Mainstream media have elevated a narrative about “dysfunction” in Vice President Kamala Harris’ office, also singling out her chief of staff, Tina Flournoy, who like Harris is a woman of color. Now, right-wing media are seizing on the story to exploit cultural double standards and further their partisan attacks on the Biden administration.
This began with articles three weeks ago from CNBC and Politico — which prompted a White House response to Axios, calling the story “a whisper campaign designed to sabotage” the vice president. But the narrative was renewed all over again last week in Business Insider, which cited staff turnover in Harris’ multiple public offices over the years — all of which still pale in comparison to the tumultuous White House departures that occurred during the Trump years. All of these articles have relied on anonymous quotes to attack Harris, Flournoy, and the overall office environment, compared to other people who have put their names forward to speak about their positive experiences. But it is the anonymous sources whose stories carried the day, in terms of the articles’ headlines and main narratives.
And in so doing, these outlets have not only glossed over the simple fact that the vice president’s work is inherently difficult, but they have also bought into a series of cultural double standards — and handed out talking points for right-wing media outlets to further exploit, given the right’s well-documented inability to land an attack on President Joe Biden, and to instead turn to culture wars.
Journalists quickly noted the double standards behind attacks on Harris’ office
Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty discussed the double standard of gender politics, when comparing the stories of Harris’ office to how qualities such as toughness and high demands of staffers are rewarded in male leaders such as President Lyndon Johnson or former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel — or the most recent Republican president.
When discussing qualities that people demand of their leaders, “easy to work for” rarely comes up — if the candidate is a man.
The catchphrase “You’re fired!” helped propel Donald Trump, star of “The Apprentice," into the ranks of mega-celebrities. Repeatedly invoked in his 2016 campaign for the presidency, those two words came to represent decisiveness, toughness and a low tolerance for those who do not perform.
But when a woman is in charge, or wants to be, a different and contradictory set of standards comes into play, something political scientists describe as “role incongruity.” Women are expected to conform to gender norms as warm nurturers, even as they break the mold.
Jazmine Ulloa of the Boston Globe also wrote on how the focus on Flournoy, in addition to Harris, “struck some experts as perpetuating negative stereotypes of professional women, and particularly women of color.”
“It has to go noted, the majority of the women in those articles were Black women,” said Pearl Dowe, a professor of political science and African American studies at Oxford College of Emory University, “and they are in high-profile positions that women of color have not held before.”
Flournoy got attacked for not arranging meetings of political donors to talk to the VP — yes, really
A significant portion of this narrative against both Harris and Flournoy, in which the chief of staff is depicted as a gatekeeper who has kept the vice president secluded away, in fact originated from complaints that Harris is not responding to big-money donors.
The CNBC article that helped get this narrative started used the word “donor” five times, including this excerpt on Harris’ supposed lack of responsiveness:
For instance, an influential Democratic donor who raised money for Harris’ failed bid for president recently tried to reach out to the vice president and had yet to receive a call back. Then this person decided to contact Flournoy.
That didn’t work. The donor reached out to a fellow Democratic financier for Flournoy’s contact information. But the fellow financier declined to share Flournoy’s email address for fear of losing access themselves.
The Politico article used the term “donor” four times, including in this passage:
Recently, a Harris friend personally reached out to Flournoy on behalf of one of the party’s top donors to try to arrange a brief meeting. They were ignored. The friend said it wasn’t clear whether Flournoy knew who they were. The donor also contacted Harris’ office personally to connect, and didn’t hear back for weeks. They eventually were told the VP was too busy to schedule some time.
“This is someone who has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars—millions, even—for your boss and you’re just blowing them off?” the Harris friend asked. “Next time Kamala wants [them] for something, it’s like, ‘Hey, I couldn’t even get a call-back from your chief of staff!’”
Of course, one can only imagine the complaints that would arise if such a significant person in the administration were spending more time talking with political donors — instead of working on behalf of the Biden administration’s priorities in areas such as the pandemic, economic recovery, immigration, or voting rights. (On those subjects, though, right-wing media have succeeded so far in setting an agenda involving blatantly false stories, getting mainstream media to buy into a series of political demands even as they keep moving the goalposts.)
