Gubernatorial candidate refuses female reporter's access to campaign

A story has been going around for a few days about the Mississippi gubernatorial race. A Republican running in the party’s primary to be the nominee for governor refused a request from a newspaper’s female reporter to cover a campaign trip unless she brought along a male colleague. Is it sexism or is it a personal conviction at play?

Reporters for Mississippi Today asked to shadow all three of the Republicans running for the nomination as they campaign around the state. Two candidates, Bill Waller, a former state supreme court chief justice, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves agreed to a request from a male reporter. Robert Foster, a state representative, declined the request from a female reporter unless she agreed to bring a male colleague with her. She was told that the candidate can’t “risk it” – the optics of such coverage during a 15-hour campaign trip. She is crying sexism and wrote a story about the incident.

In two phone calls this week, Colton Robison, Foster’s campaign director, said a male colleague would need to accompany this reporter on an upcoming 15-hour campaign trip because they believed the optics of the candidate with a woman, even a working reporter, could be used in a smear campaign to insinuate an extramarital affair.

“The only reason you think that people will think I’m having a (improper) relationship with your candidate is because I am a woman,” this reporter said.

Robison said the campaign simply “can’t risk it.”

“Perception is everything. We are so close to the primary. If (trackers) were to get a picture and they put a mailer out, we wouldn’t have time to dispute it. And that’s why we have to be careful,” Robinson said Tuesday afternoon by phone.

The female reporter, Larrison Campbell, has a professional history with Foster. She broke the story when he became the first to announce his candidacy in the gubernatorial race last December. She also reported about Republican operatives offering Foster money to run for a different office. She says she has interviewed him many times at the capitol, in phone interviews, and at political events.

The catch is that Foster is a strong conservative. He’s running to the right of the other candidates, according to the reporter. He is considered the underdog in the race. Foster’s campaign manager admitted to “a weird request” but stuck to it.

Mississippi Today requested a ride-along with the Foster in late June. On July 7, Robison, the campaign manager, called about joining the candidate on an upcoming trip to the Gulf Coast and Laurel. At the end of the conversation, in what he acknowledged was a “weird request,” Robison said I would need a male colleague to accompany me on the trip.

My editor and I agreed the request was sexist and an unnecessary use of resources given this reporter’s experience covering Mississippi politics; Tuesday, Robison was informed that this reporter would participate in the ride-along story alone.

The back and forth between Campbell and the campaign continued. She offered to wear her press id at all times in case a photo of her and Foster was taken. In the end, the campaign held to its decision to refuse her request.

The natural question here is whether or not Foster’s decision is a consequence of the #MeToo movement. That’s possible but I think it is more in line with a small minority of conservative male politicians who believe it is disrespectful toward their wives to be alone with a female, even in a professional setting. This pre-dates the #MeToo movement. Remember the crap that Vice-President Pence took from the left after his acknowledgement that he doesn’t go to dinner with any woman but his wife and that he doesn’t attend events serving alcholic beverages without his wife? It is a protective action Pence takes to shelter his marriage and his wife from outside attacks.

Before Pence, there was Rev. Billy Graham. The “Billy Graham Rule” was cited by Foster.

Foster defended his decision to exclude Campbell. “Before our decision to run, my wife and I made a commitment to follow the ‘Billy Graham Rule’, which is to avoid any situation that may evoke suspicion or compromise of our marriage,” he wrote on Twitter late Tuesday. “I am sorry Ms. Campbell doesn’t share these views, but my decision was out of respect of my wife.”

I wasn’t going to write about this story when I first read about it because I thought it would just be another story that is viewed through the lens of political party lines. I thought conservatives might not agree with Foster’s decision but would understand why he made it while liberals would bash him as a sexist pig. Saturday morning, however, I tuned into the Smerconish show on CNN. He used this story as the basis of a poll question he presented to the audience. “Is a candidate justified in precluding a reporter traveling with him?” He admitted he assumed that his audience would be against it. It’s CNN, you know.

Smerconish delivered the results at the end of the show – with 19,029 votes counted, he was surprised by the tally. 63% Yes, 37% No. Well, look at that. Is there hope for common sense in America after all? The results surprised me, too, to be honest. The left loves to bash conservatives as throwbacks to the 1950’s and all that. I wonder if a more liberal CNN show host would have received less favorable results from his or her audience. From the publicity Ms. Campbell has garnered for herself, maybe Mr. Foster made the right decision. With her history of covering his run, was his campaign’s response to her request really such a surprise?

The only televised debate in this primary race with be Tuesday, July 23, 2019. I wonder if the question will come up. The primary election is Tuesday, August 6, 2019.