Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–Here we are, seemingly at the end of our long, national squabble. Or perhaps we’re just ending one phase and beginning another.

But however things go from here, we can say one thing for certain: The coverage of women’s concerns in this just-ended campaign cycle left major room for improvement.

Issues such as the war on terror and declining financial security were mainly packaged into stories about "security moms" (married white suburban women) and "Sex and the City" women (insulting shorthand for unmarried females who sat out the 2000 election in such large numbers that their absence may have helped Bush muscle his way into the "win" column). These labels pigeonholed women with silly stereotypes yet again.

Throughout his campaign, Bush largely left appeals to women to Laura Bush and other surrogates from the "W Stands for Women" camp, while he presented himself as America’s tough guy.

Less than two weeks before the election, after being introduced with his wife and daughters at a Wilkes-Barre, Pa., rally as "America’s first family," he addressed women directly. Reporters duly reported his promises to protect "your family security, your budget, your quality of life, your retirement and the bedrock values that are so critical to our families and our future." The next day, Kerry parried the president’s Saturday radio address by accusing Bush of ignoring pressures building on working women. His comments were duly reported by wire services and others.

But broader, deeper journalistic analysis of what animates female voters was sporadic at best.

Of course, broad, deep analysis of anything was pretty much AWOL in this campaign.

A week before the election, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, in Washington, D.C., released its study of newspaper articles, broadcast news reports and Internet blogs on the presidential debates.

The study confirmed–no news flash here–that the debates were more about style than substance, with only 8 percent of debate stories addressing the potential impact of the candidates’ positions on the electorate, and fully 80 percent devoted to politics, campaign tactics and the candidates’ performance as television personalities.

A month earlier, Sydney Schanberg (The Village Voice, Sept. 28), lamented "the shrunken attention spans" of mainstream media that lead to all kinds of speculation being vested with authority before being fully checked out. I think he’s right, and that’s how slick and spurious labels–like the "security moms" moniker invented by the Republicans–worked its way into campaign parlance.

Grateful for the Exceptions

Given the avalanche of attention to non-civic issues such as John Edwards’ optimism, Dick Cheney’s gravitas, Laura Bush’s bland pronouncements and any statement by Teresa Heinz Kerry that showed her to be Laura’s total opposite, I’m grateful to the reporters, columnists and cartoonists who cut through the palaver and told us what was on the minds of the majority of the electorate–women–without describing them as if they’re some small special-interest group whose influence they only recently discovered.

Here’s a sampling of stories I found that satisfied.

  • An Agence France-Presse article (Oct. 19) helped pull apart a monolithic "Sex and the City" voting bloc by interviewing Deborah Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, who gave a fact-based interpretation of single women’s voting behavior. "Single women are everything from 18 to 88, white, Afro-American, Latinas. There is not a single message for them or a single issue or a way to mobilize them as a group," Walsh said.

    This AFP story, which ran without a byline, also drew upon data from the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation showing that economic and health issues ranked highest on the agenda of working women, braking some of the spin about "security moms," whose existence as a voting bloc has also been pulled apart by those knowledgeable about female voting patterns.

    (Unfortunately, this information didn’t deter conservative columnist Robert Novak from continuing to hype the concerns of this mythical group, whose members he doesn’t believe are any too bright. In an Oct. 28 column, published shortly after the revelation that 380 tons of explosives appeared to be missing in Iraq, Novak wondered "whether such a complex issue appeals to security moms . . ")

  • A column from Louisville, Kentucky in The Courier-Journal (Oct. 11) by Glen Harold Stassen, an ethicist and statistician at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., documented the rise in abortions during the Bush presidency. Stassen attributed the increase to economic policies that have reduced job opportunity and health care for many women.

  • Evelyn Nieves’ heartbreaking article on job loss in Pennsylvania (The Washington Post, Oct. 13), which graphically described the sharply reduced circumstances in which many newly unemployed workers, especially women, now find themselves. "Get off the war already," Trina Moss, 47, laid off after 25 years with a company that made glass for televisions, told Nieves.

  • Beth Durbin’s article in the Mount Vernon (Ohio) News (Oct. 25), in which she complained about "a strong disconnect between the issues that are most important to the women surveyed and the issues that currently occupy the headlines." Blending comments from women in her community with the survey results, Durbin laid it on the line for the candidates: "They need to keep their word and offer generous solutions to the sagging economy, affordable health insurance, funding education and equal pay between men and women."

  • Gabrielle Crist’s story in the Rocky Mountain News (Oct. 25) profiling the emerging political consciousness of three young, single women; a nice job in which we could watch the light bulb come on in three heads.

There certainly were some others, and to those who wrote them, I’m grateful.

In the months and years ahead, we’re going to need more reporting like this to hold the victor and his team accountable for promises made during this most contentious election. Women, who have so much to lose from unkept promises, need to be especially vigilant. I hope reporters and columnists will be equally so.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing, Inc., which received the 2004 "Texty" Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association, and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World," Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.



For more information:

Project for Excellence in Journalism–
The Debate Effect: How the Press Covered the
Pivotal Period of the 2004 Campaign:

The Village Voice, Sept. 28, 2004 Sydney H. Schanberg–
Bush and the Press in the Age of Chaos: