Media Bias in Eight Campaigns
By Erika Falk

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2008 Erika Falk
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07511-7


In January 2007 Senator Hillary Clinton declared her intention to seek the White House and in doing so became the first woman to enter the race as a front-runner for the Democratic Party nomination. A December 2006 poll by the Gallup Organization reported that respondents named Senator Clinton most often (33 percent) as their choice for the Democratic nomination. Senator Barack Obama, who entered the race four days before Clinton, was named second (20 percent). Even though Clinton polled better than Obama, in the month in which both candidates announced they would run for president the top six circulating papers in the United States ran fifty-nine stories that mentioned Obama in the headline and just thirty-six that mentioned Clinton.

That the press seemed biased against a woman running for president was not surprising. In fact, historical trends show that women candidates for president consistently receive less press coverage than equivalent men running in the same race. What was surprising was that such a disparity was present when the woman was the front-runner, and that such a pattern, which had been manifest in press coverage since 1884, still held in 2007. Of course, this was not the first time a prominent and qualified woman had run for president and been treated badly by the press.

In May 1999, Robert Dole, the husband of the Republican presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole, was interviewed in the New York Times (Berke 1999). In the course of that now famous interview, Bob Dole told the reporter he "wanted to contribute to the campaign of [rival Republican candidate] Senator John McCain." When given the opportunity to predict that his wife and not the front-runner, George W. Bush, was going to win, he instead said of Bush, "He's in a strong position, no question about it." In response to a question about why, when he was a candidate, he had "never memorized his speeches" as Elizabeth Dole did, he noted that "given his decades in the Senate and service as majority leader he had always felt comfortable discussing issues," implying that his wife did not. If such a dismal portrayal by a spouse of a presidential candidate was ever previously printed in the press, it is not widely known.

In presidential campaigns, media portrayals are particularly important. Unlike lower-level races where interpersonal contact plays a central role, in presidential contests most of what constituents know about any candidate is learned from the media. The press plays an integral role in the campaign by framing, shaping, ignoring, or presenting the candidates to the public. More important, how the press portrays and treats candidates may affect who later decides to be a candidate. Although media reports about a candidate vary, and people draw upon very different experiences and ideas in interpreting them, consistencies and patterns can have important effects. One of the most important potential effects of media coverage of campaigns may be its influence on political participation. Depending on the content, the media can encourage people to participate, engage, and become interested in the political process, or instead determine that the political sphere is not for them.

The early data on press coverage of Clinton's announcement is a single example of press bias against a woman candidate, and the New York Times article on Bob Dole's feelings about Elizabeth Dole's candidacy is a single example in which a candidate was portrayed as not very viable. When multiple reports and papers consistently shortchange women or invite the same negative inferences, the candidate and her supporters may be justifiably concerned. Being ignored by the press or being portrayed as a loser almost certainly becomes prophecy. However, when those media patterns involve classes of people and persist across time, the concern is not only for a particular candidate but also for society at large. If we find that women in general, and not just Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Dole, tend to be treated by the press less seriously than similar men, then the pattern undermines the chances of individuals and also deters women from believing they will be successful should they run. More important, it calls into question the modern democratic assumption that men and women have comparable access to positions of power.

The idea that almost everything known about national candidates is imparted through the media and that systematic bias can have important social effects led me to conduct this study of how newspapers portray women who run for president. In conducting this research, I asked three questions. First, Is there evidence of subtle or overt ways in which the press may have advantaged men or women candidates? Second, Does the press mitigate or perpetrate existing stereotypes and gender roles, particularly about political women? Third, Could the way the press covers women candidates affect women's decision to run for office? Answering these questions is important to understanding how the press may affect women who run for president or other offices (or who decide not to).

The first woman to run for U.S. president was Victoria Woodhull. She ran in 1872 on the Equal Rights Party ticket. Since that time about fifteen American women have gained the nomination of their party. Many more (about one hundred) have sought but not obtained their party's nomination, including approximately fifty who have sought nomination from the Republican or Democratic Parties (Havel 1996). Most of these women did little to advance their cases; they were unknown and received no press coverage. However, among them were women who, given different circumstances, might have become president. These include multiterm members of Congress, cabinet members, ambassadors, women on the ballot in all of the states, and women receiving Federal Primary Matching Funds (FPMF). These are the women selected for this study. Despite the fact that these women campaigned and received press coverage, they are like most losing candidates-lost to history.

