Fascinating piece in this week’s The New Republic about how the brilliant Netflix series “House of Cards” reflects the misogynistic treatment of women journalists in Washington. I can attest that the phenomenon Marin Cogan reports is equally true in Frankfort (and perhaps other capitals), and applies to women staffers as well:
In popular fictions of Washington, everyone is a prostitute in one way or another; when it comes to female journalists, though, the comparison is often tediously literal. “I can play the whore,” Barnes later tells her very own congressman, House Majority Whip Francis Underwood. It’s not that sex never happens between political reporters and their sources, as David Petraeus’s affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, recently reminded us. It’s not even that women (and men) don’t sometimes flirt in the process ofnews gathering. It’s just that the notion of sexy young reporters turning tricks for tips is not how news is usually made in the nation’s capital. For every Judith Miller, the ex–New York Times reporter who would sometimes quote her live-in lover, former Representative and Defense Secretary Les Aspin, there are dozens of female journalists for whom the power of appropriations is not an aphrodisiac. We have not “all done it,” as Skorsky claims. And yet, the reporter-seductress stereotype persists, in part because some men in Washington refuse to relinquish it.
As a political reporter for GQ, I’ve been jokingly asked whether I ever posed for the magazine and loudly called a porn star by a senior think-tank fellow at his institute’s annual gala. In my prior job as a Hill reporter, one of my best source relationships with a member of Congress ended after I remarked that I looked like a witch who might hop on a broom in my new press-badge photo and he replied that I looked like I was “going to hop on something.” One journalist remembers a group of lobbyists insisting that she was not a full-time reporter at a major publication but a college coed. Another tried wearingscarves and turtlenecks to keep a married K Street type from staring at her chest for their entire meeting. The last time she saw him, his wedding ring was conspicuously absent; his eyes, however, were still fixed on the same spot. Almost everyone has received the late-night e-mail—“You’re incredible” or “Are you done with me yet?”—that she is not entirely sure how to handle. They’re what another lady political writer refers to as “drunk fumbles” or “the result of lonely and insecure people trying to make themselves feel loved and/or important.”
These are the stories you don’t hear, in part because they don’t occupy the fantasies of the mostly male scriptwriters of Washington dramas and in part because women reporters are reluctant to signal to any source—past, present, or future—that they might not be discreet or trustworthy. Such stories tend to fall on the spectrum somewhere between amusing and appalling. Sometimes they reach the level of stalking: One colleague had a high-profile member of Congress go out of his way to track down her cell-phone number, call and text repeatedly to tell her she was beautiful, offer to take her parents on a tour of the Capitol, and even invite her to go boating back home in his district…
Studies suggest that men are more likely than women to interpret friendly interest as sexual attraction, and this is a constant hazard for women in the profession. The problem, in part, is that the rituals of cultivating sources—initiating contact, inviting them out for coffee or a drink, showing intenseinterest in their every word—can often mimic the rituals of courtship, creating opportunities for interested parties on either side of the reporter-source relationship to blur the line between the professional and personal. A source may invite you to meet at the bar around the corner from your apartment. If you agree, he might offer to pay for the drinks and walk you home. One Washington climate reporter remembers an environmentalist stroking her leg at one such outing and noting, disapprovingly, that she hadn’t shaved.
“I always remind young female reporters to be wary about falling victim to the ‘source-date,’ ” says Shira Toeplitz, politics editor at Roll Call. “You’re on a second glass of something, and it occurs to you, he may be misinterpreting this as a date. I advise them to drop an obvious clue along the lines of, ‘I’m going to expense this.’ ”
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