Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Bachmann & Palin: Media Attention about Intellect

In keeping with the Bachmann/Palin them in recent posts, I wanted to write a little about the media’s attention with respect to these two women.  Several aspects of it are very troubling to me.  Strains have been sexist, in my opinion.  And I don’t see much acknowledgement of that bias.

First, for the past year as pundits speculated about whether one or both of these women would run for president, there was a consistent focus on exposing them as being dumb and/or ignorant.  It is conceded that the same sort of attacks were lodged against Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush in their day.  But beyond those two particular men, such a focus on the intellect or knowledge of a candidate is rather unusual.  I’ve been following politics for years and what I have observed is that generally there is an assumption the candidates are intelligent and reasonably well-informed.  In most elections, there does not seem to be a consistent attempt to prove a candidate is a moron or uneducated.

All politicians (and other mere mortals) will make mistakes.  They will say things that are incorrect at times.  Or they will phrase something inartfully.  However, when folks like John McCain and Mitt Romney have appeared on the campaign trail, I don’t remember the same “gotcha” mentality where the news and entertainment media seem to be constantly focusing on the candidates’ errors.  McCain (the war hero and long-time member of Congress) and Romney (the accomplished businessman and former governor of a large state) seem to get a certain level of respect just by showing up.  They command a certain level of seriousness as a candidate per the media.  To perhaps a lesser extent, other candidates get the same inherent respect and the same benefit of the doubt.  But the media seem to go out of their way to find errors and laugh at Palin and Bachmann. 

Because of similar media attitudes towards Reagan and the younger Bush, one might characterize this as an anti-evangelical attitude on the part of the media and less of an example of sexism.  However, Bachmann and Palin have been the only female candidates who received serious attention this year as possible presidential candidates.  When so few women have sought the presidency EVER, and in one year two women were serious contenders for a major party ticket, it is noticeable that they were also the current prime recipients of scrutiny about their smarts. 

The pattern has not sit right with me.  There seems to have been an undercurrent of “those ditzy women” to these attacks.  Indeed, it reminds me of the ridicule endured by Christine O’Donnell when she ran for the Senate in Delaware.  It also reminds me of how former Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders was publicly ridiculed and eventually abandoned in a cowardly fashion by the Clinton administration when she had the courage to voice bold suggestions to significant public health issues. Though I am repulsed by much of the politics of Bachmann and Palin, I do resent any attack on them prompted by their gender.  I do believe the attacks on Bachmann and Palin are rooted at least in part in the fact that they are female.  I’m puzzled that more people are not concerned about that.  I am not sure why more liberal feminists haven’t at least raised the issue.

It shouldn’t be necessary to defend the credentials of Governor Palin and Representative Bachmann, but here goes.  Bachmann is a lawyer with an advanced degree in tax law.  (It should be noted that tax is a rather elite legal specialty respected within the profession as being conceptually challenging.)  Palin earned a bachelor’s degree—making her educational attainment equivalent with past presidents Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Dwight Eisenhower.  Perhaps Palin doesn’t read newspapers on a regular basis, but this is the twenty-first century and she is not alone on that point.  Both Bachmann and Palin have a clear gift for oratory.  Whether or not you agree with what they say, it must be acknowledged that they are well-skilled at speaking to audiences, igniting enthusiasm and encouraging grass roots political support.  That is a lot more than some politicians ever muster.

The media’s focus on the alleged stupidity or ignorance of Bachmann and Palin seem unwise.  Such a focus seems mean-spirited.  To the extent that segments of the public identify with Bachmann and Palin, it is similar to attacking average Joes (or Josephines).  There is plenty of empirical data that as a whole we Americans are poorly educated and we don’t know our own history.  If the media jumps all over an error by popular candidates, indirectly that is also an attack on all the other Americans who are in a similar boat.  The media ends up looking like media elites badgering the common folk.  That was one of the lessons of the Reagan era.

Besides, the media aren’t necessarily any more knowledgeable.  Not long after Sarah Palin’s maligned comments about Paul Revere, NPR interviewed a history professor who indicated that Ms. Palin’s comments were not really historically inaccurate.  The link below contains the interview in question. 

Ephesians 4:2

Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love.

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