I occasionally think back to a Ruth Marcus column in the Washington Post from late 2015 as an example of how completely regrettable so much of the Clinton coverage was, specifically when it came to the treatment of gender. Candidate Trump had just claimed that Clinton had been "schlonged" by Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign. Sexist rhetoric doesn't get much cruder than using a penis metaphor to harass a female candidate. But Marcus didn't see it that way. Instead, she wrote a column attacking Clinton.
Ponder that for a moment. The soon-to-be first woman nominee in the history of the United States was facing a sexist pig who claimed the Democrat had once gotten "schlonged," and Marcus' first instinct as a Post columnist was to write a piece belittling Clinton for playing the victim—for manufacturing "outrage"—while claiming Trump's wildly sexist rhetoric was "awfully mild."
Eighteen months later, this was an actual Post headline following the 2016 election: "Let’s all over-analyze this photo of Hillary Clinton, alone, looking forlorn." Clinton was sitting in a restaurant looking at her phone when someone snapped a photo of her, but I guess that's reason enough to mock a her as being "surprisingly alone."
I could go on for thousands and thousands of words. I won't. Suffice it to say, the 2016 coverage, from a gender perspective, was a nightmare. (She shouts! She's angry! She doesn't smile enough!) But today, on the eve of a new White House campaign cycle, almost nobody has stepped forward to admit any fault. I've seen very few public mea culpas or serious self-examination from the campaign press. So Democrats are now just supposed to cross their fingers and hope that, privately, journalists realize the mistakes they made in 2016 and don't repeat them during another Trump-dominated campaign season?
The press used to be willing to undertake serious self-examination. Following the media debacle of 2002 and 2003 during the run-up to the Iraq War, when the D.C. press helped market the doomed invasion, there was some sober and transparent self-reflection, particularly by the New York Times, which was sparked to action by its public editor. The paper admitted to its readers that it had made serious pre-war mistakes, basically asked for their forgiveness, and pledged the mistakes would not be repeated. None of that has taken place since 2016—and certainly not from the Times, which eliminated its public editor position soon after Trump’s election.
So no, there still hasn't been any meaningful media acknowledgment of the signature sexism that dominated 2016 coverage. Instead, the press seems much more committed to the idea that Clinton was a uniquely flawed or a "bad" candidate. That way journalists don't have to acknowledge the sins of the 2016 coverage.
Why is it important to admit mistakes? Because that's how lessons are learned and bad behavior is fixed. In fact, perhaps one reason 2016 was so bad was that so few media players had ever apologized for sexist Clinton coverage back in 2008.
"Media coverage of Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign was a gender debacle," Media Matters for America noted in 2014. “[The] Press featured ‘news’ segments on Hillary's hair style, examinations of the Clinton ‘cackle,’ and even a 750-word rumination on the ‘startling’ amount of cleavage then-Sen. Clinton ‘displayed’ on the floor of the U.S. Senate." At the time, Salon's Rebecca Traister detected "a nearly pornographic investment in Clinton's demise" among male pundits.
During the 2008 campaign, Slate ran a taunting "Hillary Deathwatch" feature, which gleefully detailed her campaign struggles while she was losing a two-person Democratic primary contest. For some reason, Slate didn't do the same thing in 2016 when a man was losing a two-person Democratic primary race.
Admitting mistakes can be uncomfortable, especially when they encompass misguided, sexist campaign coverage that stretched out over nearly two years. And especially when those transgressions run counter to a media outlet's preferred brand narrative.
But news organizations owe news consumers—and Democrats—an explanation, as well as a vow that the ugliness that unfolded in 2008 and 2016 won't infect the 2020 campaign.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.
This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.