Senator Kamala Harris: I am incredibly honored by this responsibility and I'm ready to get to work. Joe, I'm so proud to stand with you and I do so mindful of all the heroic and ambitious women before me, whose sacrifice, determination, and resilience, makes my presence here today, even possible.
Tanzina Vega: Senator Kamala Harris there, speaking on Wednesday and her first public appearance as the running mate to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden. While it's only been a couple of days since Biden announced his choice for vice president, we're already getting a sense of what media coverage of Harris could look like in the coming months.
Male Speaker 1: Who hit Joe Biden the hardest in the primary, it was Kamala Harris.
Male Speaker 2: The Trump campaign posted a new ad about her minutes after the pick was announced, saying that Harris has a radical left agenda that would include raising taxes.
Tucker Carlson: Harris may be the single most transactional human being in America. There are timeshare salesman you would trust more than Kamala Harris.
Female Speaker 1: A story in the LA times, comparing the VP search to the TV show, The Bachelor.
Female Speaker 2: She's not been afraid to portray herself as ambitious.
Tanzina: Beyond the criticism of Harris's ambition, something that's rarely leveled at male politicians. Her identity is both a Black woman and a woman of Indian descent adds another dimension as well. Mainstream media outlets often struggle to bring the proper degree of nuance into coverage involving race and gender, especially when it comes to politics, but there's also ways of getting coverage right and figuring out how to properly frame reporting on Kamala Harris, and this election cycle is where we're going to start today.
This is The Takeaway I'm Tanzina Vega. Joining me now are Jessica Bennett editor-at-large at the New York Times and S. Mitra Kalita, senior vice president for News, Opinion and Programming at CNN digital and mind former CNN colleague. Mitra, Jessica, welcome to the show.
Jessica Bennett: Thanks you much for having me.
Tanzina: Mitra let's start with you. We're less than three days in, but your assessment, how has the media been doing overall covering Senator Harris?
Mitra Kalita: I'm going to start with the good news which is, I think we're in a place where nuance and overlapping identities are finally coming across in coverage of Kamala Harris. I think this is different from a few moments in history, one notably in 2008 with Barack Obama's election to the presidency. I think this moment, you're seeing someone who is also multi-racial, but from the coverage I've been seeing, you're seeing so much leaning into yes, she's the first Black woman on the ticket in this capacity, but I see the first Indian, I see references to her religion, she's Baptist, but was also raised Hindu.
Asian Americans are saying, "Let us get in there." She's also the first Asian American. When I say I want to start with the positive, I think what you're seeing as a claiming of Kamala Harris as a representation of America, and many, many people are almost asserting their sense of belonging through her candidacy.
Tanzina: Then that's not so positives, Jessica, I'm wondering if we can, I want to start there with this Newsweek op-ed that was criticized for being considered a birther op-ed, really criticizing whether or not Senator Harris is even American. We saw this happening under President Obama. There was also that what was referenced, LA Times piece that compared the Veepstakes, if you will, to The Bachelor, what does that tell us so far, Jessica?
Jessica: I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but it's not been 24 hours and we've seen Trump call Kamala nasty four times. As you said, there've been questions about her birthplace. There's discussion about whether, as a child of immigrants from Jamaica and India, she could truly claim she was Black. Tucker Carlson threw a fit when corrected on how to pronounce her name, which is like the bare minimum respect, as his guests put it.
This is textbook. This is textbook for a woman and for a woman of color. She's angry. She's not nice. She doesn't belong here, but it's also been interesting to see how the sexism and racism has gone from this coded language before the appointment. She was too ambitious. She rubs people the wrong way. These are euphemisms for we don't like her to just blatant, blatant, sexist and racist attacks. I think that what this tells us is as much progress as we have made, there are still associations in this country between whiteness, and masculinity, and power.
Tanzina: Mitra, you recently republished the 2009 India Abroad interview on CNN that was conducted with Senator Harris. I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit about why you found that piece was critical to publish and particularly when it comes to Harris's Indian American identity.
