In May, NPR reporter Ailsa Chang wrote a piece about Kristen Gillibrand entitled "Focus On Women, Families Propels New York's Sen. Gillibrand" intended to discuss her rising star power in the Senate and her potential presidential prospects. What it actually discussed in an entirely unproductive manner was how the Senator is "petite, blond and perky," and sports a "soft, girlie voice" – that is, before NPR removed those descriptors without explanation. On Monday evening, NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos decided that since two months had passed, now was the time to address exactly why they did that.
In his blog post, Schumacher-Matos reminds us twice that Chang is an experienced reporter who knows what she's doing (cool?). Chang told him that the reason she wrote the piece the way she did originally was because "The vast majority of people I spoke to brought up [Gillibrand's] looks and femininity without my prompting them on the subject....Even her college squash coach at Dartmouth."
Chang apparently talked about Gillibrand's "petite, blonde and perky" essence with the Senator herself, asking her if it annoyed "her that people can't seem to talk about her without commenting on her physical appearance":
"Gillibrand said she did not take offense. She laughed and said she was at least thankful the comments veered towards how attractive she was, rather than the opposite."
In Schumacher-Matos's words, "the irony of the first physical and speech impressions left by the senator seemed to Chang too obvious and too interesting on a human level to ignore." NPR apparently asked Gillibrand about her response to their piece; in their words, she laughed that off too.
Firstly, the part NPR seems to be ignoring is that the edited piece as it stands now isn't much better than the original, though Schumacher-Matos does claim that the web and radio copy differed; apparently the web copy was beefed up with the extra adjectives while the radio copy was not, though I don't remember that being the case when I listened to it and I noted as much then. Schumacher-Matos describes the web copy as "more like what many of us — male and female — might say to our friends after first meeting Gillibrand," which is odd, given that radio reporting is often changed to be less colloquial when put on the web, because it's often too casual-sounding to read, something that I originally said might have attributed to the reason they used all those adjectives for Gillibrand.
Secondly, this piece could have been a tremendously interesting one, if Chang had explored the comments made about Gillibrand's looks as part of a larger discussion about women in politics, instead of stating these attributes as inherently interesting facts about her personality that seem at odds with the hard work she does in the senate, while also being inherently connected to her work for women. It made it seem as if she's such a woman of course she cares about women's issues!
And thirdly, obviously Gillibrand laughed it off when asked about the piece. That's what she has to do all the time. That's what women are trained to do all the time, especially in politics. Schumacher-Matos sort-of seems to understand this, but has decided the best way to "explore" these issues is to write this non-apology piece and instead wonder aimlessly about what it all really means. For instance:
"I am not sure what the answers to all these questions are, except to say there is no one clear answer.
Even so, in describing appearance, NPR and the news media surely should be respectful toward politicians and others of both sexes whose success, profession or manners don't trade on their appearance. Clearly, women are still more subject than men to being objectified as sex objects and to being patronized and abused, and so special sensitivity is required.
But to outlaw all physical descriptions is to ignore reality. It creates a spooky non-reality. It also drowns us in an earnestness that robs us of the art of nature, of words and of life. In listening to or reading a news story, we all deserve to be given a sense of person and of place so that we can have a fuller picture in our imagination."
No one is suggesting that anyone "outlaw" descriptions of what people look and sound like or that we force our society in a "spooky non-reality." What is being suggested is that these choices be made purposefully and with understanding that the listening audience will pick up on the nuance. The way the original piece read (and the current piece still does), Gillibrand wasn't painted as someone who has had to grapple with people underestimating her because of her looks and voice; she was painted as someone for whom physical appearance actually matters in relation to her skills as a politician. That may not have been Chang and NPR's intention, but it was certainly the outcome.
Gillibrand was described in these terms like the listening audience should care that she looks and sounds the way she does. Of course we're going to care, but at least we should understand that we're doing it.
Image via J. Scott Applewhite/AP