By Monica Kast
After spending a semester studying women who have worked as reporters covering the White House, it is easy to see that there has been tremendous growth in that area. However, things are not perfect.
From Lorena Hickok and May Craig, some of the earliest female political reporters, to today, where we have a female press secretary and numerous female White House correspondents, there certainly has been an increase in the number of women who are reporting on the White House.
However, women still face discrimination that men do not, particularly from President Donald Trump. He gives reporter nicknames and has repeatedly tried to intimidate female journalists.
When Trump was on the campaign trail, he showed particular disdain for Katy Tur, an NBC News Correspondent. Probably most famously, he called her “Little Katy” from the podium one night. Tur told the Washington Post, however, that was only the tip of the iceberg. Tur said Trump would regularly critique her for her on-camera performances.
“Afterward, cameras off, Trump critiqued her again for her minor slip-ups. ‘I said, ‘So what? I’m not running for president,’ ” Tur recalls. “And he said, ‘You would never be president.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ ”
On Twitter, Trump called Tur a “3rd rate reporter,” incompetent and dishonest.
In an interview with NPR, Tur addressed the “Little Katy” nickname.
“I think he means it not only in a physically demeaning way, but as an intimidation tactic: ‘You’re little, you’re young and you’re inexperienced and you can be pushed around. You’re not a political heavyweight. You’re not one of the big guns,'” she said.
To NPR, Tur also addressed an incident backstage of the talk show “Morning Joe,” where Trump came into the room and kissed her on the cheek.
“…Donald Trump walks in, and he barrels in and the first thing he sees is me standing off to the side, and he comes right up to me, and he kisses me on the cheek,” Tur said. “Just puts his hands on my shoulders and pulls me in.”
She described what she was thinking when the kiss happened.
“I was powerless,” Tur said. “I just stood there frozen thinking, ‘Oh my god, what is this man doing? He’s not my friend. He’s not my business partner. He’s not my social acquaintance. He’s not a family member of mine. This is somebody I am covering.’ This is a presidential candidate, I am the reporter assigned on this beat — it just crosses a huge line. It’s so unprofessional and so inappropriate given the circumstances.”
In that same Washington Post article, however, Tur said she saw Trump’s comments and critiques as a potential sign of respect.
“I think Trump is someone who appreciates and connects with people who hold their own and are strong individuals,” she said to the Washington Post. “I think he can smell weakness and if you show him weakness, he exploits it and he doesn’t respect you. If I had rolled over, I think he would have never mentioned my name again.”
Megyn Kelly, an anchor who formerly worked at Fox News and currently works for NBC news, was on the receiving end of one of Trump’s most famous sexist comments.
After Kelly co-hosted a 2015 presidential debate where she questioned him about his treatment of women, Trump told CNN he didn’t “respect her as a journalist.” However, the comments became much more sexist.
“She get out and she starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions, and you know, you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever,” Trump said to CNN. “In my opinion, she was off base.”
Trump later tweeted that he meant blood was coming out of Kelly’s nose, adding that he did not complete his sentence.
Kelly, however, saw it differently. The New York Times reported that she saw those comments as “Trump’s attempts to harass and intimidate her” while she was trying to remove herself from the storyline as a journalist.
Women journalists, especially those on TV, have long faced criticism from viewers. Sarah McClendon, a White House reporter for many years, appeared on “Meet the Press” in June of 1961.
One viewer, Richard Stanton of San Francisco, California, wrote into the show to offer his thoughts from the night McClendon appeared.
“Most of your panel asked fair and interesting questions,” he wrote. “The exception was an egregious bitch named Sarah McClendon…she argued the issues and called the senator a liar when he denied one of her accusations. I think your program suffers greatly when it contains a journalist of this ilk.”
Today, women journalists still face huge amounts of misogyny.
During the Fleischaker/Greene class trip to Washington D.C., Washington Post political investigations and enterprise reporter Michelle Lee talked about some of the things she has personally experienced on social media, especially while covering Donald Trump’s campaign for president. Lee said reporters receiving criticism via social media is “not uncommon.”
“We, as journalists, to some extent are public figures, in that our work is out there, our names are out there, we’re producing work for the public,” Lee said. “So we get a lot of feedback from the public. During the campaign, I was attacked personally, not like physically, but to me as a person, to my work. I was called all sorts of racist, sexist things everyday on social media, trolled like crazy.”
Lee said she was called “all sorts of names” while covering the campaign.
“‘Fake news’ is really one of the most bland things I’ve been called,” Lee said. “But the thing is, if you believe in what you do, you just keep doing it. You do your job, you don’t let that affect you.”
Kelly also faced backlash from Trump and his supporters during the 2016 campaign. One tweet from a Trump supporter, which was retweeted by one of Trump’s lawyers, said: “We can gut her.”
Speaking to the New York Times, Kelly said she hired security personnel after repeatedly receiving death threats on Twitter.
“The relentless campaign that Trump unleashed on me and Fox News to try to get coverage the way he liked it was unprecedented and potentially very dangerous,” Kelly told the New York Times.
Kelly continued to get threats throughout the campaign, and told the New York Times that “the election sent a troubling message to women.”
“There were a few themes that came out of 2016, and one of them is, as women, we have a long way to go, a long way to go,” Kelly said.
Female journalists also face challenges within the news organizations that employ them.
Just last month, four female journalists came forward with sexual misconduct reports against Glenn Thrush, a White House correspondent for the New York Times, according to the New York Times. Thrush was immediately suspended.
Whether it is in the form of threats on social media or personal attacks from the president of the United States, female journalists still face discrimination compared to their male counterparts.
On the walls of the Washington Post newsroom are several quotes from employees who worked there over the years. One quote from Katharine Graham stood out during our tour.
“Yet while we have come a long way, we face an even less charted, and no doubt, more challenging journey ahead,” Graham said.
Women journalists still face obstacles: demeaning nicknames from a presidential candidate and the recent outpouring of reports of sexual assault, harassment and misconduct reports, and threats of rape and abuse from social media trolls, among other things. However, it is now a normal thing for women to be political reporters, and they are no longer the only women in the room.
There have been three female press secretaries, and women make up a much more sizable portion of the White House press corps than they have in years past. We have women like Lorena Hickok, May Craig, Helen Thomas and Katharine Graham, just to name a few, who have paved the way for other women political journalists.
Special thanks to WKU journalism professor Rich Shumate for sharing his research on Sarah McClendon and “Meet the Press.”