For the classic case of sexist reporting, indeed for a story that literally turns on the “glamorous” body of the woman reporter, one could not do better than the Nov. 11 Washington Post story ostensibly about Lara Logan’s apology for problematic reporting based on a supposed eyewitness to the September 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi .
The headline for Paul Farhi’s story is “CBS News and reporter Lara Logan face brutal criticism on flawed Benghazi report.”
Farhi does mention this topic in his second paragraph. But otherwise, his first six paragraphs—and certainly before he explains why Logan apologized for using a source who apparently lied on camera–feature Logan’s body. The story begins an offensive and irrelevant discussion of the “almost made-for-TV idea of a foreign correspondent.” (She is not, in fact, some “idea” of a foreign correspondent, but a highly experienced “real” one.)
Farhi says, “Logan’s globetrotting lifestyle and striking looks have occasionally made her tabloid fodder…. Logan’s femininity often attracts as much attention as her reporting; virtually every profile of her mentions that she was once a swimsuit model.” Farhi ignores how he is doing precisely the same thing–making her fodder, without taking responsibility for this. It is Farhi who devotes attention to her body. In a story that is not a profile of Logan and in which this cannot have a shred of relevance, it is Farhi who mentions her work as a model.
Other tidbits of gossip offered by Farhi, early in the story, are equally irrelevant and silly, from her romantic and marital status to the “hot-pink bodysuit costume” she wore while trick-or-treating with her children a couple of weeks ago. Slate’s Amanda Hess points out that Logan’s Halloween costume was Farhi’s only scoop.
One obvious comparison comes with Howard Kurtz’s 2004 front-page story about CBS anchor Dan Rather’s apology for a “mistake in judgment” in relying on bogus documents for a “60 Minutes” report charging that President George W. Bush received favorable treatment while serving in the National Guard. Kurtz never mentioned Rather’s appearance, his marital status, or his Halloween costume. He did mention that Rather denied harboring any grudge against the Bush family, despite having once gotten into an on-air shouting match with (then) Vice President George H.W. Bush.
Logan, who has covered conflicts in Africa, Europe and Asia, is perhaps accustomed to sexist treatment from fellow journalists. In 2001 the British reporter Julian Manyon explained how Logan got access to Afghani warriors when he could not. Using her “considerable physical charms,” Manyon wrote, “the delectable Lara Logan… exploits her God-given advantages with a skill that Mata Hari might envy.” In 2011, I examined the coverage — and reader comments about the coverage—of the sexual assault on Logan when she was covering the protests in Egypt. Logan was simultaneously mocked as a former model, criticized for going to a dangerous place, demonized as an absent mother, derided as naïve for going into the crowd wearing pearls, and labeled a war junkie.
Sexist treatment of women who report on war and conflict has a long history. The biography of Margaret Fuller, usually called the first woman foreign correspondent, and who went in 1846 to Europe to report the revolution in Italy, was carefully edited to avoid discussing the fact that she had a son with a fellow supporter of Italian independence. In 1891 a reporter covering the Dakota Sioux uprisings insisted that The (Chicago) Herald reporter Teresa Dean be excluded from a photograph of all the reporters (otherwise, all men) covering the conflict. Won’t it undermine the air of dangerousness of war reporting, he asked, if we are seen in the company of a fashionably dressed female?
The problems with Logan’s “60 Minutes” story were significant. Arguably Logan’s apologies on “CBS This Morning” and then again on “60 Minutes” were insufficient. A case can be made that the apology itself offered little explanation of precisely how the story aired without proper vetting. The primary source, British security contractor Dylan Davies, had not told his employer what he apparently told Logan (i.e., that Davies had raced to the compound during the attack, scaled a wall, and fought off terrorists). Farhi also quotes Terence Smith, a former CBS and PBS correspondent, faulting Logan and CBS for not disclosing that a book by Davies was to be published by Simon & Schuster, a subsidiary of CBS. (The Simon & Schuster imprint that was to bring out the book, an imprint that specializes in what it calls “conservative non-fiction,” has now withdrawn the book.) A picture of the book was shown on camera, although Farhi is correct that no one mentioned that CBS owns the publishing company, and thus has an interest in promoting it.
With Dan Rather, the blame was spread throughout CBS. Here, in contrast, the blame seems to be falling wholly on Logan. The New York Times, toward the end of its own detailed Nov. 11 report on Logan’s apology, even mentioned that the damage was to Logan’s career, not the show, given the reserve of goodwill the program enjoys and given the autonomy it enjoys—perhaps too much autonomy.
Journalists in the Post and elsewhere are highlighting Logan’s conservative tilt and pro-military speeches (that is, not sympathetic to the Obama administration). But the connection between her politics and the CBS slant is implied (“insinuated”) rather than stated. Clearly conservatives were quick to use Rather’s problematic report as evidence of “liberal bias.” But, I would note, journalists have not typically decried reporters who express anti-war sentiment in speeches. The way others are now putting it is that, in terms of risk to the network, pissing off the left is less dangerous than pissing off the right. If we want to figure out why blame is centered on an individual instead of spread around an entire network, such political differences seem to have some explanatory power. There is also an age/ generational difference between Logan and Rather. Focusing on Logan as the guilty culprit by attending to her “striking looks,” however, also suggests that gender is a factor.
Farhi, who could not comment for this post, quotes Smith saying Logan “has major egg on her face.”
I’d say Farhi has egg on his face.