A black man, a Mormon, a Southern Baptist minister and a woman all walk into a bar. Which of them do you vote for in an election?

The only punch line in this joke happens to be their coverage in the media. Sadly, the media prefer to play up hot-button issues like gender, race and religion rather than discussing important political policy. We all lose as voters.

The Republican Party has aggressively courted the vote of Christian evangelicals. This strategy has brought many Christian conservatives to the polls, and their moral values have come with them. GOP candidates increasingly appear to require a "pro-life" view of abortion to win the nomination.

Someone forgot to tell this to Rudy Giuliani, who lost massive support when the focus switched to faith and values in December. Republicans John McCain, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney all benefited in the polls, and all oppose abortion.

The religious tension has been played up the most between two candidates: Huckabee (a former Baptist minister) and Romney (a Mormon). Both have made strong appeals to Christian conservatives for votes, but Huckabee has the upper hand so far.

The media said over and over that Romney's Mormonism would be a problem. Romney is the first serious Mormon candidate in a presidential election (his father ran briefly in 1968). The media obsessively drew parallels with another Massachusetts politician, John F. Kennedy, our first Catholic president.

The media's pressure worked. Romney chose to discuss his faith in a speech in December and delivered it in Houston, just as Kennedy did 48 years earlier. The media for the most part poured praise on the speech, despite the fact that it said little and showed intolerance for nonreligious Americans.

The national media would have done better to discuss Romney's flip-flop on abortion, as the local media in New Hampshire blasted him for making what seemed a politically motivated major policy change. He ran a far more socially liberal campaign for the Senate spot in 1994 and governor in 2002.

Huckabee has been the candidate most often associated with faith, at times controversially. His campaign released an ad before Christmas that quickly set off a firestorm. The ad's background featured a tree and what appeared to be a floating cross. Political pundits denounced the ad as using over-the-top Christian symbolism and charged Huckabee with infusing the race with religion.

The cross turned out to be a white bookshelf, and Huckabee downplayed its significance. Meanwhile, the media devoted ample space to the ad instead of informing voters about real campaign issues like Huckabee's adoption of the Fair Tax plan .

However, Huckabee eventually benefited from this heightened attention to faith over policy. A few weeks later, he surged to a win in the Iowa caucus, carried on a wave of Christian conservatives.

But Huckabee's strategy might have backfired in Michigan, where Romney eked out a win with Christian conservatives. Huckabee made intensely religious comments about changing the Constitution "to reflect God's standards." This is a radical statement suggesting a theocracy and may have mortally wounded Huckabee's campaign.

Religion has had little bearing on the Democratic side, where gender and race dominate. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama present the best opportunity to date for a female or black candidate to become president.

The media's coverage of these two candidates has been unbalanced from the beginning. Obama has been hyped as an exciting newcomer who can overcome all divides, including race, while Clinton has been portrayed as the divisive Wicked Witch from the 90s. This view has been supported in several media studies ( here and here ).

The coverage has only gotten worse in the last few weeks. In the media, it's OK to be a sexist if you're attacking, like Chris Mathews who said on MSNBC:
"Let's not forget, and I'll be brutal, the reason she's a U.S. senator, the reason she's a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner, is that her husband messed around."
Aside from sinking ratings from women, Mathews has felt no consequences from this comment. Of course, Don Imus got fired last year for using the racist language of "nappy-headed hos" when describing black basketball players from Rutgers University on his radio show.

I highlight two glaring examples from last week's campaign coverage to display the disparity. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a national co-chairman for Obama's campaign, appeared on MSNBC and strongly criticized Clinton's so-called crying incident as sensitive and selfish. He continued by suggesting that Clinton shed no tears for the victims of Hurricane Katrina (evoking memories of evacuees stranded at the Superdome). Jackson tried to conflate the two issues in the hopes that South Carolina voters would get upset with Clinton -- he happily points out that 45% of Democratic voters there are black.


The truth happened differently. Clinton might have shown emotion in New Hampshire, but she didn't cry. And she discussed America's future, not her own. Furthermore, she introduced many innovative pieces of legislation on Hurricane Katrina, including S. 1622 calling for an investigation into Hurricane Katrina along the lines of the 9/11 Commission.

I found Jackson's statements shocking. They were both sexist, because women are often stereotyped as the sensitive sex, and racist, suggesting that a white woman ignored the plight of black evacuees. Did the media cover it? Nope. Google it, and you'll see what I mean.

The media, however, couldn't get enough of Bob Johnson, the founder of BET and a Clinton supporter, when he suggested that Obama was doing bad things (like using cocaine, as Obama mentioned in Dreams From My Father ) in the "neighborhood."


Johnson, through the Clinton campaign, issued a statement saying the comments referred to Obama's work as an organizer in the community, not drug use. Predictably, nobody bought the excuse after watching the video -- community organizing isn't sensational.

The press release was an awkward effort, and the campaign probably should have reacted as it did in New Hampshire. Bill Shaheen, a Clinton campaign co-chairman who brought up Obama's cocaine use on the stump there, was asked to resign after mentioning drug use.

Now try Googling Bob Johnson and Obama. You'll see immediately how the media jumped on the story and used it to criticize Clinton. I guess the sexist coverage both before and after her "only bothered female voters in New Hampshire -- who chose to vote for Clinton."

The media has made a mockery of topics like gender, race and religion, instead of covering important policy topics -- such as the economy -- that bear on the future of America.

This is no way to pick a president.