A charge of sexism.

The complainant, Suzan Porter, was concerned that disparaging references to reporters concerned about hair and makeup was disrespectful and stereotyping women. The context was a discussion of the White House press corps, concerns about exclusion from certain press briefings and the need for television reporters to get air time. It may have been indulging in a stereotype about on-air reporters, but there is no gender reference in the entire discussion.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned about comments you considered sexist during a panel discussion about the relationship between U.S. President Donald Trump and the news media on CBC News Network. Programme presenter Michael Serapio was asking two U.S. journalists to react to events that week in Washington. One of them was the fact that certain reporters were excluded from a press briefing, referred to colloquially as a “press gaggle.” Both guests made reference to television reporters and their attention to makeup and hair. You considered this demeaned and stereotyped women:

...these two pundits stated that it was not great deal that certain media had been banned from the front rows of the White House press gallery because the only reason for them being there was to "look pretty for the cameras" and fluff up their hair, fix their hair and put on makeup.

You labelled their comments “hatred of women” and a “throwback to the 1950s.” You said Mr. Serapio was complicit in this attitude because of his own behaviour:

Serapio was clearly amused by this and kept laughing and giggling. So much for integrity, equality and respect.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Aubrey Silverberg, an Executive Producer at CBC News Network, replied to your complaint and apologized for the delay in responding to you. He told you he reviewed the segment after receiving your email and did not see or hear it as you did. He said that the two panelists offered analysis and comment about President’s Trump difficult relationship with the media, including the decision to restrict access to some press briefings. He pointed out that both the guests downplayed the concern of the media at the exclusion. They talked about the fact that every administration restricted access to the “press gaggles”, but generally it was more secretive. Reporters who did make it into the briefings were able to use it as an opportunity to promote themselves on camera. One of the panelists, Mr. Brandus, mentioned that it might not be such a bad thing if cameras were banned because TV reporters monopolized the briefing time so they would be able to feature themselves in their subsequent reports. Mr. Silverberg agreed with you that they both made mention of makeup and hair, but it was in that context - two print reporters lampooning their television colleagues. He also reminded you that both male and female reporters wear makeup for their on-camera appearances:

Some of those reporters take their public/on-camera role with the kind of self-importance lampooned by the Ted Baxter character in the old Mary Tyler Moore Show. I think we have all known television reporters of that sort and if Mr. Serapio had a faint smile it was at that recognition. But only once during this part of the discussion – and then for less than five seconds as he turned from one panellist to the other – was the camera on Mr. Serapio. And I can assure you he was not “laughing and giggling” as you wrote he was.

He added that Mr. Serapio did not question them because it did not occur to him that they were attacking women. Had they been doing so, he would have challenged them because it would have been inappropriate to do so.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices does have policy that requires respectful use of language and cautions to avoid stereotypes:

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.

I have watched the segment more than once. I appreciate that you would take the phrasing to be directed toward women, but in the context of the discussion there is not one reference to gender. The entire conversation is about reporters, and as Mr. Silverberg stated, the two panelists were male print reporters. Both David Martosko and Paul Brandus made a comment about television reporters. They did so in the context of a discussion about some media organizations protesting being banned from a press briefing which was by invitation only. Michael Serapio put the question to Mr. Martosko first regarding these press gaggles:

On Friday...there seemed to be this selective group of journalists who Sean Spicer the White House press secretary was addressing rather than the full press gallery in D.C., what do you make of that move David?

Mr. Martosko explained that the same thing went on in the Obama years, only it was done secretly, and it wasn’t until the select group filed the story that others realized they had been left out. He felt the media was overreacting, and he gave some reasons why he thought that might be the case. He said, somewhat ironically, they worried about what might happen next:

I think the natural order of things they have gotten used to has been threatened dramatically...what could happen next? Maybe they do these televised briefings once or twice a week, maybe it turns into a pen and pad briefings, and a lot of these reporters who go to these things with elaborate hair and makeup hoping to get on TV will find their own profiles diminished and more than anything else I think that’s why they feel threatened…

Mr. Serapio then asked the other guest, Paul Brandus, if he shared that assessment. I note that Mr. Serapio had a neutral expression on his face when he asked the question, and I do not share your assessment that there was laughter and giggling. Mr. Brandus agreed and criticized the presence of cameras at these briefings because he felt the needs of the television reporters distorted the process and ate up too much time. He echoed Mr. Martosko’s characterization of TV reporters:

I think on camera briefings when they began in the mid-90s during the Clinton years, they are the folks who gave the okay to bring the cameras in back then, now acknowledge generally it was a mistake. It changed the whole tenor of the briefings; it is true that these folks in the front row who work for the big TV networks, they put their hair and makeup all together to look all pretty and stuff.

He goes on to criticize television reporters for repeating their questions many times to ensure they have themselves on camera for their stories.

As Mr. Silverberg pointed out to you, the cultural stereotype of the vain television personality, as likely to be male as female, is a common staple of sitcoms and comedians. I appreciate you think that any reference to appearance implies women, but there is nothing in this language or the overall discussion that suggests that. If these two panelists were stereotyping anyone, it was television reporters as a whole, and since television reporters are not a vulnerable minority, I am comfortable saying this is not a violation of CBC journalistic policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman