Why the media's 2016 Clinton debacle hangs over today's 'electability' debate

Journalists need to come clean about double standards

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Supporters of Elizabeth Warren are upset that she's being erased by the media in recent weeks, as the Democratic primary campaign heads to its third contest in Nevada. Admirers point to some pretty clear-cut examples where the press simply leapfrogged right over Warren, the highest-polling woman in the race, in order to focus on the candidates polling both in front of her and behind her.

For many, the sense of déjà vu is palpable. There's a feeling that little was learned by the press following the 2016 campaign, when the first woman nominee was held a higher standard than her bullying Republican counterpart, while she was tarred with sexist coverage.  

Over and over this season we've seen reports about how women voters in particular are nervous about sending up another woman nominee to battle Trump. "I think against Trump any woman is going to have difficulty with electability, that’s just kind of a reality we have to contend with," one Iowa voter told NBC News last year.

Thankfully, there's not much debate about whether a woman would be qualified to serve in the Oval Office. Instead the running voter conversation is about "electability" — can a woman actually win. That deep pragmatic streak comes from the overwhelming desire among Democrats to seize the country back from Trump and dangerous Republican rule. In truth though,  electability now hovers over the Democratic campaign because of what the press did in 2016.

From the Daily Beast last week:

[Warren's] campaign is being hampered, ever so slightly, by a quintessentially Democratic paranoia: a stubbornly persistent belief that Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 is proof that misogyny remains a latent but potent force in American politics and that, in an election all about beating Donald Trump, resurfacing that might not be worth the risk.

In reality, the electability debate is, in large part, about the media. It's about nervous Democrats saying, 'Will the campaign press try to eviscerate a woman nominee the way they did to Clinton as she tried to make history? Will the press give Trump a pass against another woman nominee by regurgitating his crude, sexist insults?'

The umbrella topic of electability can't be discussed honestly if journalists aren't going to address what they did to the last woman nominee, and how that spectacle likely not only shred the faith in the press for lots of Democrats, but it also damaged the idea that a woman can get a fair shake, and ever be elected president.

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Example: The campaign press corps essentially eliminated policy coverage in 2016, which benefited the political neophyte, Trump. One study found that “In just six days, The New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.”

Institutionally, the Beltway press has maintained a weirdly personal grudge against Hillary Clinton, and her husband, since they arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1993. During the 2008 campaign, that animosity flared up constantly. At the time, Salon's Rebecca Traister detected "a nearly pornographic investment in Clinton's demise" among male pundits. And it only seemed to intensify in 2016. Assuming Clinton would defeat Trump, the press moved to make her campaign as unpleasant as possible and to make sure she limped across the finish line (Hacked emails! Email servers!), so there would be no historic victory lap for breaking the glass ceiling.

I firmly believe that was the plan, as the media gorged on months worth of pointless email and Clinton Foundation coverage, as she ran against the most openly corrupt candidate in American history. In the end though, the press helped elect Trump. And instead of trying to just dent Clinton's victory, the press may have pushed back the dream of electing a woman president in the United States. And that's what we're watching unfold under the headline of an "electability" debate.

Given that unfair treatment four years ago, are anxious Democrats today supposed to cross their fingers and hope that journalists won’t repeat the mistakes in 2020? That's a large leap to make since there has been a near-universal refusal from news outlets to acknowledge clear failures in the 2016 coverage. Indeed, the Clinton coverage represented a gender fiasco. (She shouts! She's angry! She doesn't smile enough!) Yet to this day, most journalists don't want to admit to the deeply sexist media behavior, which created a raging double standard.

To a large degree, today’s concerns aren't because certain voters don't want a woman president. It's because they don't trust the press to be fair, because the press wasn't fair in 2016. Bottom line: You can't discuss electability in 2020 without acknowledging what the press did to the last women nominee.

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