The Mailbag: Hillary Clinton and a Sexist Double-Standard

Posted by Michael Getler on

This is sort of a wrap-up ombudsman’s mailbag after last week’s Democratic National Convention. During the course of both the DNC and earlier RNC gatherings, hundreds of viewer emails landed in my inbox raising all sorts of observations. Many of them are in two mailbags posted in this space on July 26 and 29 that dealt mostly with the issue of how coverage was divided between speakers at the podium and speakers in the press booth above the convention floor, which seemed to be an important theme to many of those who wrote.

This mailbag is meant to deal with, or at least lay out, what I, and many other viewers, also felt to be a substantive editorial issue raised in the course of covering the DNC event, in particular. That is whether Hillary Clinton, the first woman to be nominated for the presidency by a major party, is being judged, at least in part, by a basically sexist double-standard in press coverage and commentary.

Donald Trump’s hair and facial coloration have, at times, provided cartoonists and some online commentators with fodder for caricature, but not on television news or current affairs programs or in the mainstream printed press. But Clinton’s “voice,” whether or not she “smiles,” whether she seems to be “lecturing,” whether she “projects” or “connects,” whether people “like her” or “trust her” is a fairly constant component of commentary about her, especially on television.

A representative sampling of letters from those who watched the DNC on the joint NPR/PBS NewsHour presentation July 25-28 follows. But before we get to them I’ll offer a couple of observations.

Some Thoughts

First, as I’ve mentioned in earlier columns, PBS is to be commended for providing gavel-to-gavel coverage of both entire conventions, more than any other broadcast (non-cable) network. That is an excellent public service.

Second, the issue of whether coverage of Clinton has sexist overtones is one that critics would suggest, correctly in my view, shows up on many networks and many platforms. So this is not a NewsHour or NPR issue but a broader news business and fairness issue. But the people who write to me write about the NewsHour so that is what I have available to display in order to surface the question and to let their feelings be known and placed on the record.

Third, this is not about Hillary Clinton. To be sure, the former First Lady, Senator from New York and Secretary of State has a long record, including many controversies and many actions and policy positions she has been criticized for—including her enduring failure to hold a press conference for almost a year. That, of course, is all fair game. Rather this is about whether, because she is a woman, the press treats her and comments about her in ways that they don’t comment about male candidates for the presidency.

Finally, many of the letters that follow are specifically focused on regular, longtime NewsHour analysts and commentators Mark Shields and David Brooks. Commentators are paid to give their views and opinion and so are not normally fodder for an ombudsman. I have written about these two at times but in a general way, not about their opinions. Personally, and as a viewer, I have always valued these two. Brooks is thoughtful and thought-provoking on a wide range of issues beyond politics. Shields is encyclopedic on politics. Both are what I would describe as centrists, one slightly right of center the other slightly left of center. The reason I like that, and have found value in listening to them, is that they both are quite open about, and frequently engage in, criticizing their own party. In the issue being looked at today, however, they are the focus of much of the criticism.

Keep in mind: I can't vouch for the accuracy of all the phrases that some viewers put in quotes. Brooks and Shields are doing what they are supposed to do, giving their analysis. But is it different when the object is Hillary Clinton?

Here Are the Letters

Re: Shields and Brooks. Shame on both of you...determining that Hillary Clinton has no emotional connection. Anyone asking [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel whether her heart is on her sleeve? How about Donald Trump? How's his heart looking? Hillary Clinton is auditioning for perhaps the most important job in the world. She demonstrated her experience, her know-how, her intelligence, and her sense of humor. To reduce her performance to "showing no heart" disrespects her political position and just re-enforces the male/female gender stereotype. It's time to get on the right train, a little personal introspection and at least attempt to understand what legitimizing a female candidate means!

Marianne Werner, Chico, CA

(Ombudsman’s Note: What Brooks said was this: “Below average speech…I don’t know why she can’t project more humanity…she projects one emotional tone throughout and it has a combative manner to it and not a happy warrior manner.”)

~ ~ ~

I believe it is time for journalists to be more aware of repetitive comments, like Hillary is "secretive" or she can't relate to the people. Repetition, as in headlines, makes the ideas more important than they really deserve. Also Mark and David spend too much time criticizing Hillary for not being Michelle (whom I love). But she is who she is. Do we really need a mother to salve our hurts?

Richard Lyders, Peacham, VT

~ ~ ~

I respectfully request that the NewsHour staff and regular commentators cease and desist in their compulsion to focus on Hillary Clinton's "failure to emotionally connect with voters, the public." Analyze her campaign, her positions, her speeches, her consultants – that is what we the voters are doing. As to whether she connects is up to us and our perceptions of her, unfiltered by these reporters. Their behavior during the convention on this point was nauseating.

