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June 18th, 2008

BIAS, PUNDITRY AND THE PRESS IN THE 2008 ELECTION: “NEWS TO BETTER REFLECT OUR COMPLEX REALITIES”

by Joelle Panisch


The Paley Center for Media.

Gender and Race were just two of the topics discussed at the public conference held at the Paley Center for Media in midtown Tuesday. “From Soundbites to Solutions: Bias, Punditry and the Press in the 2008 Election,” lured a group of over 200 predominantly female journalists, lawyers, academics, feminists, and activists, most of whom were intent on dissecting the often masked social issues involved in this year’s historic political season and the media’s coverage of it. Sponsored by The White House Project, The Women’s Media Center and the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, the event was hosted by Pat Mitchell, President and CEO of the Paley Center for the Media, who’s short video, “Sexism Sells, But We’re Not Buying it” got national acclaim on the internet.

Conducted like an episode of Meet the Press, each member of the panel of top experts spoke for five minutes. The focus was on race, gender, age, class, and religion in the 2008 political campaigns and the media’s contributions and responsibilities as to how the news is reported. The panelists argued on the dominant factors in this season’s primaries: was it gender or generation, partisanship or cosmopolitanism?

Dr. Susan J. Carroll, Author of Women as Candidates in American Politics and Senior Scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics, argued Hillary Clinton’s political strategies, such as her slogan “experience,” were forced necessities to counter negative gender stereotypes. Carroll concluded that Clinton couldn’t advocate “change” because as a woman it would make her appear indecisive or ‘flighty.’ Further, Clinton had to be firm in her dealings with military issues and was unable to admit it was a mistake to first support the war. That proved to be among the most controversial statements of the morning.

Celinda Lake, among the top political strategists and pollsters for the Democrats, discussed how generation may be a deciding factor in Barack Obama’s campaign, as he has rarely won the caucus for women over 60, and never lost in women under 30. She argued that generation has trumped gender in his campaign, and will prove a big issue for both he and McCain as we approach the election.

Race was also a major topic; panelists dissected how racial biases were still a major factor in spite of obscured prejudicial language. Is Obama too “white” for the African American vote? Was Bill Clinton the first “black” president? Professor of Law Patricia Williams observed the media’s reluctance to define Obama as biracial, arguing, “whiteness makes our ancestry invisible.” Said Williams, this election “race was gendered and gender raced,” attributing intersectionality as one of the major difficulties in unraveling the public and medias’ prejudices.

Ultimately, the discussion turned to whose responsibility it is to keep biases out of the media and as reduced a factor as possible in politics. Do we blame competition in the media, which many argue has lowered journalistic standards or the lack of government regulations for the American press? When does news veer from information to opinion? All panelists agreed that, to some extent, responsibility had to be shared by the public and politicians should reflect that. When asked what kind of social introspection the voters wanted from their candidates, Dr. Carroll said she was just hoping for “exploration and honesty.”

More fascinating than each individual view was the confluence of all of them, which clearly demonstrated the complexities knotted into the fabric of the United States social and political institutions. All came to the conclusion that this was an extraordinary and historical year in which politics made great strides, and if dissected, it could bring us greater wisdom in the future.

The experts included Christiane Amanpour, Chief International Correspondent on CNN; William Douglas, White House Correspondent; Juan Gonzalez, Columnist in the New York Daily News; Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center; Pamela Newkirk, Associate Professor of Journalism at NYU; Dr. Susan Carroll, Center for American Women and Politics; Celinda Lake, Political Strategist; Courtney E. Martin, Author and Columnist for the American Prospect Online; Dr. Ron Walters, Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland; and Patricia J. Williams, Author and Professor of Law at Columbia University.

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