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February 21, 2002

There are some differences when women are covering the campaign

Does the reporter's gender make a difference in news coverage?

Not when it comes to objectivity, ethics, deadlines, responsibilities, the skills and tools of the trade, says veteran Associated Press reporter Beth J. Harpaz.

But, some of the anecdotes in her book about covering Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2000 senatorial campaign suggest that a reporter's gender does matter when the candidate is among the most famous women in the world, one of the most difficult to read and has a staff of predominantly women.

To wit:

* An off-the-cuff discussion between candidate Clinton and reporter Harpaz about potty-training, which, to Harpaz's horror, made the lead story on an 11 p.m. local TV newscast during the campaign.

* Companion incidents that demonstrated the difference between the way Clinton's staff and her Republican opponent's staff treated female reporters while each candidate was seeking votes from the orthodox Jewish community.

* At the watershed moment of the campaign, during the first televised debate between the candidates, Republican Congressman Rick Lazio is perceived as a bullying sexist.

Harpaz's experience, chronicled in the book "The Girls in the Van: Covering Hillary" [St. Martin's Press, 2001], suggests that a woman reporter does not always have equal opportunity, that issues traditionally more important to women may get more exposure from a female reporter, and that women as a voting bloc (or, more accurately, two blocs, one of Clinton admirers and one of Clinton haters) were crucial to the outcome.

"I was never able to get editors to admit that they consciously chose a woman to cover Hillary," Harpaz told a Pitt audience at a Feb. 12 lecture titled "Hillary Clinton, the Voters and the Media: A Woman's Perspective," sponsored by the women's studies program. "The big three New York dailies, the Times, the Post and Daily News, all had men reporters; but almost all of the [other news services] sent women."

Harpaz speculates that, consciously or not, editors didn't want the same old campaign stuff and were looking for the fresh look of a woman's perspective.

Harpaz says she wrote "Girls in the Van" for three reasons: to preserve the story of a first-of-its-kind campaign, where a former First Lady won elective office for first time in history; to give an insider's look at the press corps' role covering the campaign, including choices of what to cover and what should be the lead of a story, and to compare the atmosphere of a mostly female press corps with its mainly male counterpart typical of most campaigns.

Harpaz says the book's title intentionally echoes "The Boys on the Bus," Timothy Crouse's chronicle of press coverage of the 1972 Nixon-McGovern presidential campaign, in order to draw then-and-now comparisons.

"Some things are exactly the same [as the "Boys on the Bus"]: the [eroding] emotional maturity of the press corps — 20 of us packed in a van whining and moaning as we traveled, breaking out into silly songs, getting to know the speeches by heart to where we could mouth them along with Hillary," in short, surviving the tedium of a very long campaign.

"I'm not sure that the stories we wrote were all that different, but there was a different 'feel' [to them]."

That feel is partly due to changes in technology from generations past, which have spawned what Harpaz calls "the media beast."

Live satellite feeds, 24-hour cable news networks and the Internet, where news is updated constantly, have created a voracious appetite for news, and editors want something on their news web site and they want it now.

"We are required to feed the need, and people who make news know the need is out there. Every time they open their mouths they have a chance to get to the next round of what's posted on a news web site," she says. "So a lot of times we find ourselves running after what is not really news to feed the hunger."

Perhaps the biggest difference from the campaigns of 30-plus years ago, Harpaz says, is that that world was practically all male, candidates and press corps alike.

"Hillary's staff was virtually all female; Lazio had one woman on his staff, essentially to accompany his wife."

And the fact that one of the candidates was a woman makes a difference, Harpaz says. "One funny thing that happened: When I came back from a vacation I was telling my mostly women colleagues that I had potty-trained my 2-year-old. I guess that's the female corollary for men talking about sports."

At that point Clinton joined the group welcoming Harpaz back to the campaign trail. "I guess it was on my mind, so I told Hillary the same thing. She told the group, 'This woman deserves a round of applause!' "The kicker was: that night at 11:15, my mother-in-law called and said, 'Hillary was just on the TV news talking about how you potty-trained Nathaniel.' What? How did that happen?

