Media analyst sees racism, sexism in election coverage

Tuesday, October 14, 2008 | 10:57 p.m. CDT; updated 11:13 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Jennifer Pozner, executive director of Women in Media and News, speaks to an MU audience October 14 about the portrayal of gender and race in the media's coverage of the current elections. Pozner showed a news clip of Tim Russert to emphasize her point about gender bias in news coverage.

COLUMBIA — Sarah Palin's hairdo, Barack Obama's middle name and Hillary Clinton's cleavage. All these topics of conversation make up memories of the 2008 presidential election, but how were they planted in Americans' heads in the first place? The answer, according to media critic Jennifer Pozner, is the racist and sexist undertones running through corporate media.

Audible gasps filled Ellis Auditorium at MU on Tuesday night, as Pozner played a clip featuring CNBC talk show host Donny Deutsch saying Palin was a woman he wanted to lie next to in bed and Clinton should have put on a skirt.

Q-&-A with Jennifer Pozner

Q: Why do you say Anchormen in your title of your lecture and not Anchorwomen?

A: I title it “When Anchormen Attack” because the majority of pundits, anchors and news decision makers in corporate media are male, and the majority of people that are responsible for disseminating racist and sexual attacks throughout the election cycle have been men.

Q: Since this election season has brought a minority candidate and two women candidates, how is this election coverage compared with that of previous years?

A: I’ve been writing about sexism in coverage of female politicians, both Democrat and Republican, for 12 years, and it's been going on longer than that. For example, when Geraldine Ferraro was running for the vice president of a major party, Tom Brokaw introduced her as being a size six. That was in 1984. Sexism in female politician coverage is not new; it’s just that people have finally noticed it.

Q: Could members of the media argue that they are simply covering what their viewers want?

A: They can and they do, but they’d be wrong. The big lie is that they are giving us what they want. First of all, the reason I say this is a big lie, is because what we really want is valid information. How many times do people complain that the media is so frivolous?  The job of journalism is not supposed to be to give us what we want. Its supposed to help us function as a democracy.

Q: What specific examples of media coverage of gender and race did you find shocking this election season?

A: I found none of it shocking, because I’ve been moderating this for a long time. But I found a lot of it offensive. When the Washington Post ran a full page story about Hillary Clinton’s cleavage … or when they bring on pundits who say Barack Obama is an insurgent. These are all incredibly offensive and troubling.

Q: Do you think that either campaign has demonstrated the same mentality as the media when it came to sexism or racism?

A: I think that there were definitely some problems coming from the Clinton campaign in terms of playing with racial undertones in their rhetoric, and I think that certainly the McCain campaign has done so in recent days and weeks.

Q: In the end, what effect do you think the coverage of race and gender will have on the outcome of the election?

A: Media coverage has a dramatic impact on how people think. Some people get an idea about a candidate and think that “this is just the way it is.” The information that they are getting is so often inaccurate and that has a major impact across the board.

"A lot of it was offensive," MU junior Tamara Coker said. "I would say the most offensive things were towards gender issues like the Donny Deutsch clip treating Palin as a nutritional fact."

Lecture host Pozner is the founder and director of Women In Media & News, a media reform group. The freelance journalist and media critic has followed coverage of female politicians for more than 12 years, and her expertise has landed her as a commentator on "The Daily Show" and "The O'Reilly Factor." Her lecture series "When Anchormen Attack!" covered sexist narratives concerning politicians Clinton and Palin, racist narratives concerning Democratic candidate Obama and the intersection of sexism and racism in the coverage of Obama's wife, Michelle Obama.

"Media have long considered white men to be natural leaders while women and people of color have long been treated by media like they are outsiders, agitators and not to be trusted," Pozner said in the lecture, hosted by MU's MSA/GPC speaker series. 

Her examples, in forms of video clips and news stories from stations such as CNN, NBC and FOX News, showed news stories about Clinton's cleavage or wrinkles, questions  about whether Obama was black enough and television show hosts calling Palin "sexy."

And she added that when politicians call out mainstream media for skewed coverage, they are often said to be "playing the gender card," or "playing the race card."

"What she was saying is very in line with what I've discussed with my friends about how gender and race are addressed in the media," MU senior Jake Kohut said. "And most of these debates on news shows take place between a bevy of white males, with few female or minority reporters."

The downside for media consumers is partial truth and missed story opportunities, Pozner said.

"When media focus on frivolous gendered details about female politicians, it doesn't only insult those particular women who are running for office, it also shortchanges American voters who deserve serious analysis and critical investigation into all of these issues to help us decide who we should vote for, and who will serve our individual interests most closely," Pozner said.

However, she offers a solution for the media monster: Turn on your critical filter, support non-corporate media, and work to reform media.

"I'm going to think critically and try to see through the media hoopla," Coker said after the event.

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