The absence of widespread political knowledge about the impressive and capable women who have lived political lives is not without consequence. As I will document in this book, some of the resistance to women's full political integration has grown out of a misconception that women are novel and unnatural in the political sphere. Moreover, the feminist historian Gerda Lerner (1993) argued that the absence of women in official and academic histories has resulted in the retardation of women's intellectual (and I would add political) advancement. Such an absence of historical awareness has meant that women have been denied the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of their predecessors. Thus, although many women have run for president, lackluster press coverage of their campaigns has contributed to the fact that few women are aware of these candidacies, making a female presidential candidacy seem less normative and more difficult. Moreover, as I will discuss in this book, the way the press portrays (and ignores) women who run also makes women appear novel and awkward in the political sphere. This may deter women from having their own political aspirations.

Women have headed nations throughout the world, including in unexpected places such as Turkey, Ireland, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, not to mention Canada, France, and England. Yet in the United States, which considers itself the most advanced democracy in the world, no woman has ever held the presidency or the vice presidency. Only once has an American woman even been selected as a vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket. That was Geraldine Ferraro in 1984. Some people say the reason there has not been a woman on a major party ticket since Ferraro's defeat is because that ticket fared so badly that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) determined it would never put another woman on the ballot. However, Walter Mondale, the 1984 presidential candidate, was already down nineteen points when Ferraro was nominated. Pat Schroeder, then a U.S. representative, pointed out that given Mondale's showing, it is surprising that the DNC would ever put another man on the ticket. After the 1984 election the New York Times estimated that Ferraro had given the Democrats a small net gain in that race (Zipp and Plutzer 1985).

It is remarkable that women have never held the presidency in the United States, given that studies have consistently shown that women who run for lower political office win just as often as men do (Seltzer, Newman, and Leighton 1997). This is despite the fact that bias in the press against women has been shown to exist in congressional and gubernatorial races. Since there is considerable social pressure against women's running for public office, the women who do choose to pursue it may be more driven and competent than the average male candidate. Thus the women compensate for bias in the press. If women tend to succeed despite such prejudice, why should we be concerned about biased and sterotypical press coverage of women at all political levels? As a free and democratic country that prides itself on creating a fair and level political playing field, in which any citizen has the theoretical right to pursue public office, we should be concerned if the press is biased in favor of one class of people over another. This remains true, even if women can compensate for the inequity.

Another reason for us to be concerned is that the press coverage (or lack thereof) may have a chilling effect on women's desire run. That is to say, the press, which tends to ignore women candidates and paints them in stereotypical ways, may deter women from running, and this may be the most significant problem in making gains for women in office. In fact, just 8 percent of candidates for Congress are women, and the percentage of candidates is much lower when it comes to the presidency. Many scholars of women's political participation note that a major reason women are underrepresented in public office is that they run much less frequently than men do.

What might be the most significant effect of lack of coverage, stereotypical coverage, and coverage that makes women appear less likely to win than they actually are? These conditions may suppress women's political engagement and interest and minimize the role-modeling benefits that political women can provide to other women; as a result fewer women are likely to pursue political office. Of course, when women don't run, they don't win. Since the presidency is not considered an entry-level position, a female presidential candidate would have to have run for and won a lower political office; but if few women run, there are few women in the feeder positions that lead to the presidency.

Since the presidency of Eisenhower, all of the candidates that won the office have previously been governor of a state, served in both the House and the Senate, served as vice president, or held the rank of five-star general. However, there have been only thirty-five women in the history of the United States with that kind of experience. There is a strikingly small pool from which to draw female presidential candidates.

