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‘Women On The Bus’

May 19, 2016

Long time readers to this blog know my respect for and interest in the ‘boys on the bus’ who reported the rollicking adventures of past presidential elections.  This election cycle, however, has turned that old saying into something new and timed to the nomination of our first female candidate.   I know one thing for sure—Mary McGrory is smiling.

No one can say for sure how Clinton ended up with a traveling press pool made up almost entirely of women, but it is a remarkable shift in political journalism, where, until very recently, the proportion of women covering presidential races has roughly reflected that of Congress. (About 20 percent, rounded up.) At MSNBC, all of the major candidates are trailed by female journalists—with Kristen Welker reporting on Clinton, Katy Tur on Donald Trump, Kasie Hunt on Bernie Sanders, and Hallie Jackson on Ted Cruz—while at CNN, women represent a little more than half of the election correspondents. Among reporters following other candidates, the gender ratio has been inching toward an even split, with the women of the Trump campaign perhaps capturing the most attention for the arsenal of colorful epithets he has deployed against them. But Clinton’s press corps is still rare enough to qualify as a phenomenon: Of the reporters who dip in and out of the campaign trail, there are 26 women and only three men. “It is definitely different” is how Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s communications director, describes it.

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Clinton didn’t have her own press corps until 1999, when she left Washington amid impeachment hearings and softly launched her Senate campaign. “In the [Chuck] Schumer race, it wasn’t unusual for me to be the only woman on the plane,” says Beth Harpaz, who covered the Senate for the AP then. “With Hillary, it was striking how many news organizations assigned women to cover her.” One outlet even sent a features writer instead of their politics reporter. “I can’t be in those editors’ heads, but perhaps they thought it would help with access,” adds Harpaz, who subsequently wrote The Girls in the Van: Covering Hillary, a 2001 book about the experience that has been rereleased this year.

Gwen Ifill, the coanchor of PBS NewsHour, recalls this being the unfortunate standard not just with women but also with African-Americans. Ifill got her start covering Jesse Jackson’s presidential run in 1984, the same year that Geraldine Ferraro ran as the first female vice-presidential nominee. “Something predictable happened, which is that every newspaper found a woman they could send on the road with her,” Ifill says. “It’s a pathetic way of looking at it, but that’s where a lot of them got their start. Suddenly you see people who can perform and do the job. You just had to put women in those roles.”

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