Broadsheet editor's note: One of the distressing trends we've noticed in early coverage of the 2008 election is the framing of the potential contest between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination as a referendum on race and gender in 2006 America. (For previous Broadsheet coverage of this issue, look here and here.) The "is America more racist or more sexist?" angle is problematic not just because it's divisive but because it ignores the prospective candidates' political histories and platforms, substituting historical hot-button issues for sorely needed topical election debate. We were happy to receive a fiery letter on media laziness and the '08 election from Broadsheet reader Kathleen Langan; in fact, we liked it so much, we're reproducing it here. Thanks to Kathleen for sending in such a splendid rant -- we hope other readers will weigh in on the Clinton-Obama issue in the comments.
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A few weeks ago, as I logged on to America Online, the lead "news" story was whether Americans are more likely to vote for a black presidential candidate or a woman presidential candidate. Naturally, there was an online poll so you could weigh in on whether you're "ready to elect a woman" or "ready to elect a black."
Coverage like this makes it seem like we're expected to respond as though the candidates are completely undifferentiated on the issues. I guess that's only reasonable; the reality is, this is exactly how the mainstream media is setting us up for coverage of the 2008 elections. There will be a complete blackout of discussion of the relative qualifications of Sens. Clinton and Obama, and the spotlight will be on whether we are voting based on our prejudice for or against blacks or women. One more election will go by in which issues are sidelined and news outlets obsess about strategy and "electability." The Washington, D.C., talk-show circuit will feature the usual bobblehead commentators sitting in a circle agreeing with one another about an issue that's entirely tangential, if not downright irrelevant, to the election.
Initially, I thought the poll was just typical foofy coverage by AOL, but I've heard the exact same "news" story on NPR. Again, the radio shows were light on discussion of how the two prospective candidates have handled the offices they've held to date, or how that performance might reflect on their likely actions in higher office. If that's the level of substance we can expect from NPR, what can we expect from CNN, Fox and the rest of the gang?
There have been many serious issues that should have been addressed by the press corps in the past two presidential elections. This time, rather than asking, "Is it time for America to elect a woman or a black president?" (answer: No, you idiot, it's long overdue), why don't we ask, "Is it time for the press to learn how to cover an election? Is it time for the press to acknowledge its dismal performance in 2004 and 2000?" Otherwise, we're likely to have yet another national election in which the mainstream press abdicates its responsibility to present critical coverage of the issues.
Decades after Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a time when a man would be measured not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character, would it be too much to ask the media to cover the candidates' qualifications to, for instance, get us out of this mess in Iraq? Because I really think America is ready to handle it.
While we're at it, let's also call them to the carpet when they refer to Sen. Clinton as "Hillary," unless they're calling other prospective nominees "Barack" and "John."
And let's take a look at Sen. John McCain's voting record, not just his personal story. Let's remember the "Gang of 14" was too spineless to filibuster Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. Let's demand that Sen. McCain commit to uphold the Geneva Conventions and internationally recognized norms on the rights of prisoners. Let's make all the presidential front-runners explain where they stand on presidential signing statements (also known as "promising to uphold the law with your fingers crossed behind your back"). Let's make them all publicly commit to a position on whether waterboarding constitutes acceptable treatment of prisoners, regardless of status, and if so, whether our government is willing to accept the waterboarding of American solders captured by the enemy? Are they comfortable with secret detentions, indefinite and without legal oversight by anyone other than the jailers themselves, and do they support this to such a degree that they are willing to accept our own people being secretly detained by our enemies?
Also, I'd personally like someone to ask Sen. McCain whether he agrees with an observation found in the end of the first "Harry Potter" book and familiar to most small children: "It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but it takes even more courage to stand up to your friends." Without diminishing Sen. McCain's courage in standing up to the enemy, I'd like him to explain whether he failed at the critical moment because he couldn't stand up to his "friends."
The press worked hard to deserve the evisceration delivered by Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner. I'm not surprised they were uncomfortable. I had hoped the members of the press would wake up to the revelation that they themselves hold some very shallow views of the American public. Maybe they believe that if we elect a woman as president, she'll be unable to stand up to macho guys like Osama bin Laden. But you'd have to be blind to world history to believe that -- there's plenty to criticize about world leaders like Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher, but their being weak and effeminate isn't generally on the list of grievances.
Enough. Let's hold their feet to the fire: Any time we see a puff piece on whether we're more sexist than racist, or vice versa, let's demand that the press treat our senators as senators and not pieces of meat.