DENVER -- Three of the most prominent figures in television news agreed during a forum today that media coverage of the presidential campaign has been largely fair, focused on important issues and relatively free of sexism.
Then Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell spoke his version of truth to power.
After the panel discussion with Tom Brokaw of NBC News, Bob Schieffer of CBS News and George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, Rendell offered concluding remarks at a brunch hosted by the Joan Shorenstein Center of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Rendell said that from his vantage point as a Hillary Clinton supporter, the primary-race coverage had focused more on personalities than issues; that sexism was undeniable in the coverage; and that the media’s treatment of Barack Obama during the primaries “was, ladies and gentlemen, embarrassing.”
At the gathering in the grand ballroom of Denver’s posh Brown Palace Hotel, Rendell dressed down the three Sunday news show hosts and their colleagues in the broadcast and print media on several scores.
He criticized Stephanopoulos’s handling of an April debate between Obama and Clinton, in which the first 45 minutes focused on personal gaffes or contradictory statements by the candidates. In that debate, the ABC anchors grilled Obama on antipatriotic comments by his former pastor, on why Obama didn’t always wear a flag in his lapel, and his remarks that working class Americans were bitter and clung to their guns. By the time the debate got to policy differences, Rendell said, viewers weren’t even paying attention to hear Clinton dominate on the issues.
“Running for the most important office in the world, Obama got basically a free pass,” Rendell said of the media’s coverage. (Rendell said he now supports Obama fully and will work hard for him now that he has earned the nomination.)
Stephanopoulos answered that Americans choose their president in part based on a gut check on whether they are electable, and that the campaign was driven by those disputes at that point as a way to measure Obama’s electability, so the questions were justified.
Rendell said his sense of women’s anger over the perceived sexism came through the lens of his wife, Marjorie, a federal judge appointed by President Bill Clinton. She was repeatedly outraged, the governor recounted, not least by the extended coverage of Clinton’s near-tears moment on the eve of the New Hampshire primary.
Rendell said he had burst into tears at a service for slain National Guard soldiers from Pennsylvania with less media interest than Clinton received for her tear-free moment.
Brokaw defended the attention to Clinton’s tearful display, saying Clinton had portrayed herself as a steely politician so her emotional moment was unusual -- and newsworthy. And Schieffer recalled that Democrat Ed Muskie’s staff, defending unsuccessfully Muskie’s emotional moment in 1972, put out a press release saying: “Jesus wept.”
Rendell also complained that John McCain has been allowed to get away with obscuring his stands on issues. Rendell said 50 to 60 percent of people living in the Philadelphia suburbs “believe John McCain is pro-choice,” and he has an image of being moderate, or even progressive. In fact, McCain has an unblemished anti-abortion rights record.
Rendell said McCain has made more flip-flops on key policy issues such as tax policy, “but he gets away with it.”
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.