Mary Gendernalik-Cooper, New Baltimore, MI

~ ~ ~

On the PBS NewsHour for Friday, July 29, 2016, Lisa Desjardins introduced a piece about the presidential election and included a tweet from Donald Trump, reading the tweet in its entirety: "Crooked Hillary mentioned me 22 times in her very long and very boring speech. Many of her comments were lies and fabrications." It is bad enough to have such a statement on air without any fact-checking, but having it read by a highly-regarded news person makes it seem more credible. I do not believe this should happen. I recognize fully that covering an election like this is difficult for all. Nevertheless, standards matter, and reading Mr. Trump's tweet seems to suggest to the viewer that it is accurate. As I understand it, quite the contrary, Mrs. Clinton's speech was fact-checked and found to be mostly correct.

Harrison Eiteljorg, Haverford, PA

Don't Mess With Merkel

I look forward each Friday to hearing Shields' and Brooks' commentary on the week that was, but please suggest to Mark Shields that he stop expecting Hillary Clinton to go warm and fuzzy. That is not who she is, and his insistence on that point feels sexist. Does he think that the German pundits are asking Angela Merkel to open her mushy heart to the populace? I love Mr. Shields' brain, but I struggle with this seeming fixation of his. Bless.

Sioux Falls, SD

~ ~ ~

Re: Brooks and Shields! Hillary Clinton's speech was gutsy and dynamic, full of substance and values to build concrete actions upon...I don't want to hear how Hillary didn't connect with us. She did! Why she didn't with Brooks and Shields is surprising and puzzling? It seems a reflection of the need to pander to Donald Trump in case by some tragic fluke he wins. Were the statements and facts that Hillary Clinton attributed to Trump true? They were. Why don't they and other journalists talk about that! I hope that in the future Brooks and Shields focus on how these candidates have prepared for this job and how they conduct themselves!

St. Louis Park

~ ~ ~

Interesting discussion tonight with Shields & Brooks re Hillary's (and Obama's) inability to relate to average people. Please get Michael Bechsloss on again soon to talk about other (successful) presidents who may not have been fellow beer drinkers but had/implemented big vision.

Chris Rader, Wenatchee, WA

‘Good luck, y’all’

I have been a dedicated viewer of the NewsHour for decades. I used to admire and respect David Brooks, especially. He has good values and principles and writes valuable and socially useful books...Well, now I have come to the end of my patience with him, and Mark Shields. Tonight, these two really smart, well-informed, experienced individuals just sounded like sexist jackasses. All this ridiculous talk about how unemotional Mrs. Clinton is. I heard Brooks on NPR spewing his line about how unemotional she is and we should turn the sound down when we see Mrs. Clinton on TV and just observe her face. Well, I turned his sound off on PBS just now…since when is “emotion” a qualification for the most powerful office on earth?

It's the same with people who need to “like” Mrs. Clinton, as if she were running for high school prom queen. I mean I just cringe at how the national IQ has evidently dropped off the cliff. This woman, this excellent, intelligent, capable citizen is very qualified for the job as President, yet intellectual boof-heads decide to move the goal-posts and require Mrs. Clinton to “also” prove she has emotions…a completely unimportant, inconsequential, non-issue of how Hillary Clinton chooses to express her feelings. Tell me, do you really think the good, smart German people place such a frivolous requirement on Chancellor Angela Merkel? PBS, I am really sorry to see this is part of the problem of sexism in the media. The more I think about this sexist double-standard the more annoyed I get. But this just goes to show that even with two smart, educated, excellent female anchors on the NewsHour we still get ignorant men requiring women to satisfy some strange, obscure criteria of “showing their feelings.” This, of course, is supremely ironic because women's “feelings” have always, for hundreds of years, been used as the excuse and justification for not letting women into the power structure…I don't have to “like” Mrs. Clinton; I don't need her to be my new BFF. I don't need her to “excite” me. I think our collective IQ has taken a real nose-dive with all our social media and psychological addictions to sensationalism and entertainment. I don't expect the President to entertain me, for godsake!

I can't image the founders of the NewsHour being so side-tracked by such frivolous nonsense of a presidential candidate being judged by her “feelings.” So, thanks for reading this and for providing an open space for sounding off. Perhaps others feel the same, maybe not. This is from a Democrat in Texas. Good luck, y'all.

