Just over two weeks ago, The New York Times published a profile of Wendy Davis, candidate for Texas governor, in its Sunday magazine. It was written by Robert Draper, a longtime contributor and native Texan. By then it had already sparked controversy, as it had been posted on the paper’s web site days earlier, along with its cover. Actually, it was the cover that drew the most comment.
I reviewed the critiques in a piece here, quoting everyone from Connie Schultz to Katha Pollitt. The cover photo was a typical (for the magazine) horrid close-up, but male politicians have suffered the same treatement—remember the remarkably horse-faced Mark Warner? It was the cover line that seemed to many most clichéd, outdated and offensive: “Can Wendy Davis Have It All?” Underneath were references to “ambition” and “motherhood.” Not to mention “mythmaking.”
As for the piece itself, Eric Boehlert tweeted: “profile of Wendy Davis so disheartending. virtually NO DISCUSSION of policy. all bio/family/custody etc. unthinkable for male.”
To no one’s surprise, the Times’s fine public editor, Margaret Sullivan, explored the criticisms in her column yesterday. And in a rare move, Draper has criticized Sullivan’s take.
A few highlights from Sullivan:
When an article sets out to examine gender bias, how can it avoid perpetuating that bias along the way? Despite its well-intentioned efforts, this piece managed to trip over a double standard with its detailed examination of Ms. Davis’s biography, including her role in raising her two daughters.
For many women, this relentless second-guessing hits hard and cuts deep. We take it personally, for good reason: In our society, there may be no more damaging wound than being found wanting in the good-mother department—and no career achievement can salve it.
Beginning the reader’s experience with the outdated “Have It All” headline didn’t help, nor did the subheadline: “A Texas-Size Tale of Ambition, Motherhood and Political Mythmaking,” which comes close to suggesting that Ms. Davis is spinning a big lie. Together, they curdle the piece that follows. A description in the second paragraph of Ms. Davis’s “fitted black dress and high heels” and her omnipresent half smile does little to ease the reader’s suspicions.
The article itself has much to commend it: engaging writing, thorough reporting and a native Texan’s understanding of his subject matter. It mostly steers intelligently and perceptively through the gender issues, but when it picks apart her history as a mother so insistently, it veers off the road. Reportorial due diligence is one thing; reinforcing a sexist standard is quite another.
I’m not sure what The Times’s next major article on a female politician will be. But I’m hopeful that not only will it avoid strange planetary depictions and ’70s-era catchphrases, but also that it will rise above gender-based double standards, leaving them where they belong: in the dust of history.
Draper responded quickly on Facebook:
I don’t agree with Margaret—I think when a politician calculatedly runs on his/her life story & the representation of that story proves to be inaccurate, reporters are required to examine that story in detail, else they become complicit in the narrative-shading. (She also misrepresents the viewpoint of Rebecca Traister, seeming to suggest Rebecca found fault with my piece when she didn’t.) Still, reasonable minds can disagree on this, and I appreciate her even-tempered critique of a story that apparently caused heads of all denominations to explode.
I asked Sullivan for a response but she has declined for now. One of the commenters on her piece, however, posted a link to a Draper farewell to George W. Bush when he was about to leave the White House, which focused on his “human decency.”
Draper then added a Comment to his original Facebook post:
There’s no question that if the art dept. had gone with a glam shot, we would’ve rightfully caught hell for it. That said, on a certain level it’s kind of weird that so much scrutiny for gender bias has been devoted to a story that, far more than any other previous to it, unambiguously portrays her as a person of intelligence, accomplishment & substance (rather than just an icon or cartoon). But what the hell—I did my scrutinizing, so others are free to do the same.
Read Next: Dave Zirin: “At Long Last, Jason Collins Is First”