Media Coverage of US Female Political Figures

During her time as First Lady, Hillary Clinton became very involved in policy making and as a result, the media did not know how to report on a woman who was both career and family oriented, thus society also struggled with ways of accepting such a woman. Kathleen Hall Jamieson (1995) discussed how this double-bind was causing news media to depict female politicians as though they were occupying traditional female roles. The media did this by concentrating on their personal lives. The stories that did this did not give the women the chance to use their voices to explain their views on policy and issues, views that were important in getting political support.

News media plays an integral role for campaigners. A 2010 study by the Pew Research Center showed that network evening news is still an important source of news for a huge number of Americans, even though more and more people are turning to the internet for their news. This example shows that it is an important factor for campaigners who are being portrayed and viewers who are soaking up the information.

Photo captured by Katie Elizabeth [Flickr]

While Clinton wanted to create an image of a non-traditional female knocking down barriers, the media presented her in a very different way. “Indeed the representations showed her as innovative, but in a pushy and aggressive way. These are two qualities often used when negatively describing successful women.” Furthermore, the news media constantly presented Clinton in gendered settings frequently in terms of relationships and family, also consistent with earlier portrayals of successful women.

 Furthermore, the news media constantly presented Clinton in gendered settings frequently in terms of relationships and family, also consistent with earlier portrayals of successful women.

Clinton’s Time as First Lady

Photo captured by Kate Wellington [Flickr]

Clinton took over an office in the White House, becoming the first First Lady to do so. This caused a stir, especially after she was appointed to chair a task force on health care reform. During the Lewinsky investigation, when her husband Bill was involved in a scandal about an affair with a White House intern, she was presented as a victim by the media. However, she was also shown as an innovator due to her blunt acceptance of the situation when she publicly stood by her husband and their marriage.

Fifty percent of the themes analysed in the ‘A Grounded Theory Analysis’ study contained the ‘voiceless’ category. As Clinton became the First Lady, all the major networks broadcasted a story about her, but none of them had an interview with her. The same happened after she became the head of the health care policy task force, but a 2 minute interview was held about her. Although the stories are positive, when it comes down to it, Clinton is voiceless. When Clinton was allowed to speak, it was in negative stories and gendered roles. When she spoke, it was to address her marriage and relationship issues.

Photo captured by 4Neus [Flickr]

The 2008 Presidential Campaign

Once Clinton began her presidential campaign, the media continued with the innovativeness theme but supplemented it by focusing on gender in the 2008 presidential primaries, with four out of the fifteen stories in the study on the campaign mainly focusing on the fact that she is a woman.

She was questioned by a voter in New Hampshire about her ability ‘to do it all’, a question not asked of the men, and the networks reported that she had ‘an emotional moment’.  Even fellow Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards questioned Clinton’s ability to be ‘tough enough’ to be president. The network CBS used a graphic with the text ‘moved to tears’ in its story. This appeared at the beginning of the story and was actually pulled from a sound clip of a voter who was describing how Barack Obama had moved her to joyful tears the previous day. “Thus, the innovator that Clinton was in her excellent showing in the primary was gendered to a weakness.”

Photo captured by Tony Fischer [Flickr]

There were several visuals of Clinton waving and smiling amongst a horde of voters with confetti raining down on her, and although the pictures were positive and victorious, the commentary that went with them questioned Clinton’s voter base. There is evidence that journalists clipped pieces from unrelated interviews so they could portray Clinton in a certain way, for instance an audio clip was taken of her saying to an entertainment reporter that in her spare time she liked to clean closets. “By including this from an unrelated interview, the reporter emphasized Clinton’s femininity which in turn emphasized that Clinton’s softness was a trait viewed as unsuitable to withstand the strain of public office”.

Her innovativeness, although obviously positive, was overshadowed by traditional views of women and it painted a picture of her as being a traditional female stereotype who takes pleasure out of cleaning.