And as SFGate columnist Eric Ting pointed out:
The report is odd in the sense that it shares nothing surprising. Historically, individuals become harder to reach once they hold powerful offices, and people on the outside have long complained about feeling shut out.
It can also be classified as odd that Harris' allies did not anticipate that it might be tougher to speak with her now that she's vice president and saw fit to go to CNBC anonymously believing they had a bombshell story.
How right-wing media are running with the reports
Harris has emerged as a top target of right-wing attacks — partly because Republicans have struggled to find an effective personal attack against Biden himself. So with mainstream media outlets actually taking the initiative on a series of personality stories that play into stereotypes, it’s no surprise that right-wing media outlets would jump on this new opportunity for themselves. Following the CNBC and Politico stores at the end of June, outlets such as National Review, The Daily Caller, and The Daily Wire all picked up the narrative of office dysfunction.
Then an odd scene occurred on the July 1 edition of Fox News’ The Story with Martha MacCallum: Liberal guest Leslie Marshall started out by giving in to the idea that the vice president’s office is “problematic,” saying, “It's unfortunate that there are individuals currently and formerly that feel that this environment is like this.”
“I don't put this on the vice president,” she said, adding, “I do put it more so on Ms. Flournoy, her chief of staff.”
Instead, it was conservative Fox News contributor Marc Thiessen who countered that working at such a high level of government is an inherently tough job, looking back on the grueling hours he put in working under former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “It was hard, it was difficult work, but it was a privilege,” Thiessen said. “I can't imagine complaining about the hostile or difficult work environment that I had. If you can't do the job, there are plenty of people who would love to replace you — resign.”
MacCallum soon steered the conversation back to blaming Harris: “But one of the reasons I think this story has gotten a lot of traction are the sort of, you know, snippy statements that we see the vice president's saying to reporters now and then.”
On the July 2 edition of America’s Newsroom, anchor Dana Perino boasted that Fox had covered the Politico story while other networks had not: “Compare that to all their coverage of Trump administration office intrigue, which was, you know, covered a lot.” (The difference in coverage might have had something to do with the sheer number of high-profile firings and resignations from senior officials under the last president, many of whom were later quoted criticizing him and the atmosphere of outright dysfunction.) In a further conversation, Fox News media analyst Howard Kurtz suggested that the story was being underreported by cable news because “the networks love the narrative of Kamala Harris as a trailblazing vice president.”
Fox prime-time host Tucker Carlson, who has openly trafficked in racial paranoia and sexist personal attacks against Harris, not only jumped on the article itself — he made sure to get in a preemptive strike against the idea it might be grounded in stereotypes.
“As Politico put it, Harris's team is experiencing low morale, porous lines of communication, and diminished trust among aides and senior officials,” Carlson said. “And then the article, of course, goes on to make the usual excuses for all of this. Quote, ‘Black women are subjected to standards that men often don't have to clear.’ Right. In other words, because Kamala Harris' father came from the Caribbean, it's OK that she is a monster to work for, got it. Hope that’s comforting to the women whose lives she’s wrecked.”
Fox News anchor Harris Faulkner cited the Politico and Business Insider articles during a July 16 segment — then attempted to turn it into a gotcha moment by replaying video of Biden on his first day in office, when he swore in senior staff and told them, “If you are ever working with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot.”
“So, I wonder what the conversations are like behind the scenes,” Faulkner said wryly.
Also on Friday night, Fox News contributor Jason Chaffetz guest-hosted Hannity, and dug into the reports. Previously, during the 2020 election campaign, Chaffetz insisted on repeatedly using the word “nasty” to describe Harris when it was announced that she would be Biden’s running mate, even after Fox anchor Julie Banderas said that such a term was no longer appropriate to use against a woman candidate. So naturally, this new round of stories attracted Chaffetz’s attention.
“Also tonight as Joe Biden gears up for another restful weekend away from the White House, his No. 2, Kamala Harris, is probably busy terrorizing her staff,” Chaffetz declared.