Vice President Kamala Harris Is Making Headlines Again—Surprised? No. Disappointed? Yes.

Everyone could and should be inspired right now by this living history, not waiting to “celebrate” Harris in years to come. We owe it to Harris to pull back the curtain and allow her to step into the light.

“Could Kamala Harris and Gavin Newsom face off for a 2024 nomination?”

—Business Insider

“Time for Harris to Cut Biden Loose”

—Wall Street Journal

“Come Again, Kamala?”

—The Cut

Surprised? No. Disappointed … yes.

None of the recent press covers Harris’s powerful speech on voting rights, delivered in Atlanta on Jan. 12, nor the $1.2 billion of investment in Central America that she secured from private sector companies to help stabilize the region and address the root cause of migration. December’s Maternal Health Day of Action, which she spearheaded at the White House, was the first of its kind and builds on the Maternal Care Act and Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act she introduced during her time in the Senate.

These piercing headlines are part of a troubling pattern that I’ve observed regarding how the press reports on women in positions of power. There’s the buildup, with flattering interviews and gushing features filled with overwhelming positive quotes from friends, colleagues and admirers. There’s the anointment, with the magazine covers and prime-time interviews and accolades.

And then comes the tear down.

Vice President Harris has lived this multiple times in her career—during her time as district attorney of San Francisco and as attorney general of California. Her star rose again with her election to the Senate and the launch of her presidential campaign. Nearly every other campaign suffered the same fate as Harris’s, but no one else endured the microscopic, negative postmortem of the Harris campaign.

The cycle repeated when she was named to the Democratic ticket in the summer of 2020, with her star once again rising through the campaign, the transition, and the inauguration.

And then, like clockwork, the negative headlines began again.

In pieces about the so-called dysfunction of her office, old staffers who worked for her for mere months were quoted instead of her longtime colleagues. Despite the criticism she drew from her words to migrants coming from the Northern Triangle—“do not come, do not come”—she remained focused on making the region safer for those who live there and worked with both the private sector to invest in the region and several cabinet offices to address corruption. Her preference for wired headphones and a copper pot purchased in France drew criticism and commentary from nearly every mainstream outlet, ignoring the documented risks of Bluetooth and Harris’s passion for cooking.

One year in her office, and Harris has dealt with more criticism and negative press than any of her predecessors—one who oversaw a disastrous response to a global pandemic, another who drew this country into two unwinnable wars and shot his friend.

Why is that?

“I … saw the proliferation and toxicity of misinformation and disinformation that’s targeted at women, particularly women of color,” Laphonza Butler, a senior advisor on Harris’s presidential campaign, told Elle. The spread of this disinformation and negative press by design—it is extremely effective in preserving power in the hands of those who have always owned it (white men), and deters those who wish to serve (largely women of color). And it’s why Harris doubled down on leaning on her ambition, in the face of the negative press and wildly inaccurate reporting.

“I think the vice president got a lot of criticism for being ambitious, but thank god she was,” said Butler. “It was her ambition to serve that prepared her to be our country’s first woman and Black woman vice president, to pierce that glass ceiling.”

In her first address to the nation as vice president-elect, Harris said, “Tonight, I reflect on their [suffragists and civil rights activists] struggle, their determination, and the strength of their vision—to see what can be unburdened by what has been—I stand on their shoulders.”

Kamala Harris
Vice President Kamala Harris with a young supporter during her Senate run. (Instagram)

Society is beginning to see what can be unburdened by what has been. It’s why a record number of women were elected to the House of Representatives in 2018, and thousands of more women are running for office and mobilizing to advocate for paid leave while juggling work and caregiving responsibilities in a pandemic.

Some members of the press are beginning to unburden themselves of the status quo as well.

“Vice President Harris has recently been subject to a degree of press scrutiny that is unequaled by any modern holder of the office who was not also the architect of an illegal war and a proponent of torture who also happened to shoot one of his friends in the face with a shotgun,” writes David Rothkopf in The Daily Beast. “Few areas reveal her successes and strengths as clearly as how she has handled her broad foreign policy portfolio. While she has not received credit for much of what she has done in this area, she has been undaunted, working with a methodical intensity that has won admirers around the world and among her closest colleagues.”

One year into her historic time in office, the groundwork has been laid. What’s clear is that this path and the narrative must change.  

While vice presidents rarely get centerstage coverage in any administration, what we have in the Biden-Harris Administration is history in the making. For decades, we’ve watched countless white men speak at us and draft legislation about us—from what we do with our bodies, families, careers and more. It’s past time for the media to shift away from that coverage and to stop ignoring when our highest-elected woman in office is speaking passionately about key women’s issues, such as the Maternal Care Act and Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act that she championed.

It’s past time for the media to stop ignoring when our highest-elected woman in office is speaking passionately about key women’s issues.

The first step of that change is to allow her voice to be heard. We can’t allow outlets—both reputable and otherwise—to continue to reduce her and other women’s coverage to clickbait, shallow reporting and gotcha journalism. For years, we’ve seen it with women on both sides of the aisle, including Reps. Maxine Waters, Sheila Jackson Lee, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren and Liz Cheney, who have repeatedly endured blatantly slanted coverage that systematically aims to discredit their abilities and accomplishments, dilute their successes and strengths and/or ignore their efforts in favor of their male counterparts. 

Media outlets need to be called out by their viewers, subscribers, employees and readers for their biased coverage, as well as their lack of coverage. Not only should we question outlets about why her important speeches aren’t being covered, but we need to collectively—through social media posts, petitions, calls to outlets, etc.—press them to cover major upcoming events on topics relevant to our key demographic.

It’s time for the same womens organizations, sororities, student and business coalitions to (re)join forces to meet with media editorial boards and executive leadership to put them on notice over their biases and to stress that their hefty member bases demand more visibility and transparency on all topics, but particularly those that speak to them.

With Black History Month here and Women’s History Month approaching, what we have is history in the making—yet it is going largely unseen and unheard. Millions of young girls in schools could and should be inspired right now by this living history, not waiting to “celebrate” Harris in years to come. Everyone should be bearing witness to her legacy in real time. We owe it to Harris to pull back the curtain and allow her to step into the light. This time in history demands authenticity and transparency of our leaders. If media outlets won’t do it, then Harris’s own team would be well served to facilitate posting regular video clips, photos and speeches, organizing more rallies and public engagement moments that speak directly to girls, students and women and non-binary people of all races and ages that deliver her unfiltered messages.

Harris is fallible—like her predecessors. She will make mistakes and will bear the criticism, learn from it and continue to work tirelessly as she always has. She has also withstood the relentless press cycle of build up-anointment-tear down over her career.

And every time, Harris emerges unburdened, unwavering and undaunted.

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About

Hitha Palepu is the author of We're Speaking: The Life Lessons of Kamala Harris, a feminist, lifelong politics enthusiast, immigrant daughter, mother raising two feminist sons, and a multi-hyphenated career woman. Hitha’s passion for the news and politics is captured in #5SmartReads, a Webby-honored social series that shares 5 must-read articles every day.