Mitra: Sure. This was announced on the Tuesday afternoon, and right away I just felt like in my community, the Indian community, Harris's rise has been chronicled for more than a decade. When she was in the district attorney's office in San Francisco, my family subscribed to India Abroad and Indian newspapers, and you would see her as this example of an Indian penetrating the mainstream in the early 2000s.
I reached out to a long-time India Abroad correspondent, and there's something bittersweet about this because India Abroad recently shut down amid coronavirus and just publishing woes that are hurting ethnic media. I reached out to him, this stalwart of covering Indian America, and I said, ''What do you make of this?'' He said, ''I'm going to send you an interview from 2009.''
I just thought it was so poignant how she captured, if I could paraphrase, he asked her, ''Do you feel like you're more Black or more Indian? Your identity, how would you describe it?'' She says, ''We need to stop looking at identity through the lens of a looking glass, but think about it as a prism, as a complex creation of many different things.'' I just thought that that just spoke volumes of how, again, in those initial moments of that announcement, there was such euphoria among many different groups saying, ''She's one of our own.'' I thought she was addressing that as early as 2009.
The other thing I would say is that candidates like this arrive on the national scene, and people don't necessarily know their background, but in ethnic communities, we know our people. We know the so-called success stories that our parents are telling us about. Like I said, they're in our newspapers. I just thought there was such power in reminding us from 2009 that again, a community was aware of her as its own.
Tanzina: It's interesting Mitra, because one of the conversations I've been in on social media with other journalists, colleagues, has been about how we define and report on Senator Harris's race and ethnicity. Senator Harris defines herself and identifies as a Black woman, and in a lot of the media coverage, that's how she's been defined. There's a big question about how someone's self-identifies versus what their racial and ethnic identity is to the rest of the world, and whether we should be naming all of those ethnicities and identities. Mitra, how do you see that? As a newsroom head what do you think is the right way to go there?
Mitra: Well, I think that we're having the conversation is a good start, but there's a tendency in, especially mainstream media, to distill people down. As we're going through a racial reckoning in this country, there are questions like, "What are you and where are you from?", that I think there's a growing awareness that those are not the right things to ask somebody right away. Yet, you are seeing reporters ask Kamala Harris, ''How do you identify?'' Which is essentially saying, ''What are you?''
I think she's actually herself gone through a journey on this. Certainly, she identifies as a Black American, she attended Howard University. She was in a Black sorority, which is a really important part of her identity, but I don't think that she's suppressed the Indian side, right? I think that's important that you can be both. I think in more recent interviews, it seems like she's quipping back, and getting a little feisty on it, and when someone says, ''What are you?'' She'll say, ''I'm American,'' as an assertion. Again, don't forget that her entire being on the ticket, the only woman, a person of color is a counter narrative to Donald Trump, which is what the Democrats really need to lean into.
Then the other piece of it is that in mainstream media, our headlines don't allow for us to necessarily embrace the complexity and nuance of the many overlapping identities somebody might be bringing with them to the table.
Tanzina: That's one thing I want to bring up with Jessica because I feel like, Jessica, can you remind us how Senator Harris and her presidential candidacy work were framed before this announcement? Were there certain words or phrases like to Mitra's point, the 2009 interview with India Abroad was one where she's very clear about having this multi-ethnic, multiracial identity, but how has the press been doing before this big announcement? Were there certain phrases and words that journalists were invoking?
Jessica: It's interesting because I think we've started being attention more now, but I think that a lot of this has become more overt, because during the primary, we saw a lot of these phrases used to describe many of the women. There was the whole electability question, this incessant question of who could actually win. Which research has shown, the more you in fact talk about it, the more it might actually reinforce the bias.
There are times when I actually asked myself, by continuing to talk about these issues and cover them, are we in fact contributing to the problem by highlighting the problem? Are we contributing to it? I think that we have developed a much more complex understanding of who she is. I think that we have started to pay more attention to the way that we frame things in headlines. You saw when the announcement was made, a lot of outlets, I can't even remember if The Times was one of these, but referred to her as the first Black woman and didn't note her Indian heritage.
