Sexism vs. TV

Throughout last year’s fierce election battle, sexism was revealed as the “-ism” America had yet to tackle. On an April show after Hillary Clinton won the Pennsylvanian primary, Keith Olbermann suggested the primary be decided by, “somebody who can take her into a room and only he come out.” Chris Matthews was forced to apologize twice for comments he made about Hillary. In one “Hardball” ramble, Matthews said, “The reason she may be a front runner is that her husband messed around … That’s how she got to be a senator from New York. We keep forgetting it. She didn’t win it on her merit, she won because everybody felt, ‘My God, this woman stood up under humiliation,’ right?”

And those were the so-called liberals.

After the primary, Olbermann, not content his candidate won, made CBS news anchor Katie Couric his “Worst Person in the World” for declaring that sexism had ruled the primary.

Clinton’s appointment as secretary of state seemed to quell all sexist grumblings. But now the sexism is back in full force.

While on an expansive diplomatic tour of Africa, a question in Congo brought a testy response from Clinton. “What does Mr. Clinton think through the mouth of Mrs. Clinton?” she was asked about trade with China.

An obviously annoyed Clinton shot back that she was secretary of state, not her husband. Some alleged a translating error; this turned out not to be the case. Secretary Clinton was asked for her husband’s opinion, not her own. [Editor’s note: The New York Times reported the student apologized to Clinton, saying he meant to ask President Obama’s opinion.]

The Congo exchange came on the heels of former President Clinton’s aiding Secretary Clinton in the release of two journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, from North Korea. The event garnered huge media coverage.

Clinton’s Africa tour received little TV news coverage except psychological deconstructions of her Congo remarks. ABC and NBC opined that Clinton had been “overshadowed” by her husband and couldn’t take it. CBS suggested she was “jealous” of Bill. On CNN and MSNBC, the discourse was over whether Hillary was being forced out of the Obama administration by being sent to Africa instead of someplace “important.”

Meanwhile, PBS’ “News Hour” provided thorough coverage of Clinton’s trip through Africa, showing a picture of a smart and serious secretary of state intent on reconnecting the U.S. to some of the poorest and most corrupt nations on earth. The difference between the PBS coverage and that of the network and cable news shows was shocking.

On PBS, Clinton was a woman on a mission. Reports focused on her efforts to connect with women throughout Africa and profiled her meeting with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, president of Liberia. Clinton spoke with survivors of rape in Congo, which, she had told reporters in Kenya, was paramount.

Yet the TV news reports on Clinton’s trip ignored these varied and quite serious issues and focused on her “coming unhinged” and “snapping out” in Congo.

How many times did President Bush get asked about his father’s views on issues in foreign press conferences? TV can’t break from the long-held tradition that calls Katie Couric “perky” and Charlie Gibson “the most trusted name in news.”

Clinton may have cracked the glass ceiling during her primary bid, but as secretary of state, she and women TV viewers are finding that ceiling is as impenetrable as ever. Women who speak out are still labeled as hysterical or outright ignored — no matter how prominent their position on the world stage.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.