Hardball Flirts With Understanding Women Voters

Scott Swenson

Hardball's Chris Matthews took heat from Clinton supporters during the primary and appears to be trying to learn more about the complexity of women voters in recent shows. Give him credit for trying, even though he still succombs to the "it's all about abortion" mentality.

Hardball’s Chris Matthews took heat from supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton during the primary and has spent significant time since Sen. Barack Obama secured the nomination discussing the pain her supporters feel. The critique was justified, and perhaps some of his coverage now is an attempt to understand the complexity of women voters, like so many things in mainstream media, too often over-simplified.

Give Matthews credit for trying, and during this election, highly charged with gender, race and age issues, often being wiling to say "I’m uncomfortable discussing issues this way as a white guy." His acknowledged challenge, and his personality, may allow other white guys to learn with him as the body politic wrestles with what equality means. Matthews has had some hits and misses, especially on the issue of abortion, as he uses his show to model discussions Americans are having about politics.

Perhaps the most important thing to realize about women voters is that it isn’t just about abortion, no matter which side of the issue you’re on. In fact, abortion, as the mainstream media sees it, isn’t just about abortion either. For traditional politicos and mainstream media (as well as some leading voices in the progressive blogosphere, ahem), abortion has become shorthand for a range of reproductive health issues that women care deeply about.

From pre- and post-natal care and maternal health to comprehensive sexuality education that gives girls the power to negotiate relationships and helps boys understand responsibility; from access to birth control and the far-right’s efforts to make contraception illegal, to preventing sexually transmitted infections, these nuances are lost in the much easier to cover red hot politics that have defined the generation since Roe.

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Women’s bodies, because of their amazing life-generating capability, should not be parsed politically as they have been for far too long. These issues are about women’s reproductive health care, insuring women are healthy, have the ability to determine whether, when and how many children to have, and that they have access to a full range of medically safe options to prevent unintended pregnancies.

If Matthews and other mainstream media want to add something productive to the debate, they should move off the 1970’s polarization established by the far-right and look at these issues for what they are — women’s health care.

It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the rise of the far-right, their skillful use of misinformation and distortion playing on people’s discomfort with the issue of abortion, and a vitriolic politics that has divided the nation, also defines much of the 35 years since Roe.

It isn’t liberals that have held the nation hostage on this issue, or that have failed to promote education and prevention measures, it is the prohibitionists on the far-right and it is fair for journalists to cover that accurately because it is the truth. Matthews is starting down an interesting path with his discussions about women voters, and if he chooses to embrace what he is learning, will be the better for it. His frank discussions on race and increasingly diverse panelists are good guides.

Matthews’ guests in one discussion; former Maryland Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood, and Ellen Moran of Emily’s List, did a great job covering a range of issues that included the threat to Roe if more activist conservative justices like Scalia, Alito and Roberts are appointed to the Supreme Court. Townsend reminded viewers of women who died in the pre-Roe era, as they do in all countries that prohibit abortion. Outlawing aboriton does nothing to stop it, only making it unsafe. But Matthews appeared to get squeamish while acknowledging he’d heard these stories, and moved the conversation along.

It’s fair to talk about life when discussing the termination of a pregnancy, and it is important we talk about the woman’s life, for she is often a mother already, choosing to end an unintended pregnancy. Overturning Roe will leave some children motherless. Let’s have the debate about elevating the rights of a fertilized egg above those of a mother of three struggling to make ends meet, as Colorado voters will be asked to do this fall.

Richards and Moran helped broaden the discussion to women’s health care needs like affordable family planning, cancer screening for low-income women and providing health care for low income children. All issues women care about that too often get dismissed in discussions about abortion, and all issues that most of the same people opposed to abortion rights, also oppose, at home and in our policies abroad.

In his interview with Sen. Dick Durbin, Matthews claimed that he doesn’t hear Democrats talking about the need for education and prevention efforts to reduce the number of abortions. Matthews isn’t listening to progressive leaders and pro-choice groups who champion the Prevention First Act, the Responsible Education About Life Act, Unintended Pregnancy Reduction Act, or the Access to Birth Control Act. On the global policy front, a debate continues to fester in Congress over HIV Prevention in Africa, which largely impacts women and girls, with the far-right playing (and some Democrats caving) on fears of abortion politics once again — an issue that has nothing to do with preventing the spread of HIV. These and other prevention efforts are supported by politicians in both parties, just not those in the extreme far-right wing of the GOP. Media Matters has a great look at several instances on Hardball where Matthews’ guests have in fact talked about preventing abortion.

After Durbin provides a broad brush look at the prevention goals, Matthews does suggest that anyone who is on the wrong side of prevention legislation will pay politically. He’s right, and the next time he has Wendy Wright from the Concerned Women for America, or Tony Perkins from the Family Research Council, or any of his other far-right regulars, he should ask them why they are opposed to contraception, family planning, comprehensive sexuality education and other efforts to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies or spread of HIV. Matthews should ask those questions of conservative strategists, Senators and Congressmen who come on his show, instead of just touching on abortion then moving on. (The relevant exchange with Sen. Durbin begins at 2:04 with a discussion of women voters more generally, then the question of abortion at 3:00. Unfortunately NBC doesn’t make its video more easily available.)

Finally, in this exchange with conservative Las Vegas radio personality Heidi Harris and Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman (an intellectual mismatch of gargantuan proportion), Amy Goodman calls up issues of concern to women: war, minimum wage, social security, poverty, and the people surrounding Sen. John McCain, highlighting the canceled fundraiser at the home of Texas oil baron Clayton Williams who infamously compared rape to bad weather, saying "you just have to lay back and enjoy it."

Harris suggests "abortion doesn’t matter to women under 50, they don’t care about abortion rights … 30 year old women don’t have a concept of what it’s like not to have that right," and "I don’t think its going to change no matter who is on the Supreme Court." Harris’ uninformed rant at the end of the interview demonstrates cable TV bookers over-reliance on the same personalities when, in fact, there are many qualified women who could discuss the full range of reproductive health issues more cogently, many of them featured here on Rewire. (Relevant portion begins at 5:17 but the entire interview is worth watching to see what passes for conservative these days, and because Amy Goodman is so good at making the points she wants to make).

Matthews is not everyone’s cup of tea and Hardball is aptly named as it reflects its host’s on air style. As he continues to work through his discomfort discussing issues of race, gender, and age that are all front and center in this election, we can at least be thankful that he hears the critics and attempts to make adjustments. On the specific issues of women’s reproductive health and rights, it is not just Matthews, but most of the mainstream media that must disabuse itself of the notion that it’s all about abortion. In a year defined by change, it is possible to shift this debate to more accurately reflect the personal and private life decisions American families face so that voters can make better judgments come November. The media should do its job and accurately report the facts on reproductive health and the politics surrounding it, demonstrating that it too can change to reflect what is really going on in America.

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