Motherhood in the Media: How the Mainstream Press is Failing Families in Election Coverage

By Candice O’Grady
Web Exculsive – November 3, 2008

national capitolIn the lead up to November’s election, it would seem that mothers have something to celebrate. Since Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was thrust into the political spotlight as John McCain’s running mate, motherhood became part of the national conversation. Before breaking open the Champagne, though, the coverage itself demands serious scrutiny. Rather than seeking to explore whether the candidates’ political platforms support the creation of healthy families, discussions of motherhood have focused largely on an inane detailing of Palin’s private life, accompanied by a rehashing of stereotypes about women’s voting ethics. Mass media coverage of mothering has been more revealing about news values than about the issues that matter most to families.

The corporate press defines motherhood primarily as a matter of identity. It is a descriptor meant to give insight into Sarah Palin’s character as a politician. Palin is the GOP vice-presidential hopeful and a mother, a Christian, a recreational hunter, a maverick, a former beauty pageant winner, and so on. There has been scant meaningful discussion about how, or indeed if, motherhood has guided her political goals. This is not to suggest that Palin’s policies are necessarily profoundly influenced by motherhood, or even that they should be. However, if motherhood is to be a cornerstone of coverage?which it should be?then it merits some depth of analysis. Mothering is the most basic, foundational job in any society. Mothers understand how politics play out in daily life and have clear demands that relate directly to the lives of their children.

Quite to the contrary, news stories generally relegate motherhood to the domain of Palin’s personal life, which implies that parenthood has no place in the public sphere. By removing motherhood from the business of politics, in essence consigning it to the home, the news media minimizes its relevance to social and political change. Motherhood is ousted from public dialogue, which potentially weakens its presence in the public conscience as well. So, while motherhood frequently surfaces in election news, it is generally presented along a few narrow and superficial story lines. The two most prominent narratives being, a cult of celebrity obsession over Palin’s personal life, and the idea that Palin is, and speaks for, the average American woman.

The first story line is myopically biographical, scrutinizing the details of life in the Palin family. CNN political contributor Amy Holmes (LINK: http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0810/24/ijvm.01.html) blamed audiences for shortcomings in the press, “I think it’s also that we have a fascination with women in the public eye, its women who sell the covers of ?Us Weekly’ every week… Did she get dumped, divorced, who’s she pregnant with, who she’s dating.” Fellow CNN analyst Leslie Sanchez agreed, “Well, it’s exactly true. When she first came out that very first day, the questions were, can she be a mother, a leader, a governor, a vice presidential candidate with a child with special needs?” While this kind of coverage may satiate public curiosity, neither is it of real consequence to the average family, nor does it draw the important connection between parenthood and political action, between the personal and the political.

In an interview with CBS anchor Katie Couric, Palin did make the connection between identity and political intentions. “I think more and more American women are recognizing, “Right on. We’ve got someone whom we can believe in also, someone who is committed to putting our country first, who recognizes that the life/family balance that’s so necessary, as we try to progress our families and the businesses that we own’… I do believe that American women can recognize in me an advocate and a friend.” While Palin emphasized that being a woman and a mother is precisely what qualifies her to lead, she offered no details about how she would support families. Do her policies actually advance the issues that matter to many mothers, like healthcare, fair wages, peace, the environment, food prices, fuel costs and education? Do mothers actually support this patriotic notion of country first and family second? While individual opinions will no doubt vary, the point is that mothers have an interest in, and an opinion about, these critical political issues. The gossip-column quality of coverage patronizes mothers as engaged citizen and the work of mothering itself.

There is also an oft-repeated assumption that mothers should, and do, support Palin’s campaign because she represents the “average” American woman. For example, conservative think tank fellow Janice Crouse stated on NPR, “She’s made it to the highest ranks. And most mainstream women are glad that it wasn’t a radical feminist who is right there at the threshold of the highest position in the country… Here’s a woman who has balanced family, husband, career in a way that is very admirable to mainstream women.” It seems an absurd generalization to crown Palin spokesperson for the average American woman, particularly given her stance on issues like abortion, global warming and equal pay. Unless, of course, women are thought not to care about these issues. It is, however, a myth with considerable legs.

Palin is presented as every hockey mom, a populist who understands the concerns of regular people in real America. Fox News host Martha MacCallum said, “I see somebody who worked her way, you know, through the system when she was a mom. She, you know, worked in the PTA. She ran for mayor; she achieved that goal. She ran for governor; she achieved that goal. So, you know, just aside from the politics, can you appreciate at all this woman’s achievements? She’s a mother.” This narrative attempts to unify mothers with Palin outside of the political arena. It implies that even if you don’t agree with her views, you share a slew of important commonalities in life. Again, motherhood is firmly separated from politics. While many mothers may indeed respect Palin’s career, there is no “politics aside” in a presidential election. Issues matter above all, to mothers above all.

This is really the most troubling aspect of mass media coverage of motherhood in the 2008 campaign. It lumped mothers into a false and relatively a-political hegemony, suggesting that the average mom supports Palin simply because they both have kids. According to this logic, for mothers politics is a matter of identity over policy. Or simply put, mothers vote for a person like themselves rather than for a candidate who represents their values and visions for the country. Contrary to this prevalent message, however, women are not flocking to support Palin. According to a recent Gallup poll, 54 percent of women are supporting the Democratic ticket, while a Pew poll found that 60 percent of women have a negative view of Palin. Women are not herding to support the so-called “Jane Six-Pack” candidate. They are voting on issues that matter to their lives.

Motherhood is transformative and can be political. It has been a source of women’s activism and organizing for centuries. While the issues today may be vastly different, the spirit is the same. For mothers, political engagement is a matter of practicality; how do we ensure the best possible present and future for our children?

Candice was raised in Toronto, Canada. She currently lives in the Bronx with her daughter Violet Solana (7 months), her husband Julian and their little black dog Pinto. A onetime newspaper reporter, she is now a full-time mama and a freelance writer.