Media Coverage of Palin Hangs on Gender
DEBORAH AMOS, host:
I am Deborah Amos and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Michel Martin is in St. Paul, Minnesota covering the Republican National Convention. Still to come, we'll sample music by a popular hip-hop artist backing Senator John McCain for president. But first, Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential running mate has been in the middle of a media storm since she was first introduced to the nation last week. Her policies and values have been closely examined but as the only female candidate on a major party ticket, her nomination has set-off a lot of comments that - well, you wouldn't hear if she was a man. For example, several news publications and late-night comedians have commented on sexiness, she's a hottie they say and it's all right down to her French pedicure. As governor of Alaska, Palin has a reputation as a reformer but references these days are also about her participation in a beauty contest and her job as a sports announcer. Are these comments fair? Or is this treatment of Sarah Palin just plain sexism? Here to talk about the talks surrounding the Republican's vice-presidential pick are Ellen Moran, executive director of EMILY's List. Janice Crouse, political commentator for the Concerned Women for America - Legislative Action Committee, and Ambassador Swanee Hunt, who is the director of the Women in Policy Program at Harvard. Thank you all for coming.
Ambassador SWANEE HUNT (Director, Women in Policy Program, Harvard): Hi there.
Ms. ELLEN MORAN (Executive Director, EMILY's List): Hi.
Ms. JANICE CROUSE (Political Commentator, Concerned Women for America): Hi.
AMOS: Let's start with you Ambassador Hunt. I want to talk about women leaders in other countries. We have Angela Merkel, she's the chancellor of Germany. We have a leader in Argentina. We have Margaret Thatcher from Britain. They all are household names in their countries. Did the same kind of talk about their clothes, about their hair - did that happen when they were running or is this a particularly American thing?
Ambassador HUNT: It's endemic worldwide. And frankly, it's silly. It feeds into the worst stereotypes about the media and also about the way that men trivialize women.
AMOS: And Ellen, do you agree that that's what it says about America, that we get concerned about a French manicure on a woman's toes who's running for office?
Ms. MORAN: Well, certainly, I mean, we've seen the treatment of the media with women candidates. My work at EMILY's List, we see this all the time. Eventually, of course, we have to get to the real issues to talk about how voters will make up their minds on the basis of the policies and the ideology that the candidate brings.
AMOS: Janice, politics is often about image and we had Joe Biden, the Democrats' pick for vice-president this week, talk about how he felt a little old because he was hanging out with a guy who is thin and young. So it's not out of the question that image is part of politics. But do you think it is different for women candidates than it is for men?
Ms. CROUSE: Well I agree with what has been said before and probably would agree except for Barack. You know, he has brought a kind of freshness very similar to what Sarah Palin has brought. And the people have talked about his fit body, his buff midriff. You know, all of those things ...
AMOS: Yes, a hottie, it seems to be a word that we all use.
Ms. CROUSE: Exactly, you know, pictures of him in a swimsuit, etc. So with this particular election, it seems to me we're doing to Barack what has traditionally been done for female candidates, and part of it I think is our obsession with sexy looks with image and all of that and with youth. I think that too is a real factor as a woman who is getting older and very aware of the fact that, you know, we are a society that really wants to look at beautiful people who are young.
AMOS: I wanted to play you some of the media comments about Sarah Palin and when we listen to this, I want to also ask you if issues get pushed to background when this is the talk to in the media.
Mr. JON STEWART (Host, The Daily Show, Comedy Central): Obviously, the Democratic National Convention was the big news. There was also some breaking news out of Dayton, Ohio today. Well, this morning, Republican presidential candidate John McCain introduced to the world to his third wife.
Mr. BILL MAHER (Host, Real Time with Bill Maher): It's a dangerous world out there, the Democrats don't get that, it's a dangerous war. I, John McCain, am the only one standing between the blood-thirsty al-Qaeda's and you.
(Soundbite of laughing)
Mr. BILL MAHER: But if I die, the stewardess can handle it.