At the end of the campaign, Clinton had been criticised for not yielding the Democratic Party election to Barack Obama once it became apparent that she was not going to get enough votes to win the election. Political Director of The Huffington Post, Hillary Rosen, questioned why people were not admiring her. She said, “We should be applauding the woman who came in such a close second and instead we’re talking about, ‘what is she doing and why is she doing this?’’’. The original criticism could easily paint a picture in people’s minds of a selfish woman who doesn’t belong in politics.

Photo captured by Ian Ransley [Flickr]

Her voice on policies, issues, and her own experiences were sometimes silenced through horse race reporting. One hundred percent of the stories looked at during the 2008 presidential primary showed evidence of Horse Race reporting. With time being so precious in broadcast news, journalists usually used this valuable time to give the ‘who’s ahead, who’s behind’ updates, leaving very little time for interviews on policy and issues. This news revolution may have badly hurt Clinton’s campaign. It is a major concern to find out that a positive story about a female breaking through barriers at the top most level of American politics is portrayed as a negative story. It is treated like that in two ways: it is given a negative spin on lots of different stories, and not giving the innovator, in this case Clinton, a voice. “News stories are a result of a complex process of journalistic routines and practices. Journalists and all newsroom gatekeepers should always remember their practices have implications for the stories that are produced, and the stories have implications for the present and the future”. For instance, the stories stating that Clinton cried in New Hampshire, which were false as she did not cry, spread negative stereotypes of females. This was a crucial moment in the campaign and acted as a news hook which acquired the means of creating controversy over a non-traditional candidate. Journalists covering presidential election coverage in the future will need to give candidates a voice; they need to shelf the role of celebrity commentator and let the runners’ opinions on policies and issues be given priority. Also, ignoring the desires of viewers who encourage networks to provide more accurate coverage of candidates has lead to a consistent decrease of viewers and their trust.

In October 2006, Clinton’s New York Senate race opponent, John Spencer, was said to have remarked on how much better Clinton looked now in comparison to the 1970s, and speculated that she had had cosmetic surgery.

Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin: Bullied by the media

Photo captured by Official U.S. Navy Page [Flickr]

Clinton and former-Alaskan governor Sarah Palin were very different in the way they behaved on their campaign trails, with polar opposite ideologies, yet the media hounded them both. This shows that the media did not have a vendetta against one woman just because of her policies, but because of the simple fact that she was a woman. The same can be said of Michelle Obama too, as she received sexist backlash from a number of media outlets during her time campaigning with her husband for the presidency and also afterwards. An example of this is when a staff writer for The Washington Post, Andrea Billups, characterised the tone of a campaign Michelle Obama attended as “as much an oestrogenfest as it was a campaign rally” and she later goes on to say that, “Even Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm got in on the girlie show as they campaigned together in struggling Pontiac, Michigan.” This kind of press is damaging as it paints the picture of two incompetent ‘gal pals’ when both women are very capable and are simply victims of gender biased reporting.

Photo captured by Bruce Tuten [Flickr]

Sarah Palin was also the victim of a media that focused on her gender and many did not take her seriously as a political figure, demonstrated by the following example: “Almost as soon as she’d finished her breakthrough speech at the Republican National Convention, one columnist for the magazine Salon called Palin a ‘dominatrix’ and a ‘pinup queen’, referred to her ‘babaliciousness’ and described her convention address as having been charged with enough sexual energy to give the crowd a ‘collective woody’. Another Salon columnist described Palin as a ‘Christian Stepford wife in a ‘sexy librarian’ costume’ who was, for the most ideological Republicans, a ‘hard-core pornographic centerfold spread’.  This paints the picture of Sarah Palin as a sexual object who is being judged by how she looks rather than what she has to say. It trivialises her and humiliates her, both as a person and as a politician.

In conclusion, female political figures are portrayed in an overwhelmingly negative and shockingly sexist way and that the media mainly focuses on the personal lives of these women more than their political opinions and actions. In this way, the media paints a picture in people’s minds of incapable and unreliable female political figures whose main concerns are looking good and behaving in a passive, almost non-existent manner where they are not in charge of making important decisions. This reinforces already existent stereotypes in people’s minds of men being the better choice for being placed in a responsible, demanding public role, and cements female politicians’ fate to a lifetime of media criticism of their career for sexist reasons.


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