That was quickly corrected. I saw a lot of corrections going up on Instagram related to that. We're trying to sort of fit this complexity into these short headlines in a world where many people are not reading beyond the 280-character, 140-character tweet. I think it's really on us as media to think really hard about how we are framing things.
Tanzina: Again, those headlines, as you mentioned, Jessica, are things that people are barely reading, and retweeting, and passing on, and I feel like the speed with which we're sharing information now, there's a lot of this nuance that can get lost in that.
Jessica: Absolutely. I think you mentioned this with regard to the LA Times headline about The Bachelor, so comparing the race to The Bachelor. If you actually click to read that article, it was a good piece. It was a much more complex and nuanced piece, but nobody really got there. They screenshotted of the headline, it got shared, it sent a message about what this article is going to be and nobody bothered to read it.
Tanzina: Jessica, you recently wrote about female ambition, that crazy word in politics and how we talk about that. We heard Senator Harris at the top embrace the term in her speech yesterday, but it has remnants of sort of that idea of likability. You have to be nice. You have to be likable. You can't be too ambitious, but to be vice president, to be president, you have to be ambitious. How does that factor into the coverage here?
Jessica: I think there's a few things happening. This idea of ambition, this is not a new one. We heard this in 2008, we heard it in 2016 with Hillary Clinton. We heard it in the primaries over and over again and it's something that you're seeing now, rewritten and reclaimed and put on t-shirts. Women are now wearing tee shirts that say, I Am Ambitious. There's this attempt at reclaiming it, but the general idea is that when a woman seeks power, we tend to like her less. Loads upon loads of research have shown this, and her likability erodes the higher she rises.
By saying that someone is too ambitious is essentially saying, is she likable? Is she actually unlikable and should we not have her in power? It's a covert way of undermining and belittling the person of whom we speak, and this is something that has occurred all throughout history. It's like the nice way of being sexist about it, as opposed to just the blatant way of just calling her a nasty woman as Trump has done. I think the reality is what we are seeing is a calling out of the behavior.
A number of women's groups have now banded together under the hashtag WeHaveHerBack to start calling out this language. I think we are seeing a lot more women reporters and people of color who are covering these campaigns, who are noticing this type of language, and I think that there's a better understanding these days that actually language does matter. It does have an impact and we know that even things like calling somebody shrill, which we saw a lot with Hillary Clinton in 2016, and of course, in 2008, can actually impact the way that voters see a candidate and whether they want to vote for them.
Tanzina: Mitra, one of the big failings, if you will, of the media in 2016, around the election season, writ large, was that there was a sense that the media was just unprepared to handle a president like President Trump with very overt racial and gender dog whistles. That they just didn't get it right, because they were so focused on creating a false equivalence between A and B, and presenting this sort of objectivity, if you will.
I'm wondering, CNN is one of the biggest. I've worked there. It's one of the biggest news outlets in the world. As this newsroom is developing, what are the conversations that are happening that reporters have to keep in mind so that they don't make the same mistakes in their coverage as they did in 2016?
Mitra: I think it's an ongoing conversation, the lessons from 2016, as it relates to coverage, as we've been talking about, of women of identity, but also of issues and polls. This is an ongoing conversation. What I welcome about this time around is those same headlines that we were just speaking of, there's much more of a commitment to call out and to truth squad and to really lead with fact. I think just distilling a lot of this rhetoric to what is the essence of the fact, and how can we get that across to users, because to your point, they might just read the headline. I think that we've just gotten to a much better place on that. I would say the media writ large.
The other piece I think is getting a little bit of what Jessica's saying of, is there a danger of covering identity and our preponderance with someone's background and does that actually tune out your audience? I would actually say Kamala Harris, even in the primaries, was an early example of steering it back around to policy. If you'll remember, she spoke about Medicare for all. Healthcare became a big conversation in that very crowded arena.
