If Elizabeth Warren wins the presidency, one reason will be the calm and forthright way she rebutted right-wing claims (amplified by some on the left, unfortunately) that she lied about being fired from a teaching job because of her pregnancy in 1971. And if she doesn’t win, it could conceivably come down to the way mainstream media spread those claims. Just looking at the stories that leading news outlets ran about three prominent Democratic contenders in the last two days—not just Warren, but Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, too—it’s starting to feel like the media didn’t learn nearly enough from the way it helped elect Donald Trump in 2016 by hyper-focusing on Hillary Clinton’s every allegedly wrong move.
Let’s start with the Warren story. On the campaign trail this year, Warren has made losing her first teaching job because she was pregnant a staple of her captivating origin story. It would vary a little, but it’s always a version of what she wrote in her 2013 book, A Fighting Chance: “By the end of the school year, I was pretty obviously pregnant. The principal did what I think a lot of principals did back then—wished me good luck, didn’t ask me back the next school year, and hired someone else for the job.” Traveling with Warren across Iowa in May, I watched women in the crowd shake their heads when she told this story, ruefully identifying with her.
But last week Jacobin staff writer Meagan Day, a Bernie Sanders supporter, tweeted a link to an interview Warren gave in 2007, in which the Massachusetts senator said she left public-school teaching because the credentialing courses she needed weren’t “going to work out for me” given her pregnancy, and made no mention of being fired. On Monday the right-wing Washington Free Beacon published minutes of a local New Jersey school board meeting that showed that in fact, Warren had been offered a contract to return to her special-education job for a second year. (Making her a liar, in case that went past you.)
The next morning, Warren took to Twitter to calmly explain that yes, the board had offered to renew her contract, before it was public that she was expecting her first child. Once she was “visibly pregnant,” however, the principal told her the job she’d been promised “would go to someone else.” She invited other women to share their stories of pregnancy discrimination.
Apparently CBS News had been working on a similar story, which they ran on Tuesday, perhaps prompted by the Free Beacon “scoop.” Warren confirmed to the network that she’d been offered a contract, before her superiors knew she was pregnant. “I was pregnant, but nobody knew it,” Warren said. “And then a couple of months later when I was six months pregnant and it was pretty obvious, the principal called me in, wished me luck, and said he was going to hire someone else for the job.” The CBS piece also quoted two former teaching colleagues who said she “would have had no choice but to leave the job because she was pregnant.” All in all, good work by the network’s reporters.
But not so much its chyron writers. The accompanying segment, which mostly backed up Warren’s current account, ran on television (and the Web) with the chyron “Warren stands by her story,” which made it sound as though she’d been credibly accused of lying, giving the faux controversy more media oxygen. And now the smear is in most major papers and cable news shows.
That’s just one example of how the media proves it didn’t learn nearly enough from 2016. On Wednesday, The New York Times published an op-ed arguing that “What Hunter Biden Did Was Legal—And That’s The Problem” by Peter Schweizer, a Steve Bannon ally and Breitbart editor who first collaborated with the Times in 2015 to promote his error-filled book Clinton Cash. Schweizer has tried, and mostly failed, to make the Hunter Biden story take off for a long time. I guess it should be counted as progress that he admits the former VP’s troubled son did nothing illegal, and that the Times has downgraded his work from news to opinion. (For the record, I think Hunter Biden’s taking up to $50,000 a month from any business entity, while his father was vice president, was wrong—but publishing Schweizer was more wrong.) Still—and I say this as someone who has newly resubscribed to the Times—the paper does a lot of great work, but regularly commits professional malpractice like this when it comes to domestic politics.
Meanwhile, NBC News had a supposed scoop Tuesday, asking how California Senator Kamala Harris is responding to a claim that an attorney in her husband’s law firm, DLA Piper—one of the largest in the nation, with thousands of lawyers—sexually assaulted a junior partner. Excuse me? It was bad enough when Clinton had to answer for her husband’s personal misbehavior; now Harris is supposed to answer for one of her husband’s thousands of colleagues? But as Clinton’s 2016 press secretary Brian Fallon tweeted:
If you dont think the women running for President have it harder, consider the last 24 hrs. People are questioning if Warren was fired for being pregnant because it wasnt admitted on official records and Harris is being asked about misconduct at a law firm where she never worked.
—Brian Fallon (@brianefallon) October 8, 2019
The Warren story matters most, because it plays into the way we’ve all been socialized to see women as untrustworthy, which, honestly folks, is gonna make it hard to elect our first woman president. At the same time, it underscores how even our own personal understanding of gender discrimination can evolve over time. I know I’ve revised my own career story many times as I’ve become more or differently conscious of the role being a woman has played in my work history—as well as the way being white has been an advantage, if I’m being totally honest.
Sometimes, for better or worse, we remember what we feel we had control over—those education courses just weren’t going to work for me—rather than perceive ourselves as victims. And sometimes, social change makes us recognize what we took for granted as social norms—like the fact that “the rule was at five months you had to leave when you were pregnant,” as Warren’s coworker told CBS News. You think it was a rule—until you understand it was discrimination.
I admire the way Warren calmly pushed back on the tale, and how she invited other women to tell their stories of pregnancy discrimination, showing just how common it is. Social media, too, refuted the Biden and Harris garbage stories, and slowed their spread. But I’m still anxious watching outlets like CBS, NBC, and the Times get played that way. We’re in an ever-worsening constitutional crisis. Elevating non-scandals involving the Democratic contenders feels like another desperate attempt at “both sides” journalism, which failed us in 2016, and which we absolutely can’t afford right now.