BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On The Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. O-M-G time so flies. As of Friday only 627 days remain until the 2020 presidential election, which means reporters editors anchors and pundits are running out of time to speculate, trivialize and marginalize. To be baited by irrelevancy and to otherwise miss the forest for the clicks. But they've already got a head start with at least a half dozen women in the running for the Democratic nomination. The media ether already abounds with nonsensical tropes.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Bernie is everything Warren is but better. He is more energizing, more unifying, certainly more authentic.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Gillibrand is very politically ambitious, that's fine. She's not without a doubt going to run for president.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The question really is not can--not can a female win for president but can a female beat Trump. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Scholars have long since established measurable biases and double standards in the perception of women holding and seeking power. But now in the #MeToo age and in the wake of the midterm elections surge of women into the House of Representatives, the news media have a chance to choose new habits over old ones. And so we bring you this Breaking News Consumer's Handbook: Gender and Politics Edition. First on the list, the flawed and fraught metric of likability.
LILI LOOFBOUROW: The model of political leadership, for a long time, has been, 'do you want to have a beer with this presidential candidate?' And that's a strange standard and one that probably ought to be interrogated. But it's also one that's not very available to high achieving women, who for a variety of reasons, don't fit into that easygoing image in large part because it's not available to them. And so because Hillary Clinton, I think, has been the main instance of what female political leadership could hypothetically look like in the United States, the fixation on her inability to fit into that paradigm of having a beer with the bros has sort of filtered into our concept of what a presidential candidate ought to be and can never be if she's female.
BOB GARFIELD: And yet here is the first question that US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was asked as a presidential candidate.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: I think a lot of people see you as pretty likable. How much of a selling point, like an Amy Klobuchar, a Kirsten Gillibrand, that maybe the country wants someone like that now. [END CLIP]
LILI LOOFBOUROW: I think that actually invites the candidate to speculate in kind of a meta way about her own personality which just instantly renders a person unlikable.
BOB GARFIELD: It's a trap.
LILI LOOFBOUROW: Yeah, it is a trap.
BOB GARFIELD: Now almost by definition, candidates for public office, as a group, are ambitious and self-absorbed, sometimes to a pathological degree, But when a woman displays these traits she somehow is Lady Macbeth.
LILI LOOFBOUROW: Yeah, she certainly is. And if she's not, that's in some ways even more suspicious because it means that she's successfully masking it. I think Clinton kind of had it coming from both sides. She was both seen as conniving, calculating, secretive and manipulative. But Also when there was nothing that could be said about, for example abusing her staff, that too could be read as well. You know, she knew that she had to keep up the veneer even in private contexts. You know, in other words there is no way for female ambition I think to be read as straightforward honest and healthy.
BOB GARFIELD: Now I almost hesitate to belabor the obvious, but there is also wardrobe fixation. Even if that's unusually blatant, the phenomenon of, you know, 'what does she look like? How Is she dressed?' It is always the elephant in the room.
LILI LOOFBOUROW: I think what's very interesting about this moment and it gives me a lot of hope is that the midterm elections have produced this unprecedented abundance of women in the House expanding our visual sense of what female leadership can look like and what the intersection between vanity, image and political effectiveness can be.
BOB GARFIELD: Nonetheless, you still believe the culture is rigged against women. You've said that even popularity can redound against perceptions of seriousness. You talk about fandom and the double edged sword that that represents.
LILI LOOFBOUROW: We have so little practice relating to female political leaders that it sometimes slips over into the language of fandom, which I think is dangerous. Fandom is functionally, I think, diminishing to someone's perceived political seriousness. I will say that Ocasio-Cortez has been threading that needle in ways I find completely fascinating. She is young enough to have grown up being entirely fluent in the language of self-conscious, self presentation that older candidates sometimes falter at. She's managed to articulate a vision of female political leadership that is actually fun. She might be the female candidate that people do want to have a beer with, she's made that thinkable.
