niche dilemmas

Reporters: If a Source Creeps on You, Should You Write About It?

Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Knight Takes King Productions, LLC.

Discussing the creepy sexual relationship between Kate Mara’s and Kevin Spacey’s characters in House of Cards — she plays a young political reporter, he plays a senior member of Congress — The New Republic’s Marin Cogan examines why and how often D.C. men mistake “the rituals of cultivating sources” for “the rituals of courtship.” It’s an excellent, thoughtful article — and full of juicy anonymous tidbits that could read as blind items about power-abusing Washington pervs. For instance:

“[A]s a Hill reporter, one of my best source relationships with a member of Congress ended after I remarked that I looked like a witch who might hop on a broom in my new press-badge photo and he replied that I looked like I was ‘going to hop on something.’”

“One colleague had a high-profile member of Congress go out of his way to track down her cell-phone number, call and text repeatedly to tell her she was beautiful, offer to take her parents on a tour of the Capitol, and even invite her to go boating back home in his district.”

“One Washington climate reporter remembers an environmentalist stroking her leg at one such outing and noting, disapprovingly, that she hadn’t shaved.”

You’d think even the dirtiest old man could learn, at a bare minimum, to contain himself when speaking to a journalist — the whole purpose of that relationship is for one party to inform the world about the other. And yet Cogan’s anecdotes are the kind that female journalists often tell each other but rarely put in print or acknowledge to outsiders. Why? In House of Cards, characters keep secrets to enhance their power; silence is part of the favor economy. Real women, like the ones in Cogan’s article, worry about blowback: “Complaining makes it seem like you’re humble-bragging or that you’re delusional,” one reporter told TNR. The article closes with the example of Lisa DePaulo facing heavy scrutiny after a 1994 profile of Ed Rendell showed the Philadelphia mayor describing “in raw and alliterative terms, how he presumes I am in bed.” The implication: Calling out pervs overburdens the caller-outer.

In the nineteen years since DePaulo became “the lady in red,” we have become more sensitive to sexual power dynamics and the insidiousness of victim blame. (DePaulo “happened to be wearing a red suit” the day her story came out. “Anywhere else, who cares, but in Philadelphia I’m Hester Prynne.”) But at the same time, media has also become louder, faster, farther-reaching. Consequently, allowing your name to appear in the vicinity of even a whiff of a sex scandal remains intimidating. So we arrive, again, in a world where that oxymoronic concept, “open secrets among journalists,” remains intact. (The phenomenon varies in different reporting niches. Writing about grotesque overtures from Dov Charney, for example, is all but expected.) How congressmen interact with women is at least as important as how they eat or the way they shake hands — the type of “color” details we usually get in political articles.

And, c’mon, it’s juicy.

Reporters: When Sources Hit on You, Do You Tell?