Amy Klobuchar's 'surge' proves media still has a 'woman' problem

Joanne Lipman, Opinion columnist

After the Democratic primary debate in New Hampshire, The New York Times asked 10 of its opinion writers to score the candidates’ performances. The hands-down winner: Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

But you wouldn’t know that from news reports. Across print, digital, broadcast and cable, coverage of the debate overwhelmingly focused on the battle of the bros: Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Vice President Joe Biden. Klobuchar barely merited a mention. The Times itself treated her as a footnote, declaring in a front-page article that “there were no standout moments” in a debate that might be Klobuchar’s “final” chance (though the next day it belatedly noted her “Klomentum” — on page A27).

When Klobuchar finished strong, with a third-place finish closing in on the top two winners, news outlets trumpeted her “sudden surge” as a “big surprise.” Actually, no, it wasn’t. It was a failure of basic news reporting.

Sexism in the news media

Why the disconnect? The news media still has a woman problem. Female candidates routinely get less attention and are taken less seriously than male candidates.

A recent Wilson Center study found that “the coverage women in politics receive is still heavily biased against them, both in quantity and in quality.”

The coverage they do get tends to be more negative: Northeastern University School of Journalism last spring analyzed almost 1,400 news articles from mainstream outlets and found that “female candidates running for president are consistently being described in the media more negatively than their male counterparts.” 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar participates in the Democratic presidential primary debate in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Feb. 7, 2020

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. News coverage decisions are overwhelmingly made by men, who lead the vast majority of newsrooms. Women make up two-thirds of journalism and communications grads, yet men write or produce 63% of all news coverage, according to the Women’s Media Center. On television, male journalists outnumber female journalists by almost 2 to 1. On Twitter, male political reporters ignore female reporters altogether; they retweet fellow male journalists three times more often than they retweet female journalists.

In other words, the male perspective is the default in the news business. The female is the outlier — which often translates into women simply being ignored. A British analysis concluded that more than 75% of “experts” quoted in digital news accounts are male. In the United States, more than 70% of Sunday morning politics and policy talk show guests are male.

One study of English-language news sites globally found that 77% of those mentioned in articles are men, and that women are “routinely marginalized or ‘symbolically annihilated’ in the news.” 

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Think about that for a moment: Women are “symbolically annihilated” by the media. Klobuchar isn’t the only example of this; she’s simply the most recent one. 

After the Iowa caucuses, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was “virtually erased” from news coverage despite beating Biden for the third-place spot, Joan Walsh argued in The Nation. “I have watched cable news panels mention Warren only in passing, if at all.”

The issue cuts across political lines. Female journalists started The 19th, a new nonpartisan publication covering the intersection of gender and politics, because women are “underrepresented in politics and policy journalism and in newsroom leadership.”

Women are either ignored or pilloried

The problem is, the news media — of which I’ve been a part for more than three decades — actually knows it’s kind of sexist but can’t seem to help itself. When women aren’t being ignored in news coverage, they’re being pilloried.

Back when former secretary of State Hilary Clinton was a presidential contender, coverage by mainstream news outlets was relentlessly gendered. She was “unlikable.” She was an “angry woman.” She had “cankles.” She was “shrill” and “castrating” and reminded men of their “nagging wives.”

You would think the media has learned since then to scrub the sexism from its prose. It hasn’t. Witness descriptions of Klobuchar as the “boss from hell,” and Warren as “unlikable” and a “moralizing scold.”

Clearly, there are other issues at play here, beyond gender. Political coverage, like reporting on Hollywood, is by nature pack journalism, populated by an often tight-knit group of reporters who talk with one another, travel with one another, and compete for the coveted access to the highly scripted people they cover. Too often, the end result is group think: A mass-derived conventional wisdom that blocks out noncomforming views, and sometimes — as in 2016, when the media missed the rise of Donald Trump — even blinds us to what we are seeing in front of our faces.

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We suffer as well from an overreliance on polls. The polls were wrong in 2016, when almost all predicted a Clinton landslide, and there is no evidence that they are any more accurate now. If anything, they might be even less so. Before the Iowa caucuses, polls showed Sanders and Biden running neck and neck, with Sanders given the edge. Of course, neither won, with Buttigieg besting them both and Biden tanking in fourth place.

None of this is to suggest that Klobuchar will, or won’t, continue her “surge.” That isn’t the point. This is: Her strong finish shouldn’t have been a “surprise.” Journalism is the first draft of history, which we all know is imperfect — but we can, and must, do better. We need to be cognizant of biases that continue to infect our reporting. We need to move beyond a world where the default newsworthy person is male, the default expert is male, the default leader is male.

Women make up the majority of U.S. voters. It’s time they have a proportional say in news coverage, too.

Joanne Lipman is the Distinguished Journalism Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and author of “That’s What She Said.” A member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, she is a former editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter: @joannelipman

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Amy Klobuchar's 'surge' shows gender inequality in media