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Barbershop: How Political Reporters Cover 2020 Female Candidates


We're going to focus on U.S. politics now as the unofficial start of summer, Memorial Day weekend, is when the candidate visits to the fish fries and the bull roast and state fairs really get going. So we thought this would be a good time to take a look at a few presidential candidates who've made news for what they are choosing not to do.

Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren have said they will not participate in town halls presented by Fox News, with Warren saying she wouldn't contribute to the ratings of what she called a hate-for-profit racket. Now, some political reporters and commentators have contrasted them unfavorably with, say, the South Bend mayor, Pete Buttigieg, who did appear on Fox and got a warm reception.

But there has been very little discussion about the merits of their decisions, and that got us thinking more broadly about how the women candidates decisions, not to mention their biographies, are represented by a press corps and, for want of a better term, a pundit class that's still largely white and male, but who are transmitting these decisions to an electorate that's far more diverse. A number of journalists have been writing about this, so we thought we'd take the conversation into the Barbershop, which is, irony noted, a bit of a gendered term. But that's what we call these weekly roundtables where we talk with interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

So joining us this week are Christa Case Bryant. She's a national political reporter for the Christian Science Monitor. She just wrote a big piece about this very subject. She's with us from Boston. Christa, thanks for joining us.


MARTIN: And Christine Rosen is a senior writer at Commentary Magazine, and she's with us from her home in Washington, D.C. Christine, welcome to you. Thank you for joining us.

CHRISTINE ROSEN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And Jess McIntosh is the former director of communications outreach for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign. She is with us from New York. Jess, welcome to you as well. Thanks for joining us.

JESS MCINTOSH: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: So let's start with the candidates' decision. As we mentioned, they have faced criticism. Political commentator Bill Maher told the Democrats to grow a pair and appear on Fox News as a way to appeal to the Fox News audience. The clear implication is that they are weak. But Warren has been campaigning in areas that Trump won and among constituencies where he's popular. She's just saying she's not going to appear on Fox. So, Jess, I'll start with you on this as - because you are the strategist here. What do you make of her decision and that of Kamala Harris to turn this offer down?

MCINTOSH: I mean, I think it's a smart one. Everybody has to make their own decision about whether or not to go on Fox. It commands a huge market share of the audience, so I see wanting to do it. But I think what Elizabeth and Kamala are doing is really important. That doesn't mean you write off red states. That doesn't mean you write off Republican crowds. But Fox News under Trump has become something other than just a conservative media outlet. And I think it's fair to recognize that and question whether they should have a role in who we choose as our nominee.

MARTIN: OK. Christine, what about you? You're a person who writes for conservative media as well as for other outlets. What do you make of her decision - or their decision?

ROSEN: I think it's a mistake, actually. I think it suggests a kind of contempt for a viewer that is wrongheaded and isn't going to help an electorate that's already highly polarized. And look. Let's be honest. Fox News is not Russian state television. It's obviously got a partisan bias. You could make the same argument about certain shows and programs that air on MSNBC, for example. But I think a candidate should go on and should talk to different kinds of voters. And yes, obviously they're they're going to be campaigning in red states.

But there's a real danger about this sort of contempt that I think a lot of politicians - on both sides of the aisle, it should be noted - have been demonstrating recently. And if we want to move towards a more healthy civic and political culture, that's the wrong direction to be going and is to be saying, I absolutely won't appear on this entire network. Look. I don't agree with everything on Fox News either. But I think it's a missed opportunity for them, to be honest.

MARTIN: Christa?


MARTIN: Do you want to answer this? I can give you a pass if you want to because you're a beat reporter. But if you feel comfortable answering it, I am interested...

BRYANT: No, I'd be happy to.

MARTIN: ...In your take on it.

BRYANT: I actually - before the presidential campaign really got going, I spent the last year and a half as our heartland correspondent traveling through a lot of areas where Trump had done very well in 2016. And every time I went on one of those trips, I just was so struck by how different things look through the eyes of folks in West Virginia or Kentucky or Nebraska or wherever I was than it does sitting in Boston or New York or whatever. And while I respect Warren and Harris wanting to take what they see as a principled decision on this, I do think it's a missed opportunity. And I think it will at least be perceived by people who watch Fox as a slight. And that could have negative impacts on their campaign.

MARTIN: Christine, to that end, you wrote a piece in which you wrote that there's no evidence - now, you didn't specifically look at coverage. You were talking about the behavior of the voters, OK? So you wrote that there isn't any evidence of systemic sexism or bias against female candidates running for office. You know, you were focusing on research mainly at the legislative level. But I'm going to ask you, as a person who's in the field yourself - having looked at this, do you think the women candidates are getting a less favorable coverage or more negative coverage relative to what they would be getting if they were men?

ROSEN: I don't. And I actually think the most important overarching point we should all recognize is that party identification remains a much more powerful force in deciding whether or not to support a candidate than sex. I mean, I - honestly, the concern I have is the pipeline. I would like to see more women running and winning at the legislative level, both state and for the House of Representatives. And we don't see enough women doing that.

