WASHINGTON — Are the news media being beastly to Hillary Clinton? Are political reporters and commentators — as Bill Clinton suggested but didn’t quite come out and say in a radio interview Tuesday — basically in the tank for Barack Obama?

“The political press has avowedly played a role in this election. I’ve never seen this before,” the former president said. “They’ve been active participants in this election. … But I don’t want to talk about the press. I want to talk about the people. That’s what’s wrong with this election, people trying to take this election away from the people.”

Somewhere in there, if I’m not mistaken, he acknowledged that journalists are people, too, so I guess I should be thankful for that. And I should note that throughout the interview with Washington’s WMAL, Bill Clinton was back in loose-cannon mode. He said Hillary Clinton “has been the underdog ever since Iowa,” which is not true. To support that unsupportable assertion, he implied that the political establishment is opposed to his wife’s candidacy, which is not true. And he claimed that “we’ve gotten plenty of delegates on a shoestring,” which is true only if you don’t count the more than $100 million the Clinton campaign has raised (and mostly spent).

The former president also explained some of the campaign’s embarrassing losses by saying that caucuses “disproportionately favor upper-income voters,” and said of those rich folks that they “don’t really need a president but feel like they need a change.” I don’t recall traffic jams of chauffeured limousines around the caucus sites in Iowa, Maine and the other caucus states Clinton lost.

The theme of press bias, however, is woven through the Clinton campaign’s narrative of the story thus far. There are two basic allegations: that journalists look at Obama uncritically while subjecting Hillary Clinton to microscopic scrutiny; and that we react with hair-trigger reflexes when attacks on Obama have the slightest whiff of racism, but don’t seem to notice, or care, when Clinton is subjected to rank sexism.

The first charge is just bogus, in my view. Like Clinton, Obama has developed position papers on all the major issues. Clinton has been able to highlight the differences between her proposals and Obama’s — for example, the fact that her plan for universal health insurance includes a mandate, whereas Obama’s does not. In debates, she has had the chance to challenge his approach and defend her own. It is not the media’s fault if voters fail to agree with Clinton that nominating Obama would be a “leap of faith.”

It is true that the candidates’ stump speeches are markedly different: Clinton’s is about competence and diligence, Obama’s about hope and change. But journalists didn’t write those speeches, campaign speechwriters did. And any reporter or commentator who failed to note that Obama is an exceptional public speaker would be guilty of journalistic malpractice.

Reporters are busy combing through Obama’s personal, professional and financial history, just as they have examined the lives of the Clintons. Obama has facilitated this process by releasing his tax returns, which Clinton has declined to do. It is not unfair to point this out.

The contention about racism versus sexism is harder to dismiss out of hand. Being unapologetically racist or sexist is no longer acceptable in this country, at least in most settings. The social censure for being publicly racist, though, is well codified; the perpetrator must recant and repent, and may never completely eliminate the taint. There’s also pretty solid consensus on what’s racist and what isn’t. The views on sexism are less settled.

When John Edwards, in one of the early ensemble-cast debates, mentioned Hillary Clinton’s attire, I think everyone agreed he had made a mistake. Yet it’s not always out of bounds to comment on a presidential candidate’s wardrobe and appearance, or else we wouldn’t have chuckled at Edwards’ $400 haircut or Mitt Romney’s game-show-host mien.

When people refer to Hillary Clinton as strident, is that a sexist code word? I think it probably is.

But when her speaking voice is described unfavorably, is that blaming her unfairly for physiology that’s obviously beyond her control? Are male journalists just not used to hearing a woman’s voice speak with presidential authority? Or are they making a valid observation about dynamics and tone, which are within her power to modulate?

Is sexism in the coverage of the Clinton campaign excusable? No, and we deserve to be called on it. But it wasn’t the media that decided she should take for granted all those states Barack Obama has been winning.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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