Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–For women, this political season has been a big improvement over prior years. 

  • An accomplished woman in hot contention for the Democratic presidential nomination;
  • A dynamic female governor as the Republican vice presidential nominee;
  • An African American man at the top of the winning slate supportive of women’s concerns;
  • More women among political correspondents and analysts;
  • Brilliant, illuminating parody courtesy of "Saturday Night Live" comedians Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

All good.

The bad:

  • Media reporting and punditry that can’t seem to get out of second gear when it comes to discussing female candidates and the priorities of women in the electorate.
  • Media employment for women is still in low gear, too. Even with more female journalists and bloggers closely following the campaigns, not nearly enough of their work is on display in the most prominent journalistic venues and Internet sites.

And the ugly:

  • Caustic, callous and downright gross commentary from misogynistic talk radio hosts about female candidates and women in general. They set the bar so low, so often, that some mainstream television news hosts felt comfortable adopting a "lite" version of sexist comments about female candidates and their supporters.
  • Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s talk show "Hardball," made no end of cutting comments about Sen. Hillary Clinton during her run for the Democratic presidential nomination. He compared her to a "strip-teaser saying she’s flattered by the attention," called her an "uppity woman" and said that a strong speech delivered by a woman can "grate on some men when they listen to it, (like) fingers on a blackboard." 

Vicious Talk Show Hosts

But that’s kid stuff compared with what Media Matters for America found. In an analysis released Nov. 13, the media watchdog group confirmed that right-wing talk show hosts are especially vicious toward women.

Chris Baker, host of a morning drive show on Minneapolis’ KTLK-FM, called Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin a "smoking-hot chick" who "shoulda had a little cleavage going" when she gave her acceptance speech at the convention.

Discussing John McCain’s acceptance speech, Baker called the Code Pink protesters who briefly interrupted the address "another bunch that ought to have all their tubes tied. All right? I can’t stand these Code Pink broads."

Lee Rodgers, whose morning drive-time talk program airs on San Francisco’s KSFO-AM, said, "You look at many–perhaps most–of the women who are professed leaders of the feminist movement in this country and they’re a bunch of hags . . . They couldn’t get laid in a men’s prison, let’s be honest about it." He also ascribed Democrats’ appeal to women this way: "A lot of women in this country who get knocked up and they don’t have a husband. In effect, the government becomes Daddy in terms of paying the bills . . . that accounts for a large part of that vote."

Cincinnati-based talk show host Bill Cunningham made almost the identical remark on his show less than two weeks later.

I won’t repeat more of these contemptible comments here. You get the picture.

Attacks That Go Unchallenged

What is appalling is how these attacks go largely unchallenged, even by people who should know better.

Cunningham was recruited to warm up the crowd at a McCain rally, urging the crowd to reject "Barack Hussein Obama," repeating the now president-elect’s full name over and over to imply that McCain’s opponent wasn’t an authentic American. McCain later apologized for the incident. But Cunningham’s prominence signalled the McCain campaign’s accommodation–at least–of his broadly repugnant views.

As long as these loudmouths have an audience, executives at radio stations and broadcast groups that syndicate these shows won’t rein in repulsive rhetoric, and the sewage will keep spilling over into other media. Case in point: MSNBC’s David Shuster’s comment about the Clinton campaign: "Doesn’t it seem like Chelsea’s sort of being pimped out in some weird sort of way?"

CNN led the election coverage pack in terms of the diversity of its news team and analysts. Campbell Brown ably steered discussion during prime-time and wound up with her own show. She came down on the McCain campaign for limiting Palin’s interaction with the press, calling it a sexist decision.

Along with Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer, Brown led lively discussions with reporters Gloria Borger and Soledad O’Brien and a team of analysts that included Donna Brazile, Hilary Rosen, Amy Holmes and Leslie Sanchez. Reporting from the campaigns and the field were Dana Bash, Candy Crowley and Suzanne Malveaux. If this wasn’t exactly "girls’ rule," it was still a much stronger representation of female expertise than any other news network has yet produced.

TV Toggling Finds Few Women

But CNN was pretty much alone in that. On Election Night, toggling among TV channels, I noticed it was nearly all guys on MSNBC, with only superb newcomer Rachel Maddow at the analysis table. Over on PBS, although Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff conducted interviews with insiders and observers, the main political analysis was provided, as it usually is, by David Brooks and Mark Shields, anchored by Jim Lehrer. This is a trio I respect but which should have been enlarged with women and minorities for that night especially, and at other points throughout the campaign.

Disheartening is a new analysis from FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) showing that the influential Huffington Post blog, considered friendly to female contributors, advances less than a quarter of them to its prominent main page.

Authored by Jessica Wakeman, a former associate blog editor at the Huffington Post, the report says that during the study period (July 7-Sept. 5, 2008), only 23 percent of the main page bylines belonged to women.

"The Post does seem to be making a conscious effort to include women’s voices; despite the low percentages, the study found at least one female byline on the home page at all times," Wakeman says. "But if there is indeed such an effort, it stops far short of parity . . . Arianna Huffington, appearing 57 times, accounted for more than a fifth of all women’s bylines; 45 of those occupied the most visible top post. Only once, in fact, did a woman other than Arianna Huffington get her byline in the most visible top slot–Post editor-at-large Nora Ephron."

The gender imbalance in top bylines is significant because, according to the blog-tracking Web site Technorati, Huffington Post is the single most-linked-to blog as of September 2008; Nielsen Online ranks it the 28th most popular news site in the United States.

Wakeman correctly notes that Huffington Post’s count of female main-page opinion bylines is no improvement over that of mainstream newspapers, weekly newsmagazines and syndicates. This is a disappointment for those of us looking for high-profile Internet news venues to provide prominent exposure to female contributors that daily newspapers and news magazines–and most cable and broadcast networks and talk-radio operations–haven’t.

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 "Texty" Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association, and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World," Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, publishers.