MARTIN: So, Jess, is there anything else you wanted to add? Like, is there something else that you'd like to see political writers, observers, think about when they cover this race? The first thing is, how would you frame that? Like, if you were making a sort of a checklist for reporters to say, look, this is the way - this is best practices, how would you proceed?

MCINTOSH: I want to see a balance in the quantity of coverage for sure. I mean, the amount that went into Beto as he was considering whether or not to get in, the amount that went into Biden for the three weeks before he got in - that kind of sustained, constant, relatively positive coverage has simply never been afforded to any of the women. And we can see what happens in polling data. Pete Buttigieg went from 1% to 11% after a week and a half of positive coverage about his candidacy.

If we cover the women who are doing the right things - I mean, Kamala is regularly speaking to 20,000 people. Elizabeth Warren is low-key reordering the economy to benefit workers and women. There are things to cover about their candidacies that could be covered at the same level as the guys are, and we're not quite there yet.

MARTIN: OK. Christine, what about you? If you were in charge of political coverage, if you had a checklist of best practices, what would be on it?

ROSEN: What I would like to see is more of a range on the part of the media not to rush to an argument about sexism, which in some odd ways can be detrimental to the female candidates themselves. But I think the media class in general - we all like narratives, right? It's easier to have a story to tell. I think we're heading in the right direction, but we need to be careful especially as, you know, pundits, commentators and reporters not to assume that the answer to every question when it comes to a female candidate is sexism.

MARTIN: OK. So let me go back to this question of why a number of people have written about the fact that Pete Buttigieg seems to have gotten some very favorable coverage just out of the gate. So the question is why. I mean, is it because he's a guy and because most of the political reporters, frankly, the present company notwithstanding, are guys? Or is there some other reason? Because the fact is, he's a glass ceiling breaker in his own right, so - as an openly gay man, as an Army veteran. You know, so what's your take on that, Christa?

BRYANT: Well, Politico had this really fascinating piece about Lis Smith, who's sort of the woman behind getting him on all of these media appearances. And it was really interesting to me to think about all of the women on senior staffs of campaigns who are working behind the scenes to help get their candidates coverage. And she is just a powerhouse. And it was amazing going back months getting him a lot of exposure and a lot of time with a lot of different outlets. And I think that made a huge difference in enabling him to start off his campaign with a great deal of momentum. So that's a really interesting point.

And there's actually - a number of the campaigns have a majority of women among their senior staff. And Castro and Sanders have more women than any of the other (laughter) - any of the women who are actually running. And even Trump has more women on his senior staff than Klobuchar, for example. So I think that's another interesting aspect to the conversation about how well are women's perspectives shaping our understanding of the primary.

MARTIN: So, Jess, what do you say about that? I know a number of people have written about the fact that Mayor Pete Buttigieg got some fairly favorable coverage coming out of the gate. Why do you think that is? Is it because he's a guy, or is there some other reason?

MCINTOSH: Oh, I think he's an incredibly impressive candidate. And I think it is - it cannot be overstated what it means to have an openly LGBT person running for office. I - that's just - that's incredibly inspiring, and it speaks to the diversity of the Democratic Party on this field, and I'm over the moon about it.

But having women in senior staffs across the field really means that a lot of candidates are engaging with issues that matter to women in a much more thoughtful way than they ever have before. The idea that we're talking about immigration as a women and families issue, the idea that we're talking about minimum wage as a women's issue - all of this - it matters greatly to getting the right kinds of policies that are going to benefit women, which is why it matters to have diverse candidates running in the first place. It's not about a pretty picture. It's about a better country and better policies.

MARTIN: OK. Christine, you wanted to say something about that?

ROSEN: Yes. I think - look. The reason that Buttigieg is getting a ton of press where maybe some of the other female candidates are not is that he has a unique and uniquely American story. He's telling a really fascinating story. And I - one disagreement I would have on this is, yes, he's an openly gay man. But he's been actually really savvy in the sense that he hasn't made identity politics his platform.

He has a wide range of issues he's concerned about. He's a military vet. You know, he's a small town mayor, so he brings a whole lot of issues at the local level to a national platform in an interesting way. And I think at a time where our politics is so incredibly polarized, where identity politics in particular is used to shut down conversations on both sides of the aisle in a way that isn't helpful to advancing debate and crafting, you know, compromise policies on important issues.

The other thing is, you know, he's the - he was the shiny, new object for a couple of weeks. Whenever a candidate announces, there's a little boom of coverage. We'll see, I think, as the debates start to happen how the candidates shake out in terms of the - their ability to sustain the American people's attention in such a kind of never-ending primary race.

MARTIN: Christa Case Bryant is national political reporter for the Christian Science Monitor. Christine Rosen is a senior writer at Commentary Magazine. And Jess McIntosh is a Democratic strategist and former director of communications outreach for Hillary for America.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

BRYANT: Thank you.

MCINTOSH: Thank you

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly identify Pete Buttigieg as an Army veteran. Buttigieg is a Navy reservist.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 28, 2019 at 9:00 PM PDT
We incorrectly identify Pete Buttigieg as an Army veteran. Buttigieg is a Navy reservist.