How Misogynistic Male Reporters Shaped The Coverage Of The 2016 Election

Many of the loudest voices in political journalism are facing sexual harassment allegations — here’s why that matters.

Matt Lauer, co-host of the NBC “Today” television program, appears on set in Rockefeller Plaza, in New York —April 21, 2016 (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

2017 is the year of unmasking. From realizing which of your family members and friends are bigoted racists, to discovering how powerful men really think of women, there’s no more hiding who you truly are and what you believe in.

In recent weeks, a tidal wave of sexual assault allegations have come to light, with brave women stepping forward to tell their stories. The accused range from politicians, to Hollywood celebrities, to those that sit behind the anchor desk of your favorite nightly news show. And while every type of business is complicit in some perpetuation of this attitude, the media industry creates a particularly worrisome culture of abuse.

Sexual harassment and misogyny in media are dangerous because they not only affect the people that are personally harmed by such attacks — they affect everyone who consumes any sort of media content. The culture created by men like Mark Halperin, Glenn Thrush, or Bill O’Reilly, bleeds onto our TV screens and our Twitter feeds and molds the socio-political narrative of our country.

Media coverage of the 2016 election provides a stunning example of how dangerous misogyny can be when it’s given a microphone and a large broadcast audience. As many election postmortem studies have shown, coverage of Hillary Clinton was largely focused on her “scandals” while coverage of Donald Trump somehow managed to focus on his “core issues.”

(As someone who followed the election very closely and covers the news to this day, I’m still trying to work out what those “core issues” actually are.)

Matt Lauer, co-host of the NBC “Today” television program, appears on set in Rockefeller Plaza, in New York —April 21, 2016 (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

While the biased coverage of Clinton has been an oft-discussed topic in the past months, the recent allegations have added a new layer to our understanding of how we got to where we are today.

The men that told us the story of the 2016 campaigns — who shaped the narrative surrounding one of the most consequential presidential elections in modern history — are the same men who abused their female colleagues. These men told voters which issues they should care about (private email servers) and which they should ignore (Trump’s history of treating women like second-class citizens).

“There’s some troubling things in the piece, but there’s nothing illegal, there’s nothing even kind of, like, beyond boorish or politically incorrect, which is built into the Donald Trump brand. So, if that’s the best they have in this score, Donald Trump can celebrate this story, politically.”

— Mark Halperin, now accused of rubbing his genitals against a female colleague, responding to The New York Timesarticle about Trump’s history of sexually harassing women.

What does it mean when men who abuse women tell us the story of the first major political party female candidate for president? News does not exist within an echo chamber and lacks any real value if not provided with context — be that contextualizing the historical precedence for why certain policies exist or understanding the inherent misogyny of the men reporting on a female politician.

Unpacking how our modern cultural narrative is shaped bythe hands of men who abuse women is complex, for lack of a better word. It involves reckoning with the fact that systematic misogyny shapes our very understanding of our societal reality.

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On September 6, 2016, Glenn Thrush wrote an article for Politico entitled “Five reasons Hillary could be blowing it.” The piece detailed the top five reasons, according to Thrush, as to why “Clinton let Trump back into the race.”

These points included the thoughts that Trump was getting his messaging together, Clinton was plagued with scandal, and — every woman’s favorite criticism — her personality sucked.

While the ideas that Trump’s campaign ever had a solid communications strategy and that Clinton was actually the scandalous candidate (*cough* Trump University, the Access Hollywood Tapes, conflicts of interest, calling for Wikileaks to hack Hillary’s emails, reports of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia…) are ridiculous in their own right, the dismissive, vindictive tone he takes towards Clinton’s personality is stunning.

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Thrush describes Clinton as the “Queen of Coasting” and suggested she does “the bare minimum” to get by. He states that she only participated in electoral politics because she wanted to attain great power, and blames the horrible, sexist characterizations she faced during the campaign (and during her entire career in politics) on her own refusal to let voters really know her.

Regardless of your political viewpoints, if you are a woman who has worked in any sort of career at all, these talking points are probably starting to sound familiar. Successful women are constantly belittled for how they’ve achieved such success. They either accused of not deserving the position they maintain (ergo, coasting their way to the top) or being so power hungry they’ll stop at nothing to achieve power — often sacrificing their personality in the meantime. Because, as we all know, women’s personalities exist to make men feel more comfortable with their own inadequacies.

Thrush even went so far as to chastise women who brought up sexism in the primary debates:

So, when Vox News published an exclusive report detailing allegations suggesting that Thrush behaved inappropriately towards female colleagues, there was a resounding lack of surprise from many female journalists. A man who had spent the 2016 election cycle demeaning an extremely qualified female candidate in a way we can all relate to treated the women he worked with terribly?

Shocking.

