Here’s Why That Letter From Women Leaders To The News Media Is Such A Big Deal

Cami Anderson > Articles & News > Opinion Pieces > Here’s Why That Letter From Women Leaders To The News Media Is Such A Big Deal

At the end of last week — in anticipation of Joe Biden’s imminent and long-awaited announcement of his running mate — a group of powerful women issued a clarion call for anti-sexist and anti-racist reporting. The memo, entitled, “We Have Her Back,” addressed to “News Division Heads, Editors in Chief, Bureau Chiefs, Political Directors, Editors, Producers, Reporters and Anchors,” didn’t mince words. “Women have been subject to stereotypes and tropes about qualifications, leadership, looks, relationships and experience. Those stereotypes are often amplified and weaponized for Black and Brown women,” they wrote.

The diversity and profile of the signatories, as well as the proactive and pointed nature of the approach, are unprecedented. NARAL, Planned Parenthood, Supermajority, Time’s Up, Emily’s List, Higher Heights for America, along with other influential organizations, have always had a focus on supporting women in power. But this coordinated effort is different.

Right after I saw the letter, I spoke with five of the signatories: Ilyse Hogue, Valerie Jarrett, Melanie Newman, Cecile Richards and Hilary Rosen. I also talked to political scientist Keneshia Grant, Ph.D., at Howard University, whose recent piece in the Washington Post steered directly into the intersection of race and gender, and Glynda Carr, whose organization, Higher Heights for America, is helping elect Black women across the country. From these conversations, I gained unique insight into how the group came together and why they felt the need to act now.

“Time to put down a marker.”

For months, speculation about Biden’s VP choice put the leaders on his shortlist in the news on a daily basis — all women and mostly women of color. Signatories of the memo felt the media coverage and public conversation was quickly descending into all-too-familiar patterns where female public figures are portrayed in a stereotypical and non-serious light. The Los Angeles Times, as one example, recently compared the selection of a presidential running mate to receiving a rose on “The Bachelor.”Recommended For You

The women I spoke to said they’d had enough and were not waiting for a formal invitation to speak out.

“We’ve all seen the coverage about the vice presidential candidates… Media outlets are already taking traits we often think of as positive in men [and making them negative for the female candidates],” shared Melanie Newman, senior vice president of communications and culture at Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

Hilary Rosen, vice chair of political strategy firm SKDKnickerbocker, points out, “Whether it’s mocking Kamala Harris’ ambition or praising Karen Bass because she’s not being difficult or hogging the camera…the systematic undertones of sexism and racism [were already prevalent].”

Cecile Richards, co-founder of Supermajority and former president of Planned Parenthood, feels it too. “We already see people asking questions like, ‘Does that person smile enough? Are they too ambitious?’ I certainly hope someone who could hold the highest office is ambitious.”

Glynda Carr, president, CEO and co-founder of Higher Heights for America, agrees. “Ambitious leadership is what they should be looking for, but if it’s a Black woman it’s seen as a negative…I am glad to see (the signatories) using this as a teachable moment.”

Valerie Jarrett, a lawyer and businesswoman who notably served as a senior advisor to President Obama, explained how this increasing concern translated to action. “We have already seen disparities in how women are being treated, so we thought it was time to put down a marker.” She recalls, “What started as a conversation around supporting the vice presidential nominee led to a mandate to act now. It is unfortunate that it’s necessary, but it is, and we plan to follow through. We purposefully did this as a group to make our voices louder. There is strength in numbers.”

“Fool me once…”

“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me a dozen times, shame on me,” Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, quipped. “I think we all hoped Hillary would be able to run on her merits in 2016. We saw the blatant misogyny in that election.” Even in this year’s primaries, she points out, many of the most qualified candidates were women, but were forced to drop out earlier than their less qualified counterparts.

Robust research, including several studies about the 2016 election, have compared how the media treats male and female candidates. In study after study, women receive proportionally less coverage overall, and stories focus on their appearance and family more than men. Female candidates are also more likely to be scrutinized in terms of their competence regardless of their résumé.