(Soundbite of laughing)
Mr. CRAIG FERGUSON (Host, Late Late Show): Is it just me or do you get a kind of naughty librarian vibe from the governor?
AMOS: Those were clips from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Real Time with Bill Maher, and the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Ambassador, what do you think when you hear those kind of comments on the media?
Ambassador HUNT: You know, the shows that you are talking are ones that are very, very much geared toward making people laugh, OK. And so they move that really over to an edge outside of the mainstream media, but I think that the mainstream media is looking at some other very substantive issues that are not about appearances. You know, Janice, Ellen and I have been advocating for equal opportunities for qualified woman for decades. But that's not what we have here. We have someone without the background, without the knowledge, without the experience in line to be the president of the United States if something happens to McCain. And that is deadly serious. On the one hand, we hate these prejudices. And on the other hand, there's some really important questions about her qualifications and we have to face those.
Ms. CROUSE: Well, I would disagree with Swanee on that point. Her background, her knowledge, and her experience, I think America is going to be very surprised when they hear her speak and when they hear her debate with Joe Biden. I think they'll discover that this woman is far more than a beautiful face and a pleasant personality and lots of charisma. They're going to find that this is a woman who can handle just about anything that life throws at her. She's a cool cucumber under pressure. She's a person who can be one heartbeat away from the presidency. And I think we'll find that you're wrong on that one, Swanee.
Ambassador HUNT: Janice and I never disagreed before.
AMOS: Yeah, right. She was thrown a curve. It was announced this week. And that is that her daughter is pregnant, not married, and there was no pressure in the family at all for her daughter to not have that child. Palin, herself, is a pro-life advocate. She's had a child and she knew that child would be handicapped and had that child, anyway. Ellen, can I ask you, do you think does she have more credibility in her position as pro-life than any male politician could possibly have?
Ms. MORAN: Clearly, she has a compelling story to tell and a compelling experience. But I would say that her background and her stance on reproductive freedom is clearly out of the main for where the electorate is and where, in particular, women voters are. So I think we're still learning a lot about her. She's certainly a new undefined character in this narrative. But ultimately, what we know so far, she is a very far conservative right pick than I think you know, the maverick brand of McCain would have led me to believe.
AMOS: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More. I'm Deborah Amos and we're talking with Ambassador Swanee Hunt, Ellen Moran, and Janice Crouse about perceptions of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Ambassador Hunt, do you think that we are changing the debate a bit and certainly changing the image that now we have two images? We have Hillary Clinton, the pant-suited candidate, and we have Sarah Palin, who presents herself in a very different way.
Ambassador HUNT: I am thrilled that we have women coming up in the major leadership positions on the right side. This is a dream for me. And we are really breaking through this idea that a woman can't do it. But I really do go back to the question of whether or not simply having Sarah Palin who - I apologize to this, but she seems to me like decoration. And I'm so tired of men using women as decoration.
AMOS: Ellen, can I ask you? Do you think that Sarah Palin brings more votes to McCain because she's a woman or because she's a conservative?
Ms. MORAN: Well, I think he clearly is trying to do two things and I'm not sure which he'll achieve in greater measure. I think he's clearly playing to the right, her bona fides on a lot of the issues that the far right conservatives, on guns, on reproductive freedoms, on early childhood education, on many of these things. She really represents the far right. And then there does seem to be of play by her own speech. When she adjoined him on Friday, seems to be making a play for women who may have supported Senator Clinton. I think once you look under the hood, on the issues, on the merits of this, he may gain some traction with the far right conservative part of his party. I don't think he gets any traction with swing voters and certainly not with people who supported Hillary Clinton. They're going to disagree.
AMOS: Janice, I feel you are going to disagree..
