In September 1992, then-presidential candidate Ross Perot accused two female journalists of “trying to prove their manhood” following a TV segment that was critical of him. Perot, who had previously exited the race only to re-enter it, bristled at the scrutiny and deflected from the substance of the questions raised by whining that the style of the two women associated with the report was inappropriate or unbecoming.
Things have since improved for female TV anchors and journalists, but not nearly as much as they should have considering that criticism still tends to focus on style rather than substance. Today, most use euphemisms like “tone,” “pushy,” “toughness,” or “not pressing enough” to criticize and undermine the credibility of female journalists.
On his February 8th show, Howard Kurtz, host of Fox News' MediaBuzz, actually defended the appalling behavior of Senator and potential 2016 GOP presidential contender Rand Paul, in which he condescended to, shushed, and told a female anchor to “calm down” during an appearance on CNBC. Co-host Kelly Evans was critical in her line of questioning, beginning the interview by asking Senator Paul about comments he'd made in a radio interview with conservative host Laura Ingraham just prior to appearing on CNBC where he said that he believed vaccinations “for the most part...ought to be voluntary.”
In his analysis, Kurtz accused Evans of having a “chip on her shoulder” for starting the interview with this question. This, despite the fact that the question on vaccinating children was becoming something of a litmus test for potential GOP 2016 contenders, many of whom spent the week tripping all over themselves to walk the line between public safety, common sense and anti-science rhetoric. Evans actually gave Senator Paul (who is also a physician) the opportunity to clarify his comments, who initially gave a sarcastic non-answer, “I guess being for freedom would be really unusual? I guess I don't understand the point, why that would be controversial.” Senator Paul's condescending tone continued from there, scolding Evans several times during the interview. Evans did interrupt as Senator Paul attempted to run down the clock with a classic politician non-answer in response to questions about reports suggesting that the long-term consequences of tax holiday legislation he'd introduced with Senator Barbara Boxer could potentially cost the federal governement money in the long run. Visibly agitated and thrown off his game, Paul resorted to shushing Evans in a manner that I last heard when a friend was trying to quiet her agitated baby. The interview ended with a final scolding from Paul and a respectful apology from Evans.
While many reviews acknowledged Paul's sexist behavior -- Kurtz himself said “shushing a host, especially a woman, did not exactly look gentlemanly” -- the Fox News host nonetheless blamed Evans for aggravating Senator Paul. Kurtz suggested that while the substance of the interview was legitimate, her “tone” was the problem. Kurtz chose not to focus on the behavior of a grown man and potential presidential candidate so quickly thrown off by a legitimate question that he resorted to deflecting by shushing and scolding. Instead, despite Senator Paul's attempt to bully Evans by telling her to calm down and attacking her credibility as a journalist, Kurtz suggested that Evans was the problem, because she “alienated” her guest. What Kurtz didn't acknowledge is that, as reporters are supposed to, Evans was part of advancing the story. The next day, Senator Paul went so far as to release a photo of himself getting a vaccination in an attempt to quell the mess he created with his comments the day before.
Just two months ago, Kurtz and his colleagues at Fox News were among the loudest to complain that the eight non-TV female journalists President Obama called on during his 2014 end of the year press conference actually weren't tough enough. The flutter created throughout Washington, D.C., that a president “only” called on women was insulting and annoying enough. The substance of the press conference ranged from President Obama's newsworthy comments regarding Sony's decision to pull The Interview from theaters, to the fate of the president's legislative agenda, the Keystone XL pipeline, and the beginning of normalizing relations with Cuba. Immediately afterwards, Fox News' White House Correspondent Ed Henry complained about the topics covered and that some of the questions posed by his female colleagues “just didn't press him.”
Sexist criticism of the press conference did come from many directions including this tweet from Roger Cohen of the New York Times: “Questions only from women fine but WH might have advised male correspondents they could split on vacation early. #maledowntime."
But it was Kurtz's blog post for Fox News -- titled “Where Were the Tough Questions” -- that was particularly offensive. Kurtz diminished the questions posed by the female reporters, equating their style with substance by suggesting that the press conference was a dud because, “This is not unrelated to the fact that he (President Obama) skipped the front-row TV correspondents--Jonathan Karl, Ed Henry, Major Garrett--who tend to ask more confrontational and, yes, theatrical questions.” While suggesting that stylistically TV journalists tend to ask more “theatrical” questions, Kurtz failed to include names of female White House TV correspondents.
While Kurtz criticized these female reporters for not being tough enough and CNBC's Evans for being too tough in her interview with Senator Paul, he thought his Fox News colleague Bill O'Reilly got it just right in his contentious 2014 Super Bowl interview with President Obama. O'Reilly continuously interrupted the President of the United States with questions about various debunked Fox conspiracy theories. The Atlantic described it this way: “O'Reilly would ask Obama if he had done something scandalous. Obama would say no, that's just factually wrong. O'Reilly would defend himself, saying he was just asking questions about what many believe. Obama would insist that they only believe it because Fox News treats it as fact. And O'Reilly would insist that he isn't behind it, he's just asking questions.”
In defense of O'Reilly, Kurtz said, “Your interview wasn't nasty, it was aggressive ... Sure, you interrupted the president a lot but you had to do that because he's the master at running out the clock with lengthy answers.”
In other words, a female reporter has a chip on her shoulder for being aggressive in an interview, while a male reporter is just doing what he had to. Watching Kurtz's defense of Rand Paul's shushing made me think of former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, who was reportedly fired in part for being too “pushy.”
Kurtz's sexism underscores the trap women face, one that needs to be called out at every turn: it's not about trying to be like men, it's about redefining the way it's done.