Democratic men ran the table on cable news last week, with three presidential candidates generating the most coverage and raising fresh fears that they're benefiting from built-in social and media advantages over women in this cycle. Last week's tabulation comes after men enjoyed the biggest gains in campaign kick-off coverage, too. "We found that Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke saw dramatic, mountainous peaks in mentions immediately following their announcements, and in some cases still days after," FiveThirtyEight reported last month. "Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren saw more modest bumps."
The welcome flood of women candidates this presidential cycle creates a whole new area of media analysis in terms of how a historic Democratic field filled with women is covered by the press, and whether gender-based double standards are at play. The vocal concerns to date revolve around the tone of coverage and the amount of coverage: Are women getting less attention than they deserve compared to their male counterparts, and is the coverage they're receiving significantly different from the type men are accumulating?
The fears are especially ripe coming in the wake of 2016, when Hillary Clinton's nomination and campaign were marred by wildly sexist coverage, as much of the press held her to entirely different standards than her Republican counterpart. Indeed, this issue has long been a problem for female candidates, even outside of the presidential arena. Previous research confirmed that women running for U.S. Senate and for governor in the 1980s received less—and more negative—coverage than male candidates.
For Clinton, generating press attention was obviously not a problem, but that attention was plagued by missteps. Was it coincidence that the campaign press essentially walked away from policy coverage in 2016—the same year that the first woman nominee, steeped in policy initiatives, was trying to make White House history while running against a sexist, substance-free opponent? (Clinton's campaign website posted more than 112,000 words detailing her policy positions; Trump's website posted less than 10,000 words.) And is it a coincidence that once again, it's women candidates who seem to be in the vanguard of policy discussions this campaign season, yet critics claim the press is overlooking those important initiatives?
"Elizabeth Warren is setting the policy agenda for the Democratic primary. You wouldn't know from most of the coverage," Refinery29 recently noted. Additionally, have women candidates focused so heavily on policy over the last two presidential cycles because they feel that's what it takes to be taken “seriously,” only to have their hard work largely ignored by the media?
An ongoing study of the 2020 primary season from the Northeastern University School of Journalism confirms that major problems persist: "Female candidates running for president are consistently being described in the media more negatively than their male counterparts."
That's the bad news. The encouraging news is that the rampant, undisguised, and almost jubilantly sexist coverage that marred both the 2008 and 2016 campaigns has mostly receded from view this year, in terms of the mainstream media. Aside from a bizarre outburst of awful coverage of Warren early this year (she's "aloof," "standoffish," "cold," "scoldy," "shrill," and "unlikable"!), I've seen less of those kind of obviously sexist swipes with regard to Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Tulsi Gabbard in recent weeks and months. That's a good thing! And on a non-White House campaign note, it's certainly encouraging to see the unprecedented amount of media coverage New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her progressive agenda have received this year. Not all the coverage has been positive, but she's certainly being treated like a political rock star, in a way very few American women have been in the past.
As for today's primary coverage, it's interesting that in recent weeks Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Beto O'Rourke, the three male candidates often singled out as benefiting from voluminously positive press attention as compared to their women counterparts, have started to receive what appears to be rougher media treatment. "Reality bites Beto after high-flying kickoff," announced a Politico headline this week, while the New York Times reported on stumbles from Biden's would-be campaign, claiming his unrushed strategy appeared to "backfire," sparking a "multiday crisis" over allegations that he's regularly made women feel uncomfortable with his overly physical interaction. Meanwhile, even Sanders' media allies were hitting him for not releasing his tax returns. So while men dominated the cable news coverage last week, it's unlikely they enjoyed all of that attention.
In terms of frequency, how are the top-tier candidates faring in terms being covered in some of the early-voting states? During the month of March, newspapers in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina covered Sanders 282 times, O'Rourke 223 times, Harris 196 times, Warren 165 times, and Biden 131 times, according to NewsLibrary.com.
The unfortunate reality is that polling and horse-race analysis continue to drive much of the coverage. So for candidates like Gillibrand, Klobuchar, and Gabbard, who consistently poll at 1 and 2 percent, it's unlikely they will be generating lots of additional coverage soon. (Just as Jay Inslee, John Hickenlooper, and Andrew Yang aren't drawing much media attention.)
That said, I did spot what seems to be a prominent double standard with regard to Harris' candidacy. Note that Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has recently been generating lots of exposure as his campaign enjoys a modest "surge" in the polls. It's certainly safe to say his run has been among the most surprising this year in terms of the unexpected traction a mid-size city mayor seems to be getting with voters, via fundraising figures and polling data. What's interesting, though, is that in January, Harris was polling at 3 percent in an Emerson poll of possible Democratic contenders, and then just two months later she had quadrupled her support to 12 percent in the updated Emerson poll. Yet I don't recall lots of "surge" coverage for Harris when she made that dramatic move into the top tier.
And that raises the question: Does the press treat women candidates unfairly?
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.