11.13.12

Petraeus Affair Perpetuates Stereotype of Female Journalists

Female journalists have long had to fight the perception that they sleep with their sources to get the dirt. Thanks to Paula Broadwell, that stereotype won’t die any time soon, writes Tricia Romano.

When the bombshell dropped that Gen. David Petraeus’s mistress was none other than his biographer, Paula Broadwell, female journalists around the country must have felt their hearts sink into their stomachs.

In one fell swoop, Broadwell—who co-wrote The New York Times bestseller on Petraeus, All In—undermined her formidable resume. A Harvard and West Point graduate with four degrees, she was also an Army reservist, who did work in geopolitical analysis, counterterrorism, and counterinsurgency operations before working with Petraeus. Hers is the kind of resume that would make most men of her stature envious, the kind of resume that was previously bulletproof from scrutiny. It wouldn’t have mattered that she has arms that make Michelle Obama’s look flabby, or that she was pretty, and thin, and young. She clearly got that book deal because she was smart, right? Right?

Now, the conventional wisdom goes: Turns out all she had to do was screw her source.

The affair turned her from a great reporter into a punch line—and, as some have noted, a slut-shamed punching bag.

“Great news!” tweeted comic Steve Martin: “Just signed Paula Broadwell to write my biography!  Whee!”

Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Much has been written about how Petraeus and Broadwell had much in common, and had a longstanding professional relationship prior to working on the book together. Clearly, she admired him. Much like a groupie admires a rock star.

Sadly, you hear more about female journalists sleeping with their sources than you do men: In a Vogue article printed earlier this year, it was noted that this tends to be something of a pattern.

In June of this year, Wall Street Journal reporter Gina Chon found herself in hot water when emails between her and then-married Brett McGurk, a special assistant to George W. Bush, were leaked, showing that they were carrying on an affair while she was covering the Iraq War and using him as a source. Chon eventually resigned from her position—not because she admitted to the conflict of interest, but because she had shared an unprinted story with him, which was a violation of the paper’s rules.

Afterward, she sent a defensive email to her friends, which was leaked to Buzzfeed’s Michael Hastings. It read, in part: “I want you to know, though, that while I worked in Iraq for the paper, Brett never gave me sensitive or classified information nor did he trade his knowledge for my affection … He was authorized to speak on occasion on background with journalists and did so with me, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and other news outlets.”

Sexist question: Have any male journalists ever actually been successful at nailing their subjects? Sexist answer: have you seen male journalists?

Throughout politics, there are women who are in bed (literally) with men in politics. Ricochet.com published a post titled “Politics, Journalism, and the Wedding Band,” showing the link between husband and wives in politics and news organizations. Maria Shriver left journalism after covering Arnold Schwarzenegger on the campaign trail. Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winner Connie Schultz, who is married to Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, resigned to avoid a conflict of interest during the campaign season.

What’s the big deal? Well, as the writer EJ Hill, asks: “Are you speaking truth to power when you're sleeping with it at night? When you hear that such-and-such reporter has a certain powerful person's ear, you have to ask what other piece of their anatomy do they have and does it get in the way of the truth?”

In light of such scandals, female journalists-to-be should spend four hours a night before entering the field, writing the following ad infinitum : “Do not sleep with your source.”

The result of such tawdry affairs is that even when the journalist in question isn’t sleeping with her source, the notion of sexual conflict—or at least the possibility of sex—hangs over female journalists and their stories. The female journalist or groupie problem is especially rife in music and celebrity journalism, where a fawning profile almost always indicts the female writer, but not the male counterpart.

Recently, Edith Zimmerman and Jessica Pressler found themselves being alternately praised and skewered over their crushed-out celebrity profiles. Zimmerman penned a GQ cover story on Chris Evans, which was written like a long breathless blog post, wherein she got drunk and crashed at the actor’s pad. Pressler penned a personal you-are-there tale featuring Channing Tatum, with whom she partied and slumbered under the stars in the desert in a sleeping bag, while wearing matching Snuggies.

The profiles both garnered a ton of attention, not all of it good. Lainey Gossip, a celebrity gossip site posted of Zimmerman’s piece: “This article is so unprofessional, so EMBARRASSING, that as a female writer, I was ashamed on behalf of women everywhere.”

But more damaging is the dull sexism that’s directed at pretty young female reporters, who it seems in certain minds only got their scoops because they were pretty, young, and female—which is perpetuated every time a Paula Broadwell sleeps with a General Petraeus.

After her feature on former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein ran in New York magazine, Pressler, the writer of the Tatum piece, tweeted to New York Times writer Nick Confessore: “Hey @nickconfessore fyi haven't accepted your FB request cause still pissed you asked if I got Blankfein interview ‘because you're a woman.’”

In Gawker it was noted that the women writers were merely trafficking in the same territory male writers had long treaded (Hello, Tom Junod and Nicole Kidman): “Not every girl can cook dinner or have a boozy night with a famous dreamboat, but at least she can read in a magazine about someone who did.”

While it’s true most male celebrity profiles feature plenty of gawking on the part of male writers writing in men’s mags, it seems more like wishful thinking on the men’s part than the women’s. (Sexist question: Have any male journalists ever actually been successful at nailing their subjects?  Sexist answer: have you seen male journalists?)

The repercussions of Broadwell and other journalists sleeping with their sources, particularly when the women are young and attractive like Broadwell, is that other women’s accomplishments are always going to be called into question. It’s the age-old she-slept-her-way-to-the-top argument, one that is promoted in Hollywood films like Thank You For Smoking or Batman, where the female journalist uses her sex appeal to get close to her source and get the information she needs. Heck, even Lois Lane was in love with her subject. And though she’s not a journalist, Claire Danes’s character on Homeland has the same cringe-worthy conflict-of-interest problem: sleeping with someone she is supposed to be impartially observing.

Or, as writer Foster Kamer tweeted: “Really, really want to read the Slate piece that's like: ‘Paula Broadwell was doing her job. Good reporters will get naaaaasty for access.’"

Earlier this year, a profile written by journalist Claire Hoffman of hip-hop star Drake became infamous. In it, after 1,500 words of embarrassing revelations about the star, it ends with a proposition—and not one that you’ve ever seen in an article written by a man.

Asks Drake, not once, but twice:  "Are you or are you not sleeping with me?"

It was offensive, shocking, and titillating. But as long as women like Broadwell violate the reporter-source contract, that’s a question that’s going to keep getting asked.