Will the Media Ever Stop Admonishing Hillary Clinton?

Trump cozies up to dictators, grifts off taxpayers, and takes away our liberties. So why are pundits and reporters more fixated on criticizing the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee?

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There is nothing more that I’d love to do than stop talking about the 2016 Election.

But we will never get off this hellacious merry-go-round if Hillary Clinton’s army of detractors are always at the ready to tell her how bad and flawed and obviously wrong she is whenever she answers questions about her campaign. Which is why the debate continues anew, over and over again.

On Tuesday, Clinton chatted with Christiane Amanpour at a Women for Women International event in New York. She spoke on a number of topics, but what sparked the most attention was this candid remark: “If the election had been on October 27, I would be your president.” Before saying so, she took “absolute personal responsibility” for her loss and then cited data from FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver that illustrated how FBI Director James Comey’s letter, together with Russia interference, likely pushed Trump over the finish line.

And like moths to a flame, the usual media types came out of the woodwork to chastise Clinton for her comments. New York Times White House correspondent Glenn Thrush snarked, “Mea Culpa—not so much.” CNN’s Chris Cillizza said, “Hillary Clinton made one thing VERY clear today: She thinks the election was taken from her.” And Maggie Haberman even “both sides’d” the matter of it all by tweeting, “Saying one thing and then saying the opposite. It’s what POTUS does too.”

Much like the way society punishes women for the subversive act of seeking power—as Clinton saw with sinking poll numbers once she announced her presidential run—we also figuratively tar and feather women for having the audacity to lose. The more Clinton acknowledges her own accountability, the hungrier the media sharks are for blood. It is not enough to repeatedly cop to the strategical errors of her presidential bid, which—compared to FBI interference, Russia meddling, a “whitelash” on the heels of our first Black president, and a patriarchal system that has shut women out of executive power for more than two centuries—had arguably less of an impact on the end result than those extreme hurdles. No, Clinton has to beg for mercy at the altar of the church of public opinion. It is certainly no coincidence that the first female nominee for president was also the first to say “I’m sorry” after losing. That is the burden of being a member of at least one underrepresented group: Even in a system designed against you, nothing short of “I am solely to blame” will ever suffice.

Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin pondered in the Washington Post: “I don’t know what psychic pleasure people get out of her public self-flagellation … it does seem a bit perverse to insist Clinton—who apparently apologized to Obama for the loss—continue to rend her garments in public every single time she shows up.” But there is nothing surprising about the societal tendency to shame women; it’s a tradition as old as time. From the Salem Witch Trials to repressive reproductive laws, patriarchal power structures will always aim to control our bodies—both physically and mentally—in order to keep women from encroaching upon male-dominated territories. The hunger to humiliate Clinton is especially strong because she is the only woman in America who has climbed so high up the political ladder. As writer Melissa McEwan noted, “There is no more damning evidence of the unfathomable scope of misogyny to which Hillary Clinton is subjected than the fact that the U.S. media’s favorite game is trying to destroy her.”

Part of why it is so easy for media members to pass the buck onto Clinton is because it feels more natural to turn blame inwards on women. Studies have shown that men’s failures are more often attributed to external factors, while women’s missteps are more likely to be branded as intrinsic shortcomings (conversely, when men succeed, we tend to cite their personal abilities; when women do, it is perceived as “luck”). It’s why when Al Gore and John Kerry fell short in their respective campaigns in 2000 and 2004, the overarching narratives around their losses revolved around “hanging chads” or “Swiftboating.” For Hillary? She should have just visited Wisconsin more (never mind that she would have still lost the presidency even if she had won that particular Rust Belt state).

And there is certainly a self-preservation element to some in the political media’s insistence that Clinton should shoulder most or all of the blame for the election’s results: It offers the Fourth Estate an avenue toward absolution for their own role in the outcome. Just like it would be wrongheaded for Clinton to pinpoint her loss only on forces outside of her, it is disingenuous for members of the press corps to act as though their editorial decisions had little to no effect on the electorate. When there were five times as many Clinton email stories as Trump conflicts of interest pieces across three major outlets, when only 10 percent of coverage was dedicated to policy, and when the candidates were framed on falsely equivalent terms, something has broken. It is incredibly ironic that journalists who cast all kinds of critical stones on those in power feel as though they are above reproach.  

And that is why it is so incredibly important to keep pushing back on the narrow-minded postmortems around the forces that culminated in November. We will never learn the most incisive lessons from this election if an overwhelmingly white and male news media is setting these stories. To put a finer point on it: A press that is not representative of the country it reports on will always be limited in scope and out of touch with the population at-large. We are seeing that so clearly in the Trump era.


A friend of mine recently described this neverending need to object to overarching media narratives as if we were “salmon fighting against the patriarchal current.”

And so we keep swimming.


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