One of the most troubling aspects of the Vox report is the allegation that Thrush gossiped about female reporters to other colleagues if they turned him down. In a world where a white, male voice is still considered default, women’s careers can be stopped in their tracks by an angered work associate.

And yes, false sexual assault allegations can harm men’s career’s as well. However, considering that only around 2% of all rape and related sex charges are found to be false and that women who accuse men of assault often face victim shaming which can be equally career-destroying, this comparison is absolutely a false equivalence.

If a man telling his coworkers lies about an incident where he assaulted you can damage your career in a newsroom, imagine what it can do to the political narrative of a country during an unprecedented presidential campaign.

Mark Halperin, another prominent voice during the 2016 election who has now been accused of sexual harassment, showed an equally dismissive tone in his coverage of Clinton. In his retelling of the 2008 election in his book Game Change, Halperin describes Clinton in similar Lady Macbethian tones. She is plagued by scandal, lacking likability, and happy to coast along to an assumed victory.

(A quiet reminder that successful women are never allowed the pride of reveling in their own hard work. If they succeed, they coasted to victory, relying on luck and perhaps nepotism — and if they lose, it’s because they didn’t try hard enough.)

Halperin and his co-author John Heilemann go on to describe Clinton as the following:

“Prideful, aggrieved, confused — and still high on the notion she was leading an army, Napoleon in a navy pantsuit and gumball-sized fake pearls.”

Halperin had an extremely large and wide-reaching platform during 2016. A book deal, TV spots, a Showtime series called The Circus, and a supposed HBO project in the works — this man held a position powerful enough that he felt he could allegedly rub up against female colleagues, and then sit down with Megyn Kelly and suggest that Donald Trump was better at controlling a news cycle than a “former First Lady.”

Bloomberg’s Halperin: Donald Trump “Can Control The News Better Than A Former First Lady”

This matters because when Halperin dismissed multiple reports of Trump’s alleged sexual harassment, people listened. He had influence over what people considered in the voting booth.

Producer Mark Halperin participate in “The Circus of Politics” panel during the Showtime Critics Association summer press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif — Aug. 11, 2016 (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)

Halperin’s coverage — like that of many other male journalists — espoused implicit biases that affected the way many viewed Clinton. And it’s not only her. More often than not, reporting on female politicians includes criticism regarding the tone of their voices, the outfits they wear, and whether or not they smile enough.

Basically, the same comments women hear walking down the street. When they speak up in a meeting. When they exist outside of the patriarchal box that is considered acceptable.

How can we trust the reporting we receive when the loudest, most “successful” voices have been accused of using their power to abuse women in their private lives? How could their coverage of female politicians be removed from the gendered, sexist biases they display in the other aspects of their lives?

Answer: It can’t and it wasn’t.

And of course, then there are men like Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes who made their careers off of promoting a white male-centric, bigoted agenda. When sexual assault allegations were levied against them, we’d already known how little they cared for women or people of color based on their programming. What is concerning is how often their coverage mirrored the language used by Thrush or Halperin (Or Leon Wieseltier. Or Charlie Rose. Or Sam Kriss. Or Jordan Chariton.)

Is it surprising that these men, accused of sexual assault and harassment, seemed to give a woman tougher coverage while finding excuses and explanations for the behavior of Donald Trump — another powerful man accused of assault by multiple women?

To those who are itching to shout, INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY, let me remind you that this only applies to the court of law. These men are innocent in the eyes of the law until a court of their peers judges them as otherwise.

The court of public opinion? Of freedom from any consequences? It is not required to wait until such a time — which is a good and necessary thing, considering how historically disenfranchised groups standing up to attackers more privileged and powerful than them have often been abandoned by the court system.

Understanding the need for assumed innocent in the legal system doesn’t mean we have to ignore a preponderance of evidence when deciding who to vote for, or who’s TV show to watch.

It’s worth remembering that it’s the media that then breaks these stories. We learn about sexual harassment allegations from an industry filled to the brim with its own clear bias against women.

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So what’s the final solution? If this is a year of unmasking — of reckoning — how do we take the next step forward?

We have to start by changing the bias that shapes the narrative. One demographic shouldn’t be in charge of molding the country’s conversation. If there was ever an argument for diverse newsrooms, this is it.

Promote women in media. Especially women of color, who disproportionately suffer from abuse and harassment — and who are much less likely to be listened to when they report such instances.

When analyzing political coverage, remember that both the political system and the media industry have been formed with a male viewpoint considered the default. We can’t go back and give female politicians fairer coverage, but we can be more critical with our own media consumption.

The culture of sexual assault is a systematic problem, and only through a restructuring of the system will we be able to fully dismantle gendered biases in reporting.

Until then — the next time you listen to coverage of how shrill a female politician’s speech was? Take it with a grain of salt.

Deconstructed // Media / Politics / Women