Kate Sydney, San Antonio, TX

~ ~ ~

It was with considerable regret that I listened to David Brooks and Mark Shields sing a song of doom about Hillary Clinton's acceptance speech at the DNC last night. Over and over, they lamented her inability to reveal her inner-self and to form a connection with the large audience. I wondered if these two guys, exhausted from coverage of the Convention, napped through some of Hillary's presentation…I learned a good deal about Hillary Clinton from her speech last night. And I regret the large megaphone PBS afforded B&S last night helping them to cast widely a misleading impression of the Democratic Presidential candidate in 2016.

Robert DeSieno, Saratoga Springs

~ ~ ~

I think your election coverage has been terrible: tonight's comments that HRC isn't friendly enough.

Anne Harvey, McConnellsburg, PA

~ ~ ~

We are lifelong listeners to PBS NewsHour. On July 29, we heard from Shields and Brooks the most illogical and disgusting review of Hillary Clinton's night. It was so bad that Judy had to ask them if they doomed Hillary. What in the world were they thinking claiming that Trump had a better personality and therefore had a lead over Hillary? When is personality so important when Trump says he conspires with the Russians? They are supposed to lead us in a direction not vomiting out psychology about Clinton's personality. We shut off the TV and PBS NewsHour in disgust. Please forward this to them.

Lowell Greenbaum, Augusta, GA

(Ombudsman’s Note: What Woodruff said was: “But it almost sounds like you’re both saying—I don’t want to use the word doomed, but that the cake is baked, and she’s not going to be able to relate and open up.”)

~ ~ ~

I listen to PBS a lot. I listened to David Brooks criticize Hillary Clinton's speech right after she gave it Thursday night. Then he continued again and again on the Friday news. Enough.

Jackie Stiles, Harwich, MA

All the Phrases Fit to Print

The NewsHour is so afraid of being labelled “the liberal press” that it ends up sacrificing what’s important. There’s something called “false equivalency” and you, like the rest of the press, are very guilty of it. You have focused so much on “what people think of Clinton” in the name of “objectivity” that you have barely covered her extraordinary and multitudinous accomplishments. The on air commentary following her strong, indeed presidential, speech was nitpicky and ungenerous. Not one pundit pointed out how forceful and presidential she sounded; only “sober” (and that said in an unflattering way). Anyone not having heard the speech wouldn’t have had a clue how forceful and comprehensive a speech it was.

Karl Goldstein, CA

~ ~ ~

Am dismayed that Brooks and Shields both found HRC's acceptance speech and general demeanor lacking in "ability to connect." Perhaps it is their inability to connect with her. Everyone I've talked had just the opposite reaction…Finally turned you guys off and watched unfiltered coverage.

Mimi Barker, New York, NY

~ ~ ~

Last night during the DNC convention coverage, I was again surprised at the apparent slanted take of the “unbiased, fair” journalism team. Before H. Clinton’s speech, we were lead to expect walk-outs from Bernie supporters. D. Brooks expressed a desire to hear a speech of a certain volume and timber, (nothing that was noted before any other speaker). A. Walters expected recognitions of policies connected to Bernie’s platform.

I listened to a speech delivered by an intelligent, experienced woman delivered with poise and dignity…A. Walters underwhelmingly stated briefly that HRC “checked all of the boxes,” then criticized her for something else, rather than stating that the Bernie issues were addressed with plans to take action on them. D. Brooks said nothing about whether the timber or volume was to his liking. He has consistently wanted more “passion” from Hillary. As a woman of a comparable age, I know that this is very risky. Remember that H. Clinton had been bullied since she was 4? If she showed one tear or choked voice during the speech, she would be ridiculed on FOX news forever for being a “crybaby.” If she showed the slightest bit of anger, the opposition would be targeting menopause, or calling her a “shrew”…Face it – she has a shield and it served her well in the Benghazi hearings when the Republicans spent hours trying to break her. She will continue to use that shield in public. Women have long had to hide their true feelings.

I am just surprised at the unconscious gender bias that PBS has showed. (The NPR reporter seemed more balanced.) Please be aware of this and make the political reporting as fair as possible time and content-wise. Thanks.

J. Erickson, Littleton

~ ~ ~

I am sorry to write to you to complain about the conduct of Judy Woodruff @ the DNC Convention. Woodruff over and over again, when posing a question to attendees at the convention, asked how can Clinton convince voters that she can be trusted. Ms. Woodruff emphasized a negative media bias and reinforced this myth about Secretary Clinton. This just is another example that if you say it often enough people will begin to believe it. This is exactly what has happened to Hillary, throughout her decades of public service, due to the Republican Party and the news outlets that have given the GOP a platform from which to spread its lies.

 Jacquelyn Thompson, Whitehall, OH

Posted on Aug. 2, 2016 at 2:52 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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