Dear Paul Farhi,
You’ve stepped in it now! How dare you comment on a woman’s image in a column on…a woman’s image.
Sexist, gratuitous and inappropriate are some of the milder comments that zipped through a lengthy email discussion here at my journalism school of your piece on CBS reporter Lara Logan, who was forced to apologize for her “60 Minutes” report about the Benghazi consulate attack based on a liar with a book to shill.
You wrote, “Logan’s femininity often attracts as much attention as her reporting; virtually every profile of her mentions that she was once a swimsuit model. On Halloween, people who live in Logan’s neighborhood were startled to see the famous TV correspondent trick-or-treating with her children while dressed in a hot-pink bodysuit costume, set off with high heels.”
Of course you also mentioned that Logan is a kick-ass reporter with award-winning street cred whose 60-Minute screw-up may have destroyed the dream job/dream image that she projects. But it’s the comments about her physique that drew the ire of my journalism colleagues.
My colleague, Professor Linda Steiner, has taken up their banner in an opposing blog, arguing, “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 Farhi’s column on Logan.
Frankly, I don’t think this is your best work, Paul. You did some fine, straightforward initial reporting on this Benghazi-Logan debacle. But for the column in question, you could have at least had a nut graph and made your point about shredding an image more clearly – not to mention citing examples of both her journalistic excellence and works that discussed her physical magnetism, instead of giving them a glancing acknowledgement. (For the record, there’s been PLENTY of tabloid mentions about Logan, here, for example, and even in reports of her sexual assault/mass groping her attractiveness was fair game. Her charms also were discussed in a recent “profile” by Gawker.)
But, unlike some of my peers, I just don’t see the rampant sexism of your comment. There’s not even an intellectual argument to be made here – you either have the context to report on how a person looks, or you don’t.
I think the context here is ample, although the reference was inexpertly handled.
In the television game, where personas are carefully honed and image consultants are on speed dial, image is almost always fair game. As one of my students suggested, TV personalities play a character or fit a role: Katie Couric is always going to be a girl-next-door type; Dan Rather (whose own CBS failure-to-fully-vet-material-used-on-air scandal that led up to his retirement has been compared here) played the venerable veteran and hard-nosed newsman. And who hasn’t watched strong, athletic “Good Morning America” host Robin Roberts battle cancer twice, shaving her head, urging cancer screenings on air? They’ve made themselves into personalities we care about and they’ve made their personal lives fair game.
And it’s not just women whose television-star looks have become part of who they are. Look at the talk about Anderson Cooper and his tight T-shirt, which was famously immortalized by comedian Seth Meyers at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner. (“… my friend Anderson Cooper is still over at CNN and I especially love watching him report from the field. You can always tell how much danger Anderson Cooper is in by how tight his clothing is. If he’s in the bulky yellow slicker, then it’s a Hurricane that’s still off-shore. If he’s in the khaki vest, he’s maybe in the Green Zone in Baghdad. But when he’s in the child-sized white T-shirt, bullets are flying, he’s getting punched, he’s pulling kittens out of the rubble. So what I’m saying is, if you ever see Anderson Cooper with his shirt off, turn off your television and run.”)
We are also immersed in a period of history where visual images have become pre-eminent in social byplay – phone cameras, Pinterest, Facebook, selfies, YouTube, you name it – it ain’t nothing without an image. We put our photos on our email accounts and contacts pages, on LinkedIn. It’s become obvious when someone is attractive.
So in my opinion, Farhi was taking all this in, looking at Lara Logan’s persona and trying to divine how her fairy-tale existence lost its sheen in the glare from the Benghazi story. Seen in this light, I think the P.C. police have to stand down from red alert. Not every reference to sex or sexuality is off limits – it is just who we are.