Giving the "Daughter Test" to Mainstream Media

06/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Back in the 1980's, I was on the NYC Human Rights Commission that held hearings on the pervasive problem of sexual harassment in the construction sector. The most moving story I heard during that period came from a male construction worker. He talked about what a typical day looked like, including the standard lunch breaks on the curb with his male co-workers, and the usual rounds of catcalling out to women as they walked by.

He never questioned any of it -- not until the day came when the face that looked back at him was his daughter's.

The young women those construction workers called out to were not being raped, physically threatened, or grabbed at. Catcalling is a relatively light offense compared to what happened to the women working in construction zones in those days -- the heavy objects "accidentally" falling nearby, the lewd pictures, feces and threatening objects women found in their lockers every day.

Yet what each young woman received was an early lesson about their bodies and their place in the world. While boy's bodies were growing into a source of strength and power, respect and pride, theirs were growing into a source of shame, vulnerability and possible danger. Lessons no decent father ever wants his daughter to have to learn.

But our daughters are still learning these degrading and discouraging lessons -- most recently through the media coverage of the 2008 election. No one -- not even Clinton herself -- is saying that she lost the race for president because of sexism in cable news or the blogosphere, and the degree to which sexist coverage played a part is debatable. Yet we lost something for our nation's daughters who were sent a strong message about fairness during the primary season -- you can play, but it won't be a fair fight.

Like the construction worker's catcalls, pundits barraged the airwaves with offensive chatter -- but with little to no accountability. On-air comments that created a hostile climate (the basis for sexual harassment suits) for millions of women were acknowledged by executives as "a few quickly corrected mistakes" in otherwise "fair networks."

Sexual harassment laws protect women within the newsroom from being demeaned -- but what about the women who listen to the messages? Where does the responsibility lie in news organizations and the media to ensure that the sexual harassment of women doesn't stream into living rooms across America?

To be clear, I don't believe there is a media conspiracy against women, or that the media was out to get Clinton, as some claimed in a recent New York Times article. Nor do I believe that Clinton and her supporters called the media out to cover a losing campaign.

Instead, I think that the media creates and reflects public perceptions, and needs to do a better job of it. Tomorrow, a group of nationally recognized panelists in media and politics will come together in New York for "From Soundbites to Solutions: Bias, Punditry and the Press in the 2008 Election", to discuss how this election cycle has played out in the media, and how we can institute the changes that we want to see. It's a conversation that is long overdue in this country.

Women -- and their male supporters -- are angry about the continued sexism that pervades American culture. They are angry for what women have had to go through, what they continue to confront, and what may happen to their daughters if this doesn't change. Nor do they like what their sons hear being modeled for them.

Just as the harassment that female construction workers received was intended to intimidate and scare them off their jobs, this climate, whether purposefully or accidentally, certainly will make some women think twice about the costs of public life and seeking public office.

Apparently accountability is hard to come by -- but daughters are a widespread phenomenon. So let's start asking our network executives and our political pundits -- do you want your daughter to hear this? Would you want these words used about your daughter? Would you defend your company if your daughter were described publicly in the way Hillary Clinton was described?

If not, let's stop the too-familiar titles of "she-devil" and "witch" to our describe woman leaders. Let's elevate the standard that we set for ourselves and for each other. Our daughters are listening.