WASHINGTON - A reporter in Mississippi who was denied access to cover a candidate for governor because she is a woman is calling the rejection sexist and a violation of press freedom.
The candidate, Robert Foster, said in an emailed statement he was just following the “Billy Graham” rule where a man is never alone with a woman besides his wife. The reporter, Larrison Campbell, said she was told he was concerned about the optics for his campaign of being alone with a woman.
Foster’s campaign manager said people could use her presence as a smear tactic and it was too close to the primary election to risk it, according to the post Campbell published in "Mississippi Today".
Campbell said in a phone interview she offered to wear a press pass the whole time, write the article quickly so the campaign could point to it as an explanation, and pointed out she wouldn’t be alone with him because the male campaign manager would be there all day.
Campbell told VOA this is an example of sexism and it hurts freedom of the press.
“The only reason you would think people might see a woman’s presence with a man as being improper is if you think that a woman’s presence in a political arena needs an explanation because she doesn’t belong there,” Campbell said. “Any time a reporter is denied access it hurts freedom of the press. It’s not a question of not being able to publish, it’s a question of there not being access.”
In a statement, Foster reiterated his decision was based out of respect for “my wife, character and our Christian faith.”
“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. I am sorry Ms. Campbell doesn’t share these same views,” Foster said in an emailed statement. “We don’t mind granting Ms. Campbell an interview. We just want it to be in an appropriate and professional setting that wouldn’t provide opportunities for us to be alone.”
Campbell said sexism in the industry can prevent women from getting the access they need.
“Your work should be what determines how well you do and if you get access to the bigger candidates you’re going to break bigger stories. It hurts you as you aren’t taken as seriously, that hurts your access to stories,” she said. “I have some fantastic sources, on both sides of the political spectrum. It does ultimately hurt your access and I’m definitely not the only woman who feels that way.”
Gaye Tuchman, a professor of sociology emerita at the University of Connecticut elaborated on the importance of access to the first amendment.
“The reason that a free press exists is because it enables people who read the press, or in the 21st century use other media, to find out things,” said Tuchman. “In that sense the constitution guarantees the right to find out things.”
Kayleigh Skinner, a colleague of Campbell’s at "Mississippi Today", said she often finds the people she covers do not treat her with as much respect as her male colleagues. She also said after the #MeToo movement women might have more difficulty doing their jobs.
“Maybe now women are seen as threats, something to gain out of accusing someone. I think men are more cautious now of getting caught up in a compromising situation,” Skinner said. “This is not the way to handle it. We are just doing our jobs.”
Campbell said while this is the most overt sexism she has experienced, sexism is a problem everywhere.
“I think that this story is obviously getting traction. It’s in Mississippi, it’s a Mississippi Republican. This does fit a narrative,” she said. “But there’s a problem everywhere. It’s not going to change unless we talk about it and analyze it and understand it.”