NPR’s Morning Edition Flubs then (Mostly) Fixes Gillibrand Story

Listeners to NPR’s Morning Edition Thursday morning heard an interesting profile of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand by reporter Ailsa Chang. The story started with the sentence: “Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York is introducing legislation with other lawmakers Thursday that would change how the military handles sexual assault cases.”

But early morning listeners also heard that “Senator Gillibrand has a soft, girlie voice that takes on a certain earnestness when she gets angry.”

Another part of the story said “Gillibrand is petite, blond and perky.”

But at some point Thursday morning -- it’s not clear when -- NPR changed both the audio and electronic version of the story. Gone are the words “girlie,” “petite, blond and perky.” (Great work by Sarah Jaffe for screen grabbing the original version.)

We asked NPR Morning Edition’s producers when and why the change to Chang’s story was made but they did not respond by deadline. We will update this post when and if they respond.

We’re glad Morning Edition changed those parts but this paragraph remains unchanged:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid once called her the "hottest member" of the U.S. Senate. But friends say the woman has scary grit — precisely the kind of person who can go head-to-head with the military about how it's handling sexual assault.

Lots of things are said about women politicians but it’s unclear what Reid’s comment contributes to the story. In fact there could be several ways to interpret Reid’s inclusion in the story. That Gillibrand is hot BUT has scary grit or that she is hot AND has scary grit. But either way, it’s really lost on us what her hotness has to do with her grit, especially in a story about how she’s trying to change the military’s approach to sexual assault cases.

The Reid remark – and Morning Edition’s use of it – is reminiscent of President Obama’s remark that Kamala Harris “happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country." That remark had people asking what was wrong with noting when a woman is good-looking? The problem is that in the context of this story it puts Gillibrand’s “hottest” in aspect to her grit (and actions) as a senator when they aren’t related traits. Moreover as our research demonstrates, when voters hear even complimentary coverage of a woman politician’s appearance it actually makes them view her as less experienced, effective or qualified – and are less likely to vote for her.

We’re glad the Morning Edition recognized some of the problems, but it would be good if they would publicly say when and why they made the changes they did.

Gillibrand’s gender is a theme in the article, but in many ways how her gender is handled, both in the parts of the story that were changed that those that weren’t, is reflective of how women politicians are judged differently than their male counterparts – both by the media and by the political class. 

Published by Rachel Larris on 05/16/2013

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