Ms. CROUSE: I'm not sure on the point of about whether she will get Hillary voters. I think there are a body of women who really were so disappointed that Hillary was not chosen at as the VP for Obama, that they might vote for the McCain-Palin ticket. But I don't think there's any question that she was chosen for policy positions, as Ellen pointed out. She is a tremendous hit with the social conservatives, with the pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-family people. I mean, the mood has just been absolutely ecstatic. McCain won big with the selection because her policy positions balance out his foreign policy experience. What she does is bring to the table, strong domestic policy. And as for a thin resume, you know, he'd rather have a resume of hers, which is far more impressive than Senator Obama's for VP than his very thin resume for the president.
AMOS: May I ask you a question though, Janice. For people who are social conservatives, these values are very strongly held. Sarah Palin's positions on two important issues are very different than John McCain's. One is global warming, where she has said that she's not sure that it is a man-made problem and Senator McCain has been very tough on wanting to address global warming. He does believe on the science of global warming, wants to implement policies on global warming. And on abortion, her position is no abortion for the health of the mother and the case of rape or incest. John McCain disagrees. As a vice president, does she not have to move in his direction on those two very crucial policies, and that becomes a problem for social conservatives?
Ms. CROUSE: Not necessarily. I think that in terms of global warming, I think she gives him an excuse to move further into that position and...
AMOS: But so far, he hasn't wanted an excuse to move into that position.
Ms. CROUSE: Well, we'll see about that. You know, I think that remains to be seen. I think in terms of his moving to her as a candidate, I think the overwhelming reason is her bringing in the social conservatives because she strengthens him in that area. Although he has a strong pro-life record, he has not brought enthusiasm from the social conservatives and she very definitely brings that aspect to ticket.
AMOS: Let me ask each one of you now very quickly. What do you say - or what's your advice to people who are watching this election and see what some would consider sexist comments about a woman who's running in the race? What do you tell them to look beyond? Let's start with you, Janice.
Ms. CROUSE: Well I think they have to look beyond the kind of humor that was mentioned earlier. I mean, any candidate is going to get that. And if it's not how they look in the image and their femininity, it's going to be something else. So I think you have to just disregard all of that. In terms of the mainstream media, the cable shows and all of that, I think we have to handle ourselves as women in a very professional way. And I'm pleased that I believe Sarah Palin will do that. She's a (unintelligible) professional and she will handle herself with dignity that in turn will require those who cover her to handle her with dignity. And that's one of the things that I think Hillary and she has brought to this particular election season, and certainly Geraldine Ferraro did that as well. So I think all three of them have brought that dimension to the whole process and that pleases me immensely.
Ms. MORAN: Well, I also am loathe to countenance sexism in any form. And certainly, I would advise people who are tuning in to this presidential election as a newcomer or just starting to pay attention to indeed, look at the issues, look at the struggles in their daily lives, look at what it is that we are all facing as a country here and start to look at the candidates and make their decision accordingly. I happen to think that that will lead women in this country to support an Obama-Biden ticket. And that is on the merits and on the issues and on the backgrounds of these candidates.
AMOS: And Ambassador Hunt, what do you tell people when they see those kinds of comments?
Ambassador HUNT: I say hurray that women are being considered as candidates and now, let's look at the knowledge base and at the judgment base. And I would tell people to watch very, very carefully this issue of whether or not she pressured the commissioner of Public Safety to fire her brother-in-law, who was locked in this intense custody battle with his sister because those judgments are the ones that get repeated a hundred times a day when you're in this high-level position. And the judgment question of did she really, really, really work through with her 17-year-old, what it was going to be like to be at the center of the world's attention? My problem is not that she has a daughter who had fallen into this tragic situation. But did they really prepare, judgment wise, of what that was going to mean to that girl? Take that and then amplify it on to a world stage and say is the judgment there?
AMOS: Ambassador Swanee Hunt of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard joined us on the phone from Colorado, Ellen Moran, the executive director EMILY's List and Janice Crouse, political commentator for the Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee. She joined us in our Washington studios. Thanks all of you very much.
Ambassador HUNT: You're welcome.
Ms. MORAN: Thanks for having me.
Ms. CROUSE: Thank you.
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