On July 31, the Sacramento Bee featured a story by Laurel Rosenhall on Assemblyman Brian Maienschein’s relationship with a female lobbyist, “Cupid’s work gets complicated as California lawmaker dates lobbyist.”
I criticized the piece on Twitter, calling it “sexist journalism.” Apparently, no one at the Bee understands how a piece that connects a female lobbyist’s success to her sexuality is a problem.
The fact that the female lobbyist in question declined to comment for the story is some indication that she didn’t find it to be “a respectful human interest story,” as Dan Walters suggests. There was no reason to write this story. It’s not news. There is no evidence of any wrongdoing. The relationship is not a secret and has been disclosed. Moreover, by publishing the piece, it reinforces traditional stereotypes of sexual roles.
The story subtly associates a female lobbyist’s success with her romantic affairs. It plays to the stereotype of the successful woman whose success is a result of seducing powerful men. Even though it provides “both sides” of the story, the mere suggestion connects her success and sexuality in a way that cannot be undone. For example, if I say that the Sacramento Bee is not the worst newspaper in California, the thought is now in your head. Previously, it wasn’t.
Was the story sexist? Let’s start with a basic definition of sexism. Let’s keep it simple. Sexism, according to Dictionary.com, is “attitudes or behavior based on traditional stereotypes of sexual roles.” The story reinforced several attitudes and behaviors about traditional stereotypes of sexual roles. The first: the woman in a relationship should sacrifice her career in order to preserve the relationship.
Maienschein said there is no need for him to step down from the committees or recuse himself from votes on CMA bills. (She) is leaving the association this fall, he said, to go to law school in San Diego.
What’s the take-away point from this story? When in conflict, a woman is expected to give up her position rather than the man. It’s the very last sentence of the story. The easiest and best way to make a potential conflict of interest issue, or bad publicity go away is for the woman to step down. That’s how these stories end. To be clear, Rosenhall doesn’t introduce the stereotype. But, it’s a byproduct of her decision to write the story.
This message is compounded by introducing the story from the male perspective.
Finding love is rarely easy, what with the awkward dates, gossiping friends and jealous exes. But Cupid’s work is even more complicated when a lawmaker and a lobbyist fall in love.
Think legal opinions, questions from the media and advice from government transparency advocates. That’s the case for Brian Maienschein, a freshman assemblyman who sits on the health and business committees.
The female lobbyist faces the same “legal opinions, questions from the media and advice from government transparency advocates.” Yet, she’s mentioned as the object, grammatically speaking, in the next sentence.
The story also has an unwarranted salacious tone. The two “have been seen together in Sacramento restaurants.” Of course, they’ve been seen together. They’re open about their relationship.
These stories don’t occur in a vacuum. Maienschein will get locker room slaps on the back. Just see the comments section of the article. His career won’t be adversely affected. The same isn’t true for the female lobbyist. In the halls of the Capitol or in whispered conversations at Chops, these stories are used to discredit and undermine women in politics- to belittle their work as simply a product of their sexuality or attractiveness. They’re reinforced by the annual rankings by insider publications of the hottest, best dressed and most beautiful people in the Capitol. Sure, they feature both men and women, but the effects aren’t the same. The next time a less-skilled lobbyist loses a legislative fight to the California Medical Association, well, it must have been because one of their female lobbyists was dating a lawmaker.
This story would be less objectionable if the Bee was aggressively investigating all potential conflicts of interest in Sacramento. It’s not. In March of this year, lobbyist Darius Anderson took eight legislators to Cuba. Only four have been identified. Did these legislators vote the lobbyist’s way on important legislation? No one knows because the Bee chooses not to investigate. State Senator Ed Hernandez, an optometrist who has accepted more than $140,000 in campaign contributions from optometry-related businesses, has introduced legislation to expand the scope of practice for optometrists. His wife is also a practicing optometrist, who would financially benefit from the bill. Again, not a word about this potential conflict in any of the Bee’s reporting on the matter.
The Bee, however, thinks it’s more newsworthy to cover an ethical lobbyist’s relationship that has already been publicly disclosed. Mind you, the female lobbyist in question is “one of eight in-house lobbyists” at the CMA. Of all the potential ethics stories in the Capitol, the fact this gets coverage is evidence of some sexism. Again, why is it sexist journalism? Because this story, which reinforces traditional stereotypes about sexual roles, gets ink and other stories don’t.
(Note: I’ve deliberately chosen to omit any reference to the female lobbyist’s name because I have no interest in adding to the digital archives.)