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Heidi Stevens: No more 'Bachelor' analogies and other hopes for the media's Kamala Harris coverage

Heidi Stevens, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Op Eds

If Joe Biden beats Donald Trump in November, Kamala Harris will be America's first female, first Black and first South Asian American vice president.

"This is one step in a much larger fight for representation towards the multiracial democracy women of color have dreamed of, fought for and bled for, for generations," Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, said in a statement, minutes after Biden's team announced the selection Tuesday.

"As proud supporters of her previous races and of her work in office, we know that Kamala Harris is the perfect choice to win the race and help this country build back better," Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily's List, said in a similarly timed statement.

"Harris' positions, accomplishments, and years of service will make her an effective leader of the United States," Shaunna Thomas, executive director of UltraViolet Action, said in another celebratory statement. "And electing a multiracial Black woman as vice president would register as a powerful repudiation of Trump and the toxic sexism pulsing through American society that he manifests."

Amen.

But first, Harris will have to slog through the toxic sexism pulsing through American political coverage.

Last Friday, the LA Times ran an opinion piece headlined, "It's 'The Bachelor: Campaign Trail.' Which of Biden's veep candidates deserves the rose?"

"I'm not saying it's exactly 'The Bachelor: Campaign Trail,'" Virginia Heffernan wrote, "but it's a little weird to watch an old man set out to choose a younger woman to take to the ultimate fantasy suite, the White House."

The headline was later changed to "Biden's VP search isn't exactly 'The Bachelor' -- but it's generating some strange optics," presumably after the original headline caught enough flak. Still, the entire notion is a stomach-churning brew of retrograde cliches that conflates a group of highly accomplished women (a former United Nations ambassador, a former California attorney general, a United States senator/combat veteran, and a mayor, among them) with a wine-and-drama-soaked reality show cast, while reducing the second highest office in the land to marriage, an institution we're apparently more comfortable watching women inhabit.

It doesn't have to be this way. And a dozen women leaders wrote a letter last week offering guidance on how to do better.

It's titled "We have her back" and signed by Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women's Law Center, Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, and former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, among others. It's addressed to news division heads, bureau chiefs, editors, producers, reporters and anchors.

"Given how few women have reached this point, the sometimes disappointing coverage of the process to date and the double standards we've seen in the public and media expectations of women leaders over the years -- and even more so for Black and Brown women leaders -- we wanted to respectfully share some thoughts with you about the media's role in the scrutiny and coverage of women and women of color candidates in general, and the vice presidential candidate in particular," they write.

Now is the time to improve, they argue.

"Our country -- and your newsrooms -- have learned a lot since the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests for racial equality that his death spurred. For the first time in too many years, there was a national conversation about what real systemic racism means and how it insidiously creeps into stereotypes and tropes that are common in our everyday lives," they write. "We are calling on you to do this same with this next historic moment."

Biased media coverage, they contend, has contributed to the lack of diversity in the country's positions of power. A few of the problems they cite:

 

"Reporting on whether a woman is liked -- a subjective metric at best -- as though it is news, when the 'likeability' of men is never considered a legitimate news story."

"Reporting, even as asides in a story, on a woman's looks, weight, tone of voice, attractiveness and hair ... unless the same analysis is applied to every candidate."

"Reporting on doubts women may not be qualified leaders even when they have experience equal to or exceeding male leaders."

"We are certain that if you pursue thoughtful conversation internally, you will find even more examples of how these stereotypes can seep into coverage, and thereby seep into the public consciousness as voters are seeking to understand those seeking office," they write.

It's a good letter. It provides a gut-check for those of us who work in the media, and context for those who consume and share it.

I like the selection of Harris. As I wrote in an earlier column, I was hoping Biden would choose a woman of color from his list of highly qualified candidates. You can call that identity politics, and maybe it is, but your identity gives you a lens and a set of experiences that you bring with you when you get a seat at the table. And we need that lens and those experiences to reflect what it's like to live and breathe in this country in skin that's not white, especially now.

And now it's go time -- for media outlets to provide as much history and context and information as possible about Harris' vision for the nation, and for voters to digest it before heading to the polls to choose their next president.

And to leave the "Bachelor" analogies and other sexist nonsense in the past.

About The Writer

Heidi Stevens writes the daily "Balancing Act" column for the Chicago Tribune.

(c)2020 Chicago Tribune

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

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