carol Moseley Braun, a Democratic candidate who withdrew shortly before the primaries started in January 2004.

The book contains just a few passing references to Hillary Clinton. It’s clear all the research was done before the current round of campaigning began. But that makes it all the more interesting to see how well Women for President serves to diagnose some of the trends on view lately. (I say this, by the way, as someone who is not an enthusiast for Hillary Clinton, to put it mildly.)

One of the really puzzling phenomena, for example, has been the habitual reference to Clinton’s run as “the first serious campaign for president by a woman.” That is how I heard it described on a cable news program half an hour ago. Chances are, a similar formulation is being used by someone in media-land right this very second. It is hopelessly ahistorical, yet now practically inescapable.

In her examination of press coverage between 1872 and 2004, Falk finds that this pattern – what she calls “the novelty frame” – has recurred time and again. The important exception, it seems, was the one time when it was literally true. While reporters were amused and/or appalled by Victoria Woodhull, they evidently never took her bid seriously enough to consider it a real campaign.

Each subsequent woman running for president, however, has been portrayed as an anomaly -- someone making an experiment untried ever before. And so when Margaret Chase Smith sought the Republican nomination in 1964, a newspaper columnist wrote that she enjoyed “the distinction of having been the first woman in the country to bid for [the presidential] office.” (Actually she was at least the third.) Eight years later, Shirley Chisholm became, as another reporter put it, “the first black woman to seek a major-party nomination.”

In 1987, when Pat Schroeder began her campaign, commentators had to stretch a bit: “If Schroeder gets into the race,” went one account, “she will be the first woman to seek a major party presidential campaign since 1972.” And now, a two decades later, it seems that Hillary Clinton, too, is boldly going where only men have gone before.

Arguably, the “novelty frame” is a side-effect of the limitations of the news business itself. True, some reporters have an encyclopedic grasp of political trivia – but detailed knowledge of campaigns from earlier decades is not a job requirement. The scholar’s ethos treats every recent development as a repetition of some older idea or pattern. The reporter’s instinct, on the contrary, is to cover the new. (Hence the expression “news.”) A woman running for president has occurred so infrequently that any given campaign is bound to seem like a departure from the Y-chromosomal routine. If Hillary Clinton is the ninth woman to try since 1872, that averages out to one woman every 15 years.

But Falk’s critique suggests that things are more complex than that. Media coverage tends (she argues) to reproduce gender stereotypes that treat women as belonging “naturally” to the private and domestic spheres. When they move into the political arena, it is treated like a dramatic event – a violation of the norms. This happens in spite of what anyone’s intentions may be. And it has effects that go well beyond the “novelty frame.” In summing up her analysis of local and national news coverage for the eight campaigns she studied, Falk points to several striking patterns that emerged.

“On the average,” she writes, male candidates each “had twice the number of articles written about them as did the women, and these articles were on average 7 percent longer....In addition, the coverage that men received was more substantive (regarding issues) and its content was less tangential (e.g., about physical appearance or family) than was the coverage of women. In the stories mentioning men candidates, 27 percent of the paragraphs were about issues. Of the stories mentioning women, just 16 percent were about issues.”

Articles about female candidates tended to have three times as many descriptions of their attire or physical appearance. “Their age was more likely to be reported than was the age of a man,” writes Falk, “and the gender of all of the women candidates was heavily marked in the texts. The persistent message is that gender is important and relevant to politics for women (but not for men), and what women (not men) wear and how they look are likewise important.”

Only in one department did female candidates seem to enjoy a certain advantage: news articles tended to quote them at greater length than male candidates. Falk proposes that this may be explained by “the talking platypus phenomenon.” Since a woman isn’t “supposed” to be able to discuss policy, any more than a platypus can talk, you tend to pay more attention when one actually does. (Whatever the merits of this argument, it would probably be better expressed by reference to 18th century male chauvinist Samuel Johnson: “Sir, a woman preaching is like a dog's walking on its hind legs,” he told Boswell. “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.")

Among the book’s suggestions to women presidential candidates is a proposal to challenge “the novelty frame.” And this part seems directed to one campaign in particular.

While organizers “may find it tempting to sell the candidate as ‘making history,’” writes Falk, “voters are less likely to view women as risky when women presidents are shown to be a normal phenomenon.... Deflect the novelty frame by depicting the candidate as just one in a long line of women who have been national leaders.” Or else try “recasting the candidate as typical in terms of qualifications, issue stands, or experience.”

The latter could be done via a soundbite like the one Falk proposes: “You suggest that I am the first serious woman to seek nomination by a major party, but in fact I am just another in a long line of outstanding Democratic senators (such as John F. Kennedy) who have become president.”

Well sure, it’s worth a try! And then, if nominated, Hillary Clinton can go on to fulfill her historical mission following eight horrific years of Republican misrule: She can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Meanwhile, I find myself wishing the first woman to run for president had actually won. Falk doesn’t go into much detail about it, but Victoria Woodhull was quite a character. Apart from being a spiritualist and an advocate of free love, she published a newspaper that gave American readers their first look at a political pamphlet of some importance called The Communist Manifesto. And the Equal Rights Party drafted freed slave and abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass as her vice-presidential candidate.

I’m thinking write-in. Somebody should make a T-shirt that reads "Victoria Woodhull: The time is now." If coming weeks are anything like the last few, there could a groundswell.


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