BOB GARFIELD: There was an episode where someone dug up the college YouTube video that they did dancing on a rooftop. It was treated, in the right wing media, as scandalous. She certainly flipped that to her advantage because people thought it was charming. There was a much more toxic example of using a woman's past against her that came with Kamala Harris.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: For those of you who aren't familiar with our friend Kamala let me give you just a little bit of background. She entered the California political scene in the early 90s, she was fresh out of law school and working at the Alameda County District Attorney's Office. Then enters her beau Willie Brown. He was once a speaker of the California State Assembly and mayor of San Francisco. Over the weekend, the former San Fran Mayor admitted to having an extramarital affair with young Kamala, pulling her out obscurity and elevating her political career. [END CLIP]
LILI LOOFBOUROW: I think that it's just so clear that everyone who basically makes it up the ladder in politics has been helped in deeply inappropriate ways that I'm not sure that gendered smear is really taking root, which I was interested to observe. I don't know if you agree with that, but that was my sense.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, I think maybe there is reason for hope. But in the meantime, can we just look at the Amy Klobuchar situation? Evidently, she's a terrible boss. There's a lot of testimony that effect–berates employees, throws things, manages by humiliation and so forth.
AMY KLOBUCHAR: I am tough. I push people, that is true. But my point is that I have high expectations for myself, I have high expectations for the people that work for me and I have high expectations for this country. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Now temperament is and always has been fair game to evaluate candidates. Is this out of proportion to the way men are who fly off the handle?
LILI LOOFBOUROW: I think that there is a real danger in calling any criticism of a female candidate sexist, not just because that's unfair and inappropriate but because you also kneecapped that candidate by making her seem fragile. To the extent that labor matters and that the rights of labor matter and that Democrats and those on the left prioritize human dignity in the workplace, those are pretty disqualifying traits. You know, I think those are entirely fair criticisms. I think, too, that playing into a pretty available stereotype of women as duplicitous, right? I mean, Klobuchar's reputation was as being very Minnesota nice. I mean and, you know, in the Kavanaugh hearing certainly she was a figure of apparent equanimity. So it's distressing, right, to find confirmation of something that I think is very easily attributed to other women. But if it's real, it's real. You know, I don't think there's anything to be gained by pretending that those things aren't true.
BOB GARFIELD: We've been talking about journalistic tropes and, you know, one that certainly characterizes every race is horse race coverage–to ignore policy, to ignore the actual institutions of government and just focus on electability. But even that seems to work to the disadvantage of female candidates. No?
LILI LOOFBOUROW: What I think horse race coverage does is promote a tendency wherein the pundit ventriloquizes the worst aspects of American nature–so sexist, racist, etc. And then taking all of that for granted, speculates on the chances of that voter overcoming all of those biases in order to elect a particular person. So that is always going to make female candidates, minority candidates seem weaker and less electable for the simple reason that we have not historically elected people like that. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, I think, where that has become the dominant mode of American reporting. Electability is the only relevant consideration so it just produces a circle where there ought to be discussion of policy and what American people actually need.
BOB GARFIELD: This conversation is for Breaking News Consumer's Handbook, which is our ongoing checklist of things for the media literate to keep their eyes open for it, to understand that the media doing the reporting are doing them justice. But, you know, it may be actually a dubious premise because it presumes that if journalists were just doing the little bit better, that we would be better able to be making sound informed decisions. But in this case, it really isn't just flawed coverage. These are prejudices and double standards that afflict the entire culture. I wonder if the last checklist item on the consumer's handbook should be, 'physician heal thyself.' You are responsible for what you bring to the table as well.
LILI LOOFBOUROW: We believe ourselves to be rational consumers and rational actors. And I think we all like to think that we're fair minded and weigh the evidence and make decisions accordingly. If cognitive science has shown us anything, it's that we are quite blind, in fact, to our own decision making process and very good at rationalizing our decisions after the fact. But often, we're reconstructing a line of reasoning that isn't actually what led us to that conclusion. And that is hard to confront and it is largely a function of bias, of implicit bias. But it's also the fact that first impressions have just been shown to enormously shape someone's idea of a person or a political issue. New facts don't actually cause us to refute those beliefs very often. It's not just that we're triable, it's not just that partisanship is at an all time high, it's that this is kind of like a flaw in the human brain. You know, the need to collaborate like link up with members of our tribe leads us to frequently overlook evidence that might, in a truly rational system, persuade us of the opposite case. So correcting for that is just an ongoing challenge and I think requires, among other things, realizing the ways that we gravitate towards news coverage that confirms what we want to hear. And specifically, I think horse race coverage that encourages us to think that our side will win.
BOB GARFIELD: Lili, thank you very much.
LILI LOOFBOUROW: My pleasure. Thanks for chatting with me Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Lili Loofbourow is a staff writer at Slate. You can view our Breaking News Consumer's Handbook: Gender and Politics Edition at OnTheMedia.org.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, depictions of the tabloid vixens of the 90s undergoes some overdue revision.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On The Media.