Moreover, that biased coverage seeps into how the public perceives the candidates — voters look negatively at women depicted as “power-seeking,” while exactly the opposite is true for male candidates.

And yet, despite having the first female candidate for president of a major party in 2016, little attention was paid to these double standards. Even in my own circles, people still want to try to convince me gender played a very small role in Clinton’s loss—despite irrefutable evidence.

The signers of “We Have Her Back” are determined to learn from the past.

Richards recalls, “The excitement and anticipation mounting for Biden’s vice presidential pick was tempered by stories about the women in consideration. It felt like a retread of the Hillary Clinton race. [Several of us] regret not calling out that double standard more explicitly then.”

“Coming out of the 2016 election, Black women had a feeling of confusion about white women who voted for Donald Trump,” shares Professor Grant. “It really hit me at the Women’s March on Washington.” She and so many women — including me — felt the collective and loud advocacy was too little, and too late. “We Have Her Back” is different.

“This (moment) feels like people stepping up to ‘do better’ [proactively],” she says.

“We have to call this out.”

This isn’t your ordinary advocacy memo, it is a checklist worthy of being pinned up in every newsroom in America. The signatories make their expectations crystal clear: “We believe it is your job to, not just pay attention to these stereotypes, but to actively work to be anti-racist and anti-sexist in your coverage (i.e., equal) as this political season progresses and this presidential ticket is introduced. As much as you have the public’s trust, you also have great power.”

Richards offers specifics. “Things won’t change overnight, but media executives have a responsibility to check their writing and their stories. It’s important for reporting to not just be ‘not sexist’ but to be actively anti-sexist. This requires thinking more carefully about what they report and how they report it.”

Rosen echoes this sentiment, “It won’t always be an easy conversation and editors won’t always agree, but in a moment when media organizations are looking inward, this needs to be on their agenda.”

Rosen and I talk about the lack of representation of women in the media and the role that plays in perpetuating stereotypes. “The reality is that there aren’t that many female bosses to receive this memo,” says Rosen.

Jarrett emphasizes the need to teach the media and the public about just how pervasive the problem is. “Biases are subconscious, [reporters] need to ask themselves the question, ‘Would you say the same thing if you were describing a man?’ If the answer is no, then don’t do it.”

What truly sets this memo apart is that these women have a plan for holding news organizations accountable. Hogue explains to me tactics that will monitor what is coming out, including talking points and active disinformation campaigns. “There is a historical approach to pitting women — specifically white women — against women to help the GOP win. And we have to call this out.”

Social media will be essential to this effort. In fact, several of those I spoke with emphasized the role of all women — especially informal influencers — in questioning sexism and racism. We need to fact-check stories before sharing them and challenge our own biases. It’s time for us all to “get off the sidelines.”

“A sisterhood together saying, ‘enough.’”

Professor Grant is as impressed by what this letter means as I am. “It is great to see so many women who have that kind of position, who have influence and can shape the media, step up this proactively.”

What’s different about this, offers Rosen, is that “it’s not a formal organization, but a group of leaders together saying, enough.”

“We have unprecedented numbers of young women running so we have to get this right,” says Richards. “I’m proud to be part of a sisterhood saying, enough.”

Carr has the same concern. “We already see the negative framing and we need to call the question early so voters get fair and balanced coverage to make this important choice. We can’t afford an [incorrect] narrative that will make it harder for us to win.”

Hogue explains, “We know that having a woman on the ticket can help Biden win, but that advantage can be eroded by tapping into unexamined misogyny. Having a woman at the table is an advantage, but it won’t happen if we don’t have fair and equitable coverage.”

“We want to close the gender gap,” says Jarrett. “We are early in the process and our goal is to change behavior,” she acknowledges. But the immediate goal is “to let the VP nominee know they are not alone.”

The unprecedented “We Have Your Back” memo makes clear that the next Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate is surrounded by an army of women demanding fair and equitable coverage. By publishing this note, these pioneering and influential women — and others they hope to inspire — are putting a stake in the ground. They won’t let this election be about hairstyles and roses, but instead about the awesome and inspiring possibility of having a woman one step away from running our country.

And, as Joe Biden would say, that’s a BFD.

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