As coverage of the 2022 midterms continues, NBC News Capitol Hill Correspondent Ali Vitali is ready to see more women running for office and watch how candidates are going to address women’s issues, including childcare and access to abortion.
During the 2020 election cycle, Vitali was on the campaign trail covering candidates like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar. It seemed like a remarkable year, one in which a woman finally had a chance to be elected as the president of the United States.
In her book Electable, which comes out on Aug. 23, Vitali writes about covering the race, misogyny in reporting on female candidates, and what is standing in the way of the first female becoming U.S. president. (Spoiler alert: also, misogyny.)
“It became a lot more evident that these feelings of misogyny are actually matched by fact and studies,” Vitali said of her writing of this book, which she spoke about to Poynter. This interview has been edited for length.
At one point in your book, you wrote about how Kamala Harris was criticized for taking reporters shopping with her, when male candidates have long done the same. How can the news media do better in not reinforcing misogyny?
I talk about it through Kamala both as a candidate, as evidenced in the chapter about the sparkly jacket, and carry it through to her vice presidency today. Those are some of the complaints that her office even has about some of the coverage that she’s gotten, which they would argue that she’s given less leeway as a Black woman in this role than her white male predecessor.
One of the conclusions that I draw at the end of the book is simply the diversification of newsrooms is something that will help this innately. I think that women and people of color, when they see misogynist or gendered or racist situations, are quicker to call them out.
In Electable, you discussed how female candidates are often labeled as “likable” or “unlikable,” when many male candidates do not often face the same question about likability. I’m wondering if you think female journalists are held under the same lens?
I know what my Twitter feed looks like some days, and I’m sure you do, too. There was the vitriol that I think got worse during the Trump years. It’s not just something that we see just with female journalists, but it’s something with lawmakers as well. There has been a real ratcheting up in the political environment in terms of threats, both verbal and physical.
When you think about the abilities, as I call them in the book – likability, electability and the others – there are electoral consequences for those. The thing that female journalists don’t have to worry about is we’re not trying to get anybody’s vote.
How do terms like the “women’s vote” undermine the fact that not all women think female candidates are cut out for the White House due to their gender?
I was out on the road in 2015, it was during the moment that Carly Fiorina was surging in the campaign, and a girl who was my age, 20-ish, said to me, “Yeah, I really like Carly Fiorina, but being a president isn’t a woman’s job.” It’s hard to envision things that haven’t existed and been embodied before in history in the United States.
Reporting stories that function through the lens of different voting blocks that go by gender, that go by race, that go by age group is an important way to tell a story and to highlight different threads. But, at the same time, I think that we really do need to bring nuance with a critical eye.
Especially when it comes to women, the thing that was always so striking to me, is the way that there would be sort of this public reckoning in ’16 and ’20 with white women voters coming out for Trump in large numbers. In fact, that’s not surprising because white women generally tend to trend conservative, but it felt like it was a shocking metric for some people after each election cycle.
The 2020 Democratic campaign trail was very long and hectic. How did you have the energy to go through it?
Coffee, so much coffee. I joke in the book that my producer Molly and I were either drinking coffee, finding coffee or thinking about coffee. Aside from the caffeine of it all, I think that being on the campaign trail requires such a love of the game, so to speak. I’m so invigorated and inspired when I go to events that are people coming together simply because they’re gathered around an idea or a candidate that they believe in.
What advice do you have for young political reporters who want to build relationships with politicians for better sourcing, but also not to create a conflict of interest?
I think that understanding that at the end of the day, whether you are an elected official or reporter, you guys are all still human just at a base level. I have found that coming to the table with that is really helpful, especially because if you’re in this for candid responses to questions, which is ideally what you’d get to do with a candidate every single day, you want them to get to know you so that you can get the best answers possible.
I did not get the opportunity to do this with Trump, but I try to do this with most candidates that I cover: go up to them after an event and just say, “Hey, I’m Ali, I’m with NBC, and I’m going to be covering your campaign. You’re going to be seeing me a lot.’ That doesn’t mean that you’re not holding them to account, but it does help you understand who they are as people as well as politicians.