Palin controversy sparks debate about media bias,sexism
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Palin controversy sparks debate about media bias,sexism

Date: September 8, 2008
By: Valerie Insinna and Emily Coleman
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - The national debate about the news coverage of GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin has sparked a similar debate among Missouri's politicians.

National, some Republicans have attacked coverage of Palin's background -- suggesting a gender bias in coverage.  It's also sparked a gender debate about fairness in covering female public figures.

In Missouri, reaction to Palin's coverage splits along party lines with some Republicans suggesting sexism while Democrats suggest it's Palin's background that has attracted attention.

"I can think of a lot of candidates, male and female, whose families have been thoroughly looked at and reported on if there is something to say," Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, said. "The media has a huge responsibility in our messy democracy to bring things out that the average person doesn't have any way of finding out or knowing."

State Auditor Susan Montee -- one of Missouri's two Democratic women statewide office holders -- said because Palin was relatively unknown to the American public and because of the element of surprise in her appointment, Palin was thrust into the center of media spotlight.

"I think that anytime you put any candidate out there like Sarah Palin was, there is a grab for anything," she said. "If it were a male candidate, it would be the same grab for anything. I'm not buying into questioning the qualifications of Sarah Palin as sexist."

But a different view was voiced by a Republican member of the state Senate.

Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said Palin's family life and child-rearing abilities are judged more harshly because she is a woman.

"Biden was lionized and canonized for being a single father raising his son and commuting back and forth to Washington, D.C. as a United States Senator," Crowell said. "Immediately some commentators were saying if Gov. Palin, was at home, her daughter would have never gotten pregnant, which is unbelievable that a statement from a major media outlet would ever publish or put forth that."

One woman Republican suggested it was a combination of both gender and policy.

Rep. Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis County, said the media attacks conservative women primarily because of their ideology.

"Liberals have a definition of female," she said. "You have to be female in gender and you have to adhere to the liberal ideology, especially on abortion and sexuality issues. If you meet the gender part of that definition without the ideology part, you've not only lost the definition of a woman, you become the enemy."

Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-O'Fallon, said feminist allegations that Palin should stay home to take care of her children are hypocritical.

"I don't understand why all the women are not coming out in defense of Sarah Palin on this issue," Davis said. "This is one case that the women aren't staying together."

Davis said sexism exists even in local and state governments, where women have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously by the media and the public.

"I had a scheduled c-section so that I would only miss five legislative days when my baby was born because I didn't want people attacking me for taking time off," Davis said. "Yet there are men in the legislature who've taken much more time off for less physical conditions. Only 20 percent of the Missouri legislature is made up of women, and there is an old boys club and they do go out and play poker and smoke cigars late at night and the women do get excluded."

Bray, a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor, said media scrutiny of a candidate like Palin is "standard operating procedure" regardless of gender or party. Nonetheless, she said female politicians are subject to criticism about appearance as well as issues.

"I do think that the media focuses too much on women candidates, what they do look like, what their hairstyle is," Bray said. "You never hear a male candidate described for what color tie he's wearing like you do with women, whether they're wearing a pantsuit or a skirt or whatever."

Cunningham said both male and female politicians are judged on having a polished, professional appearance, and that politics is no different than business in what is expected in dress and hygiene.

"How you present yourself and how you carry yourself--your demeanor, your dress-- are all part of a package that both men and women need to be cognizant of," Cunningham said.

Montee said a good relationship with the press is essential for running good government.

Cunningham said she hopes the media continues it's attack on Palin -- suggesting it's helping the GOP.  "Sarah is showing us her survival skills," Cunningham said. "She seems to almost enjoy the target practice and the more they keep coming after her, the better she looks and the more people love her."