NPR Retracts Insights on 'Perky' Kirsten Gillibrand's 'Girlie Voice'

New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's star has been rising for the past several years. She was elected to fill Hillary Clinton's senate seat in 2010, and since then, has been championed by Democratic party stars like Howard Dean or the super-PAC EMILY's List as a possible contender for president. This week, Gillibrand is introducing legislation that she hopes will decrease the high prevalence of sexual assault cases in the military. But from a piece written Thursday by NPR reporter Ailsa Chang, you wouldn't know that.

Chang's article on Gillibrand aired this morning during NPR's "Morning Edition", and the web copy surfaced then as well. In the original piece, Gillibrand was described in the following terms:

NPR Retracts Insights on 'Perky' Kirsten Gillibrand's 'Girlie Voice'

Note her "soft, girlie voice" and the description of her as "petite, blond and perky."

In the edited version of the piece, those descriptors have been tapered down:

NPR Retracts Insights on 'Perky' Kirsten Gillibrand's 'Girlie Voice'

"Girlie" has now been taken out, as has "petite, blond and perky." Unfortunately these changes don't really amend the content of the article, which correlates an experience Gillibrand had during pregnancy when she worked through "12 hours of pre-labor pains" as something that means that she has "a high tolerance for pain to get things done" politically.

Part of this is a radio issue; when you're a radio reporter, you're taught to use descriptive language to set up audio clips, and at public radio stations across the country, many pieces are written for radio first, web second. Since your audience can't see who you're talking about, you have to tell them what is interesting or unique or particular about the person you're describing. It gets reporters into trouble, because they end up relying on stereotype instead of content to make sure people understand the angle of the piece. You have to be heavy-handed in a way that doesn't come across well in print because people don't listen as closely as they read. Though the audio has already been edited online, I listened to the original voicing to see if the copy made more sense on the radio. While it was definitely less jarring than seeing those words written out, it still rang out as awkward and unrelated to the angle of the story.

Though perhaps it's the angle of the story that's the problem; there's nothing wrong with asking whether or not Gillibrand could ever really win a presidential election, given that, as Chang describes, any woman whose focus is women's issues is going to face opposition from conservatives and have difficulty winning that part of America's vote. But it's the tone that's used – as if the idea of Gillibrand and her personal life (not to mention her looks, which are described at odds with her self-described "aggressive" personality) are a reason that she couldn't be president.

The whole thing is particularly unfortunate because when she was interviewed, Gillibrand had great things to say about why she does what she does in politics:

"Sometimes people say, 'Well, why do you just focus on women's issues?' Well, why do you focus on issues that pertain to 52 percent of the population? It's pretty important. And women are such the untapped potential in this economy."

Chang's reporting is getting heat from critics, especially because NPR changed it without noting it was edited (something that actually happens quite regularly). I've emailed Chang for comment about the piece and will update if I hear anything.

The story ends with a description of Gillibrand's family life; Chang writes that she's essentially "a single mom during the work week because her husband's job keeps him in New York City during the weekdays" and therefore has become an amazing multitasker, according to her friends. This topic segues into the worst question:

"But is this woman the stuff presidential candidates are made of?"

Maybe not yet. But they could be.

Focus On Women, Families Propels New York's Sen. Gillibrand [NPR]

Could Kirsten Gillibrand run for president? [Politico]

Image via Evan Vucci/AP