I think another way to frame coverage is actually to lean into policy. I'm starting to see that, right? On where Kamala Harris is left of Joe Biden, where they stand on these issues. I think that's way to separate the noise and some of the potential lessons from 2016, so that the outcomes might just have the media highlighting the issues that that really voters care about right now.
Tanzina: Jessica, what are your recommendations for how the press can improve its coverage of this presidential election and stay away from some of the mistakes, particularly when it comes to covering race and gender that we made in 2016?
Jessica: I think for one, there's this difficult balance that we need to strike between acknowledging and potentially amplifying the importance of Senator Harris' firsts, as a woman, as a Black woman, as a woman of Indian descent and not diminishing her value. This applies to any female politician, by constantly, including the qualifier, female politician, Black woman politician. She is a politician like all of the other politicians, and she has earned her right to be there.
That's one thing, but I think there are ways we can think about our coverage from the way that we frame headlines, and trying to make sure that the nuance is there. Thinking about headlines as something that a person may see entirely separate from the rest of the story, and that might be the only thing they read and making sure that it applies, but also things like sources. Who are we quoting in these articles? Are these all largely white men discussing the first of politicians who are people of color or women? We need to diversify our source list.
It's thinking about things like visuals, what are the photos or the visuals that we're using as we present these stories? A lot of it is these things that you almost don't notice as you're putting it together a story, but seep in and really tell the reader something about how we perceive people in power.
Tanzina: Jessica Bennett is the editor-at-large at the New York Times and S. Mitra Kalita is senior vice president for News, Opinion and Programming at CNN Digital. She's also the author of Suburban Sahibs: Three Immigrant Families and Their Passage from India to America. Mitra, Jessica, thanks so much for being with me.
Mitra: Thank you.
Jessica: Thank you.
Tanzina: We've been hearing from so many of you about former Vice President Joe Biden's choice of Senator Kamala Harris as his vice presidential pick. Here's some more of what you had to say.
Candice: Candice from the Cleveland area, Elyria, Ohio. My reaction to the Kamala Harris nomination for vice president is utter and sheer joy and excitement. I now feel like Democrats have a possibility of winning this election with her in the frontlines. The number one reason is because I watched all of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, and she was the only one who stood up to him, would not let him walk all over her, or talk over her, or pause and take up her time. She always does not let Republicans walk all over her. She has a response for everything, and she is strong and stable. I am so excited.
Alex: My name is Alex. I'm in Dallas, Texas. As a person of color, I'm kind of disappointed in Kamala Harris being picked as a VP pick. There's many other Black women that would have been much better suited for that role. In particular, I don't think anybody focuses enough on how we're seeing a pattern where you could run for Senate, get the Senate, and not full out your term. I think that's a disservice really to your state. I think Ted Cruz did it, too. Kamala Harris is doing it, too. I think it's kind of a cheap trick that we are actually reinforcing by this pick.
Lucy Flores: This is Lucy Flores calling from Los Angeles, California and my response to the question about how I'm feeling about Kamala Harris as the vice presidential nominee is that it's very clear from the top Democrats that they are sending a message that their values and their strategy doesn't include expanding the Progressive Left. For the sake of this country, I think we all need to pray that enough of the Moderate Middle gets excited about this.
Chris: Chris from Quilcene, Washington on the Olympic Peninsula. I originally was not a big fan of Kamala Harris after she got in Joe Biden's face during one of the debates, but I think the Biden campaign has put a great deal of research, and thought, and consideration for the best interest of our country. I trust their judgment to pick the best candidate for the job, so I will definitely support Kamala Harris.
Tanzina: Thanks as always for sharing, and keep those thoughts coming. If you're planning to vote for Joe Biden, what will you be looking for from Kamala Harris? If you're planning to vote for President Trump, how do you think Kamala Harris affects the ticket? Tell us where you fall on the political spectrum and what you make of this moment. We want to hear it.
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