"Girl trouble"

The complainant, Jennifer Brady, thought it was completely inappropriate to use the phrase “girl trouble” when referring to Bill Clinton’s relationship with a White House intern. She felt it blamed the young woman instead of the former president for the affair. I found that because of the context it wasn’t the intent, but that the phrase is one best avoided.

COMPLAINT

On May 16, 2013, Washington correspondent Paul Hunter presented a piece on the “curse of the second term.” U.S. President Barak Obama was facing a variety of scandals, and the thesis of the piece was that in letting down their guard, presidents are prone to missteps in their second terms. Before getting to the specifics dogging the Obama administration, Mr. Hunter cited historical precedent: the Iran Contra scandal for Ronald Reagan, the Watergate scandal for Richard Nixon, and the sexual impropriety scandal for Bill Clinton. He referred to it as “Bill Clinton’s girl trouble.”

You found that turn of phrase offensive and sexist:

My jaw dropped last night when I heard Paul Hunter describe President Bill Clinton's scandalous second term in office as being marred with "girl trouble".

To suggest that the scandal surrounding Clinton and Monica Lewinsky as girl trouble seems to say that some girl was giving Clinton trouble. I would argue that Clinton's troubles had more to do with his infidelity and poor judgement weighed against his role as the leader of one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world.

Paul Hunter's remark belies the sexist attitudes that still hold a double standard for men and women in Canada. I am disgusted that CBC would perpetuate such misogynistic attitudes.

You felt this was a clear violation of policy CBC might have on the use of “sexist, racist and homophobic” language.

When you asked for a review you emphasized that the use of the term puts the blame on the woman for Mr. Clinton’s infidelity. You added that Mr. Hunter did not address the uneven power relationship between the President of the United States and a White House intern and so did not emphasize Mr. Clinton’s failure.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Mark Harrison, Executive Producer of The National, expressed regret that you were disappointed by CBC and offended by the use of the phrase:

I can assure you we had no intention of putting Monica Lewinsky in a poor light. Indeed the point of the report was quite the opposite.

To be clear, as you will recall, the report concerned a host of poor decisions made by the Obama administration that have recently come to light. Mr. Hunter pointed out that these failures of judgment often happen in a President’s second term, just when they are feeling comfortable and secure with no prospect of another election.

“It’s called the curse of the second term”, he said and as examples he cited the secret sale of arms to Iran under Ronald Reagan; Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal; and “Bill Clinton’s girl trouble”. In all cases the responsibility, the blame, rests squarely on the shoulders of imprudent presidents.

He explained that Mr. Hunter’s use of the phrase “girl trouble” was intended to be light-hearted. He reviewed its use with him and pointed out that the comment could be misunderstood and was not an appropriate expression to use.

REVIEW

CBC does have policy that governs the use of language that emphasizes precision and attention to words or phrases that can cause offense. Part of the policy states:

The use of certain highly charged words can undermine credibility and merits special consideration. Language is constantly evolving. We will be attentive to shifts in the meaning of words. We consult language resources and editorial management as needed to grasp the impact of expressions that are open to multiple interpretations and capable of offending some audience members.

There is also a specific policy on Respect and absence of prejudice:

Our vocabulary choices are consistent with equal rights.

Our language reflects equality of the sexes and we prefer inclusive forms where they are not prohibitively cumbersome.

We are aware of our influence on how minorities or vulnerable groups are perceived. We do not mention national or ethnic origin, colour, religious affiliation, physical characteristics or disabilities, mental illness, sexual orientation or age except when important to an understanding of the subject or when a person is the object of a search and such personal characteristics will facilitate identification.

We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt. Criminal matters require special care and precision.

When a minority group is referred to, the vocabulary is chosen with care and with consideration for changes in the language.

The use of the phrase “girl trouble” seems to have been an attempt at humour, and humour is subjective, and tricky to pull off in the context of short news stories, especially when the topic itself is not inherently funny. While it falls short of a standard of excellence, I don't think it is as dire or absolute as you portray it. I also don’t think, given that this was a reference in a list of Presidential errors, that it necessarily implies that the White House intern was to blame.

The piece opens with shots of Clinton, Reagan and Nixon. The full reference over those pictures:

Be it Bill Clinton’s girl trouble (said over a shot of the president greeting Lewinsky with a hug as he passes her in a crowd), the secret sale of arms to Iran under Ronald Reagan, or Richard Nixon and the ever infamous Watergate scandal, re-elected U.S. presidents have often found second time around to be tricky.

In this context, I take it to mean that these Presidents made serious mistakes, and it does not imply Ms. Lewinsky is somehow to blame.

Having said that, I consider it ill-advised to refer to a female old enough to be a White House intern, as Monica Lewinsky was, as a girl. I am loathe to give an exact cut-off age, but surely a female in her late teens and up could more properly be referred to as a young woman or woman. It is infantilizing and disrespectful to refer to an adult as a “girl.”

It was not respectful to use the term “girl trouble,” although I think it was aimed as much at a president who had a reputation as a womanizer. In the context of the piece, it did not seem to me that Mr. Hunter was somehow blaming Ms. Lewinsky for President Clinton’s stunning lack of judgment.

Stock phrases and clichés, and I would consider “girl trouble” one of them, reflect a time and attitude. It is one best retired from active use, even when it is being used, as I suspect it was in this case, with a touch of irony. The problem with using clichés as a kind of shorthand is their imprecision, and therefore how easy it becomes to misinterpret them. As Mr. Harrison conceded, this may not have been the best phrase since it could be easily misunderstood. He has reviewed its use with Mr. Hunter. While in this instance his choice of phrase was not appropriate, I also note that Paul Hunter has reported in some of the most difficult and dangerous places in the world. His reports portray complex and often difficult and unpleasant realities with great skill and sensitivity.

Your complaint is a necessary reminder that words have real power and while informal language is perfectly acceptable in news, it is important to consider the appropriateness of expressions.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman