Covering Tanden Drama, Press Plays Dumb On Sexism (And Racism)

Neera Tanden

Neera Tanden

Reprinted with permission from Press Run

The easiest way for the media to deal with the menacing role gender and race play in American politics, is to simply ignore the topics.

We're watching that dynamic play out this week as President Joe Biden's nominee to become the director of the OMB, Neera Tanden, faces roadblocks from key U.S. senators who are using an unprecedented standard to vote against her. Specifically, they're citing her 'mean tweets' from the past.

"I believe her overtly partisan statements will have a toxic and detrimental impact on the important working relationship between members of Congress and the next director of the Office of Management and Budget," announced Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV).

With that, Manchin likely became the first United States senator in history to vote against a cabinet-level nominee from his own party because that person was deemed to be too partisan. Because her tone was wrong. That stunning bout of illogical concern barely drew a second look from Beltway pundits, many of whom nodded their heads in agreement, as if the uncharted move made perfect sense.

What Manchin's unheard-of claim should have prompted from the press was a search for the real reason behind his objections, and why it's possible all 50 Republican senators will vote against Tanden, when no previous Biden nominee has faced that kind of uniform GOP opposition. It should have sparked a searing and widespread look at whether women, and particularly women of color, are held to a different standard when they throw some partisan elbows around. (In 2018, Manchin voted to confirm right-wing Twitter troll Richard Grenell to become U.S. Ambassador to Germany.)

But the Beltway press doesn't want to dwell on prejudice. Anxious to turn the Tanden story into a procedural one, the news media stress the Biden White House is to blame for the possibly failed nominee; for "miscalculating."

Why play dumb? Because if you ignore or downplay sexism — if you ignore the ugly whiff of misogyny and white privilege in the air — you can treat the Tanden story as a process one. You can pretend that the White House bungled the nomination, and that Biden aides are the ones to blame. That's the easy route, and that's the one so many news outlets have taken.

A recent Associated Press report on the nomination waited until the 24th paragraph to even bring up the idea that sexism might be in play. The AP suggested poor White House planning was by far a bigger factor.

This CNN report never bothered to address the idea that Tanden is being held to a higher standard. Instead, it claimed her precarious nomination simply reflects the challenges the Biden White House faces with a Senate that's split 50-50.

The Washington Post actually did a piece about the "Tanden standard" for nominees, yet the article did not include a single sentence about the role gender or race plays in U.S. politics. Additionally, the Post dinged the White House for the "rocky rollout of Tanden's nomination" and how it has sparked an administration-wide "controversy" — not about sexism, but about vote counting.

Over at Politico, a recent, hysterical report portrayed the Tanden nomination as a colossal, unmitigated political disaster for the White House. Her bid "appeared to spectacularly collapse this week," and had become a "major political stumble" for Biden. The problem with the "ham-handed" handling of the nomination is that Tanden is an ally of Hillary Clinton who's "grasping for power" inside the new White House.

Even more breathless Politico insights:

If Tanden's struggles have exposed anything, it's that Democrats have been holding onto a myth that the team who wrestled the presidential nomination away from dozens of primary competitors, then beat President DONALD TRUMP, would move into the White House and execute with a high level of precision and sophistication.

Oh my! Suddenly Tanden represents a window into the world of Democratic incompetence. ("Dems in Disarray," anybody?)

To tell that tall tale, Politico obviously ignored all traces of prejudice in the story. Because acknowledging that ugly specter ruins the preferred narrative about White House bungling.

By the way, most of the news coverage of Tanden's nomination makes passing reference to her previous "controversial" and "harsh" tweets that are supposedly so damning, but very few news organizations detail what they looked like. I suspect that's because, in truth, they weren't that bad and certainly were not out of bounds for mainstream, partisan commentary in the hot house environment of Twitter. (She once claimed vampires have "more heart" than Sen. Ted Cruz.)

It's not surprising the Beltway press is ducking the sexism story, specifically. There still hasn't been an open and honest media discussion about how the political press mistreated Hillary Clinton when she ran in 2016, and in 2008. Instead, the press remains committed to the idea that Clinton was a uniquely flawed candidate. That way journalists don't have to acknowledge their sexist sins of the past.

New York Times political editor Patrick Healy last year: "I don't think we applied double standards to Clinton." This, from the newspaper that for 16 months treated Clinton's private emails is if they were Iran Contra + Watergate.

Why does the Times remain in denial about 2016? Because admitting that the paper engaged in deeply sexist behavior would damage how the Times likes tomarket itself, as being a fair, open-minded, and forward-thinking enterprise.

Democratic women of color continue to be held to a different Beltway set of rules in public life. That's just not a story the press wants to tell.

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