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Why are three influential female reporters on the Gore campaign the target of criticism?
Traveling with the press covering a presidential candidate is a little like being transported back to high school. Alliances are formed, feelings get bruised, and newcomers are looked upon with suspicion. Even the insular sense of all-encompassing import is the same: With teenagers, it's because they don't have any perspective. With political reporters, it's because they rarely venture outside the "bubble," as life inside the hotel-to-chartered-jet-to-stump-speech
-to-motorcade-to-hotel grind is called.
In this election cycle, this sense of gossiping is most apparent when it comes to the Spice Girls, as a trio of female reporters covering Al Gore have come to be known. The moniker was coined on a long bus ride through Iowa last winter. Since then, the reporters -- The New York Times's Katharine "Kit" Seelye, The Washington Post's Ceci Connolly, and The Associated Press's Sandra Sobieraj -- have been derided as (and you can take your pick here) nasty, snide, caustic, bitter, and biased.
Some journalists and Gore partisans complain about the tenor of Seelye's and Connolly's work. But there's no "there" there. During their coverage of the Gore campaign, the two reporters have made only one notable mistake, inserting a much-dissected wrong word in a quote of Gore's discussing Love Canal. The rest of their sins have to do with purportedly "disliking" their subject and being harder on Gore than their colleagues are on Texas Governor George W. Bush. Indeed, Seelye's hard-nosed style differs from that of Frank Bruni, the New York Times reporter and former film critic (and onetime Pulitzer Prize finalist for feature reporting) covering the Bush campaign. As Democratic strategist James Carville says, "Bush got a lot better draw. The people that cover Gore argue with you. I don't understand it." One Gore advocate, his Harvard University roommate Bob Somerby, has even taken to tracking what he sees as Seelye's and Connolly's tonal problems on his website, The Daily Howler. "They dislike the man, they're mean, they're nasty. It's weird," says Somerby.
Reporters traveling with Gore aren't much more charitable. While most reporters refused to speak for attribution, some say the three women made life on the trail less pleasant. Speaking of Connolly, Seelye, and Sobieraj's relationship with Gore, Cox Newspapers reporter Scott Shepard says, "It seems to go somewhat beyond adversarial and short of animosity. [I]t's certainly different from anything I've seen on other campaigns."
It's hard to see what the big deal is. Connolly and Seelye are Washington pros, and their coverage, despite Somerby's protestations, does not rise to the level of biased reporting. For instance, Connolly described how Gore slammed the pharmaceutical industry by writing that "Gore's rhetoric included such words as...'baloney,'...'collusion,'...'cohoots' and...'loopholes.'" Somerby sees this sentence as an example of slanted coverage: "Who in the world reports a speech by listing words which the speaker used?" he asked on his website.
Writing about Seelye, Somerby complains that the Times reporter poked fun at Gore for occasionally calling his "progress and prosperity tour" a "prosperity and progress tour." But given the inanity of political slogans, that's a humorous point: Even the candidate sometimes can't keep it straight.
Seelye, Connolly, and Sobieraj are intense reporters, and it is difficult not to be frustrated by Gore's efforts to wall himself off from the press corps, especially when compared with Bush's more relaxed, open approach. Many reporters would react similarly. And yet talk of the Spice Girls (a nickname initially coined to encompass the entire Gore press corps) or "The Bitches on the Bus" (a snarky reference to Timothy Crouse's The Boys on the Bus, a book about the reporters covering the 1972 presidential campaign) is pervasive. Could it be because the reporters covering the vice-president for three of the most influential news outlets in the country are women?
Jane Mayer, who often writes about politics for The New Yorker magazine, speculates that the answer could be yes: "If Bob Woodward and Jeff Gerth wore high heels, they'd be called bitches, too," she says, referring to two of the country's most highly respected investigative reporters.
Seelye, Connolly, and Sobieraj all declined to discuss the issue. "I really prefer to cover the news rather than be a part of it," Connolly wrote in an e-mail. And with the conventions over and the campaign shifting into high gear, it's likely all this talk of condescending tone and press-corps cliques will fade into the background. Because, just as in high school, petty sniping and unfounded reputations dissipate when graduation is on the horizon.
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