It has barely been a week since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became a household name after defeating long-time incumbent Senator Joe Crowley, Democratic Caucus Chair, for New York’s 14th Congressional District.
Prior to that defeat, few people outside the Bronx had heard of this 28-year old intellect. Well, perhaps a few in Washington had heard of her. She had interned for Ted Kennedy and worked for Bernie Sander’s campaign. So she wasn’t a complete unknown.
Still, out here on the West Coast, we didn’t know her.
Every day since she won, Cortez had made media rounds, appearing on nearly every major talk/news show. Since her win, I have listened to several of her interviews. Perhaps it’s because I have three daughters that my mother instinct rises on its haunches as I’ve listened to some of the questions put to Cortez, or read some of the news headlines and articles, or even read the Tweets attacking Cortez. Or maybe it’s because at age 61, I have had my fill of the biases inherent in media when it comes to women candidates.
I’ve been around long enough to remember all the early interviews with Hillary Clinton and to see how journalists even way back then tainted the public’s view of her and some continue to do so even today. As a journalist myself, I know how it is all about the word choice and the way a headline is written or a photo is used.
The men in one of the newsrooms where I once worked used to place bets on which marriages would last based on the engagement pictures the bride submitted. It was meant to be in good fun, this choosing of the bride with the most likely chance to succeed. And these were good men, kind men, men who never meant to harm anyone, and yet, their biases were clear. They based almost all their opinions on how pretty the bride was. In many ways, they were doing the exact same thing Zuckerberg was doing when he created the primitive version of Facebook based upon ranking the looks of the girls on campus. (You still owe women an apology for that Zuck. You aren’t going to like it when your own daughter faces such discriminations.)
That Cortez is outside the white man’s version of mainstream is no surprise. Her name alone gives her away: Puerto-Rican. Catholic. Bronx-born.
If that wasn’t enough to make white men who run the newsrooms across America hitch up their biases, Cortez identifies as a Democratic Socialist.
Anyone who lived through World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, and the American War in Vietnam has an immediate gut reaction to the word Socialist. It seems a certain demographic of the country has more concerns about the term “Socialism” than they do about the term “Totalitarianism”. Some, it seems, are more afraid of a “Socialist’ leader than an actual “Dictator.”
I’m not going to give a history lesson here on the origins of the word or how the term has evolved. You can look those things up yourself and you should.
I had a mentor teacher who used to say, “Meanings are in people, not in words.” At 19, I had no idea what my mentor was trying to say. Now, of course, I get it.
The words we choose matter because of the meanings that people associate with those words.
When I finished the Karly Sheehan story, I wrote an email to several “influencers.” In the book world, that means people who can help a book along. I had spent five years writing about child abuse, and had conducted a great deal of research. I included that research in my email in which I urged these “influencers” to please help promote the book. I didn’t find out until a couple of years later that one of those “influencers” – a fellow author and blogger in the faith world – was completely offended by my email because she thought I was talking down to her. An email that I had sent out to dozens of people, she took as a personal affront and attack because I included some of the details of my research. We have never been able to repair the professional relationship because for her, the email was personal. She interpreted the entire email as an attack on her lack of knowledge about abuse.
So, see, it’s not just the words we use, it’s how people frame or interpret them.
That’s why it is so very important for us, especially us journalists and writers, to be very intentional about what words we use.
And because I know how intentional news folks are about messaging, I question the way the mainstream media is approaching Cortez.
Headline after headline, news anchor after news anchor, interviewer after interviewer has attempted to put Cortez on the defensive by bringing up her identity as a “Democratic Socialist.” White men are doing this to undermine this 28-year old intellect. They are doing this to “put her in her place.” The thing the old guard likes least is a young person who is smarter and more articulate than them. The only thing they like even less than that is when that person is a woman of color.
Thankfully, Cortez is articulate. She knows the exact definition of a label the media intends to be negative. She defines Democratic Socialist as this: “For me that means in a modern, moral and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live. What that means to me is health care as a human right. It means that every child, no matter where you are born, should have access to college or trade school education, if they so choose it. It means affordable housing for all.”
Why do we not call Trump a “hyper-authoritarian capitalist”? Cortez said, noting that labels are used to instill fear because every politician understands a fearful voter is controlled more easily than a voter who educates themselves.
The problem though is that people in power want to stay in power. We can’t have affordable housing for everyone because that might mean instead of living in a 25,000 square foot home, a rich guy might have to give up 5,000 square feet. It means that poor kids would have equal access to education and then we might end up with more Cortezes running the show instead of McConnells. It might mean the end of the reign of mighty WASPs. It might mean more Catholics in office. It might mean more women of color and less white men in Congress.
So the headlines have been screaming about a split in the Democratic party – progressives versus traditionalists. (Remember who writes those headlines, btw. White men in power.) As if there isn’t an ever-widening chasm between Trump cultists and old-school McCain Republicans. Where are the headlines about that? Huh?
There’s an art to demeaning women candidates. Old people won’t support a candidate like Cortez, the headlines holler. Her brand of politics won’t fly in the MidWest, claim some of the old guard. I’d like to point out that the old guard’s particular brand of politics and policy isn’t doing so well in the MidWest. Or among us folks who remember the way the media raked Hillary over the coals when she pushed for universal health care back when we were Cortez’s age.
Bottom line is that being an intelligent, intentional, articulate woman candidate isn’t good enough for media corporations. Media is still throwing its collective weight behind the good ole boys club that has controlled Washington for far too long.
Hopefully, though, those of us who remember, those of us who have grown weary of rich white men making all the policies for all the rest us can coalesce around the message of “Vote Them Out.”
Cortez is exactly the sort of people we need more of in every branch of our government.
Not just a woman for a woman’s sake.
But a woman who is intelligent. Articulate. Kind. Ambitious. Moral. And, yes, very intentional.
I don’t care what label media, both liberal and conservative, put on it, that’s the sort of candidate I want to see more of and will vote for everytime.
And I am not alone,
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of CHRISTIAN BEND (Mercer University Press).