There are other reasons for women's slow integration into the political system. About 95 percent of incumbents in the U.S. Congress win reelection, and most incumbents are men. Challengers win only about 5 percent of the time. Even if all challengers were women, the rate at which they would integrate the U.S. Congress would be slow. However, as noted above, just 8 percent of candidates for the U.S. Congress are women, which slows their advancement through the political system and minimizes the likelihood that a woman will seek the presidency.

This process is in many ways self-perpetuating. The relative scarcity of women in higher offices combined with the press's propensity to ignore women who do run means that women are less likely to have role models and mentors. Moreover, Ruth Mandel, a political researcher, found that women were more likely than men to "attribute inspiration or assistance with their political careers to female role models, mentors, and the campaigns of other female candidates" (1993, 46). The importance of role models to political ambition was aptly demonstrated in a political cartoon that appeared during Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's incumbency. In it a boy and a girl discussed what they would like to be when they grow up. The boy said, "I want to be Prime Minister," but the girl retorted, "You can't be Prime Minister. You are a boy." One of the findings of my research is that women receive less media coverage than men, even when we compare losing candidates. Thus, by ignoring women candidates and painting them in stereotypical ways, the press may amplify the impression that women do not belong in the political sphere and it may minimize the potential effects of women as role models.

Not all of the encumbrances are external. Many researchers point to "role conflict" as a major contributor to women's low rates of candidacy. Traditional social mores have assigned the task of child rearing and house-keeping to women and to some extent this holds true in society today. At the same time, over the last century, women have become increasingly integrated into the workforce. This has created what some feminists have identified as the double burden. Women are not only expected to work as men do; in many families they are also primarily responsible for child care and housekeeping duties. This added burden may deter or delay women's political involvement. Press coverage may present female candidates in traditional roles, highlighting their personal lives and family responsibilities rather than their political accomplishments. Women who read such coverage are reminded that their primary duties and responsibilities lie in the domestic and not the political sphere.

This point is amplified by the fact that women are more likely to run for office after their family responsibilities have diminished. Mandel wrote, "Elected women are more likely than elected men to be widowed, separated, or divorced, and they are less likely to have young children at home. Furthermore, elected women are more likely than elected men to report that the age of their children was an important factor in their decision to run for office" (1993, 46). The fact that women are more likely to feel free to run after children are grown or a husband has left means a later entry into elected office, which leaves them less time to reach the highest political ranks.

Another factor that discourages women from running may be the persistence of the erroneous belief that women have less chance of winning office than do men. As noted earlier, studies show that when women run they win just as often as men do (Seltzer, Newman, and Leighton 1997). However, most people don't believe it. A survey conducted by the National Women's Political Caucus found that two-thirds of a national sample thought it was harder for women than men to get elected (Newman 1994). This belief may be fostered predominantly by the press, which tends to portray women as less viable than men and to cover them less often, making them seem less normative.

As this book will demonstrate, if the press fails to cover women candidates it may exaggerate the impression that women are unusual or risky as office holders, and it may also minimize the opportunity for women to see other women as role models. If the press portrays women as less likely to win, women may resist running. If the press perpetuates anachronistic stereotypes, women may feel less comfortable entering the traditionally male sphere of politics, and if the press trivializes and ridicules women who do run, women may be less likely to hold themselves up for such treatment. There is very good reason to be worried if the press treats women candidates differently than men, because this bias would threaten the very heart of the American dream of equality. However, the more insidious problem with the press treatment of women may be that it makes public office seem less attractive to potential women candidates, resulting in fewer women running.

To reach these conclusions, I analyzed the press coverage of the eight most prominent women who have run for president of the United States: Victoria Claflin Woodhull (candidate in 1872), Belva Bennett Lockwood (1884), Margaret Chase Smith (1964), Shirley St. Hill Chisholm (1972), Patricia Scott Schroeder (1987), Lenora Branch Fulani (1988), Elizabeth Dole (2000), and Carol Moseley Braun (2004). Through the use of content analysis, I also compared the press coverage of each of these women to that of the most equivalent man who sought the same office in the same year, and I examined polling data on attitudes about women and the presidency.


Excerpted from WOMEN for PRESIDENTby Erika Falk Copyright © 2008 by Erika Falk. Excerpted by permission.
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