"Unbeknownst to me, the cameras had been rolling, and a woman reporter for the local affiliate had captured this on tape, decided to include it in her report on Hillary and the producer of the broadcast used it for the lead on the 11 o'clock news."

The reporter's rationale, Harpaz discovered afterward, was that this was a good example of "how Hillary, who had this officious reputation, who was reserved, who was always 'on,' would drop the formality, raise the curtain a little, be human and sort of chat — and [the reporter] was trying to capture that."

This incident made Harpaz reflect on the relationship of a reporter to a candidate she's covering. Had she herself crossed the line of professionalism? "I just told the most famous woman in the world I potty-trained my 2-year-old. I kept thinking if the candidate was a man, would I have self-censored my response, or if I had given the same response, would the conversation have continued as it did?

"In a way it's a trivial example. But, on the other hand, this is a candidate who really appealed to women, who really courted women as a separate constituency with so many of her issues — child welfare, health and education, working families, day care — and in thinking about that, it shows that even potty-training becomes relevant."

In retrospect, the incident is symbolic of a trend, Harpaz says. "It gets to a larger thing that's been happening in the news for a while, that as more women get into the position of reporting the news, the definition of what is news has changed.

"A generation ago, a story about breast cancer would probably not have been on the front page or the subject of editorials in all the major newspapers. I think what we might be seeing here is that the definition of what is newsworthy has changed as women are more prominent in the media, reporting the news and producing the news."

Even in today's war-time fervor, stories about Afghani women have become important news, she points out.

P Another instance in the campaign where gender came into play was when the candidates were courting the orthodox Jewish vote.

"Lazio assumed he had the Jewish orthodox vote sewed up, because they're basically conservative and they favor school vouchers, one of his big issues," Harpaz says.

Lazio nonetheless had arranged to speak before a group of orthodox Jews. But when the press corps went to cover the event, a rabbi barred the women from attending.

"Lazio didn't even know that [certain events are] separated by gender, so the women in the press corps were forced to wait out on the street because he hadn't asked the rabbi to make some sort of accommodations for us.

"Having covered stories [in the Jewish community], I know there are ways to accommodate women. But we were left standing on the sidewalk. It never occurred to anyone on Lazio's staff to call ahead in order to accommodate us," Harpaz says.

Clinton's staff did not make that mistake, and the women were able to cover her talk to the same group. "Not only that, but in talking about jobs, housing, health care, she got the endorsement," Harpaz says, with a satisfied smile.

P As the campaign hit full stride in fall 2000, a series of televised debates separated the candidates on more than the issues, Harpaz says. In the first debate, Lazio, evidently trying to show he could stand up to the more well-known Clinton, crossed the stage and waved a paper at Clinton, demanding that she sign a document supporting the ban of soft money in campaigns.

"We just thought it was silly. We were laughing in the press room," Harpaz says. "We thought that on issues Lazio won the debate, or at least held his own."

But Lazio misread the audience's reaction and kept pressing the matter. Form took precedence over substance. "Frankly, most voters don't care about campaign soft money or campaign financing. All campaign money is dirty to them. In all the focus groups after the debate, people reacted very negatively [to Lazio's tactics], especially women. Lazio even tried to claim reverse sexism, that if a woman did that move she'd be forgiven, but a man can't do it."

Hillary also made mistakes, Harpaz says, including referring to a gunshot victim who had survived and was seated in the front row as a murder victim. Harpaz says she wrestled with her lead to that story. After all, the blunder was the only unscripted part of an otherwise canned event. "The First Lady supports gun control? We know that already."

Eventually, she led her story with Clinton's mistake. "I think in retrospect it was the right decision. Wasn't this symbolic of a larger issue? She's supposed to be among the best-advised people in the world. Is this highly promoted campaign ready for prime time?

"My view is that the founders of this country wanted the media to be the watchdog of power, and wanted the press to watch over politicians and wanted us to tell the public when a politician erred or did something illegal. Obviously, there's a line there; but we take that responsibility very seriously: Is this mistake something the public needs to know?

"Reporters are just human beings who make judgments about a story. You can agree with me or not, but I wanted to show people through this book the process of covering a campaign."

From a woman's perspective, she might have added.

–Peter Hart

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