OPINION: Why women journalists must persevere despite Trump’s ill treatment

Kaitlan Collins of CNN attempts to ask a question of President Donald Trump when he abruptly ended his news conference about the coronavirus on May 11. Seated at left is Weijia Jiang of CBS News. DOUG MILLS / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Kaitlan Collins of CNN attempts to ask a question of President Donald Trump when he abruptly ended his news conference about the coronavirus on May 11. Seated at left is Weijia Jiang of CBS News. DOUG MILLS / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Any woman, any black woman in particular, who can survive a newsroom can survive the likes of President Donald Trump.

After 40 years in this mostly male, mostly white club, I’m sure of that. And yet the more I watch him berate and negate female members of the White House press corps, the angrier I become. It’s been shameful and even Trump should know better. He isn’t just president, he’s a husband three times over and father of young women.

But he just won’t stop.

In his latest temper tantrum, Trump tried early this month to silence CBS reporter Weijia Jiang.

Referring to his claims that U.S. coronavirus testing was better than that in other countries, Jiang asked the president what seemed to me a fair question: “Why is this a global competition to you if every day Americans are still losing their lives?”

His short answer was “Ask China that question.”

This shouldn’t be happening.

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No other president has treated women this way, said Janet Kolodzy, chair of Emerson College’s Journalism Department.

Even when presidents clearly didn’t like a particular reporter’s line of questioning, that was true.

“Trump has raised this to a whole different level,” Kolodzy said. “It’s one thing to say you don’t like people and don’t want to work with them, with Trump it’s consistently personal.”

Kolodzy, a former writer and producer at CNN International, noted the White House press corps historically has been dominated by men, but then Helen Thomas of UPI rose to the most veteran, prominent spot in the press room for the latter quarter of the 20th century.

Now, with more women in the White House press corps and more women of color, like Jiang, PBS’ Yamiche Alcindor, and April Ryan of the American Urban Radio Networks, President Trump seems to be doubling down on insulting them as they do their jobs.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

He clearly doesn’t understand that our job isn’t to ask “nice” questions. Our job is to ask fair and sometimes hard questions.

Richard G. Jones, director of Notre Dame’s undergraduate program in journalism, ethics and democracy and a former New York Times reporter who worked with Alcindor, said the president’s behavior is troubling on several levels.

“In some quarters, I’m sure that it serves to further erode the public’s trust in the press,” Jones said. “But abandoning the usual standards for decorum feels like it diminishes the office of the president.”

As an educator, he wonders how these displays might affect the women who are considering pursuing journalism careers.

“Nearly 70% of the nation’s journalism graduates are women, and the hope is that these interactions don’t discourage them from pursuing careers in newsrooms,” Jones said.

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Trump’s attacks haven’t been exactly exclusive to women. He once banned CNN’s Jim Acosta and said to Peter Alexander, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” when the NBC reporter asked of the coronavirus outbreak: “What do you say to Americans watching you right now who are scared?”

Still, Jones said there is a routine and undeniable edge to the president’s reaction to women journalists, particularly minorities, who pose tough questions.

“I think it’s fair to question whether the president reserves additional vitriol for women reporters of color,” Jones said. “As far as comparisons to presidents past, this is off the charts. It is such a far cry from the days when Helen Thomas would sit in the front row at briefings and was routinely allowed to ask the first question.”

Sarah Silkey is a professor of history at Lycoming College. CONTRIBUTED
Sarah Silkey is a professor of history at Lycoming College. CONTRIBUTED

For Sarah Silkey, professor of history at Lycoming College, Trump’s tactics hark back to a time when civil rights activist and journalist Ida B. Wells frequently faced personal attacks from American social and political leaders after bringing international attention to the lynching of African Americans.

"Georgia Gov. William J. Northen accused Wells of leading a 'slanderous crusade' to divert valuable foreign investment capital and immigration away from the South," she said.

In 1894, Silkey noted, the Atlanta Constitution denounced Wells as a “woman of hate” and mocked her status as a lady by referring to her as “Miss Ida” in quotes.

“Castigating women for failing to embody gendered expectations forces female journalists to become the story and deflects criticism away from the actions or inactions of male leaders,” she said.

Clark University political science professor Valerie Sperling agreed.

Dismissing female reporters’ questions as “nasty” taps into sexist stereotypes dictating that women are supposed to be pleasing and flattering to men.

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“Trump’s telling Fox News reporter Kristin Fisher, ‘You should say, “Congratulations! Great job!” instead of being so horrid in the way you ask the question!’ is a textbook example of criticizing a woman who was doing her job — asking a mildly challenging question about the deficits in U.S. testing for coronavirus — by targeting her unfeminine and therefore unattractive (‘horrid’) behavior,” Sperling said. “The same is true of Trump’s instruction in April to Jiang to keep her ‘voice down’ and his insistence that Jiang had asked her question about the stockpiling of masks in a ‘nasty’ tone.”

Valerie Sperling is a political science professor at Clark University and co-author of “Trumping Politics as Usual: Masculinity, Misogyny, and the 2016 Elections.” CONTRIBUTED
Valerie Sperling is a political science professor at Clark University and co-author of “Trumping Politics as Usual: Masculinity, Misogyny, and the 2016 Elections.” CONTRIBUTED

Sperling added: “Given sexist and racist stereotypes painting Asian American women as docile (and as not fully American), Trump’s dual order to Jiang — to be quiet and behave like a ‘proper’ Asian woman — highlights the intersectional effects of patriarchy and racism.”

This shouldn’t be happening.

Jones told me he spent several class sessions this semester discussing presidential news conferences and one thing was clear: They admire reporters like Alcindor and Jiang.

Who wouldn’t?

“My message to them is you can do it, too; readers, users, viewers, and listeners all need to hear women’s voices at news conferences and in newsrooms,” he said.

Jones said it’s important for women journalists to identify allies and advocates in their organizations, and for members of the press corps to support their female colleagues. That might mean yielding back their time so a female colleague can finish her query as CNN’s Kaitlan Collins did when Trump tried to cut Jiang off.

Ultimately, Jones said, the answer may be as Yamiche Alcindor herself said after one tough exchange with the president: “Be steady. Stay focused. Remember your purpose. And, always press forward.”

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