Susan J. Demas: Time for male journalists to step up and call out sexism in politics

November 23, 2019 6:55 am

Then-Gov. Rick Snyder interviewed by a group of reporters at a 2012 press conference with Editor Susan J. Demas in the background | Michigan Municipal League via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This week, a story broke that the male Senate GOP leader called Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Democrats “batshit crazy.”

The journalistic impulse in these situations is usually to drone on about partisanship and decry the lack of civility, while assiduously ignoring the blatant sexism. (The far less insufferable Twitter reaction was to drop an “ok boomer” meme.)

If you’re wondering how I know this, it’s because when I was a young political journalist with a lot to prove to my overwhelmingly male bosses, I was guilty of the same hand-waving of misogyny. That was during the era of Michigan’s first female governor, Jennifer Granholm. But more on that in a moment.

Nothing in politics takes place in a vacuum. The Republican Party is led by President Donald Trump, who has been accused by dozens of women of sexual assault and dismisses women he doesn’t like as “pigs” and “dogs.”

In Michigan, Democratic women swept all the statewide offices for the first time in history in 2018, while the gerrymandered GOP Legislature is led by two men. 

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So let’s see if Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) has earned the benefit of the doubt on sexism beyond his belated apology. He’s fond of calling Whitmer “my governor,” which he says is a sign of respect, but appears condescending at best, especially since he didn’t refer to GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder that way.

Let’s continue. One of Whitmer’s first acts in office was an executive directive for equal pay for women. Shirkey’s advice? “Ignore it.” After the governor proposed a very modest business tax increase, he sneered she was “doubling down on stupid.” He’s also recently compared abortion to slavery.

There’s no shortage of other Republican dude legislators desperate to get on Fox News (or at least see their tweets flash on screen) who hurl constant sexist bombs at the governor, referring to her as “Emperor,” “Queen” and “play[ing] with Barbies.”

If your best defense is that Michigan GOP Chair Laura Cox also called Whitmer “crazy,” I’d say you’ve just proven that the Republican Party has an institutional problem with women (as its record of hemorrhaging female voters and candidates attests.)

Dems, women’s group slam Shirkey for equal pay comments

Of course, most of us would like to believe sexism is a thing of the past because more female candidates are winning (in the Democratic Party), which is a lovely idea, just like the credulous belief that electing Barack Obama president somehow meant racism was over.

It’s not realistic, though. Too often, powerful people wield modest progress as a weapon to shut down the very real concerns of women, people of color, LGBTQs and others. 

And let’s be real. One reason why politicians feel comfortable unloading misogynistic rants is because mostly older male pundits and journalists don’t really see it as a problem — and even reward them with amused coverage. 

Whitmer lends support to equal pay legislation

Take Tim Skubick, who hosts Michigan Public Television’s “Off the Record” and works for outlets like MIRS. At a June event when Whitmer and female legislators were celebrating the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote, Skubick thought it was appropriate to ask the governor if “angry women” will decide the 2020 election.

Tim’s a lovely guy who’s always been sweet to my kids, but I just don’t subscribe to the journalistic philosophy that criticizing your colleagues is verboten. Journalism is a worthy profession, but it’s not a cult.

There are certainly more women now in the Michigan Capitol press corps than when I joined 13 years ago. I recall covering the “Vaginagate” scandal, when Republicans silenced two Democratic female legislators during a 2012 abortion debate (one said “vagina” and the other used the term “vasectomy.”) More than a few men in the press box sniggered while several female reporters told me they felt mortified.

Susan J. Demas: Nice girls don’t say ‘vagina’ … or ‘motherfucker’

Then and now, women don’t want to be the ones to publicly raise sexism. It’s a great way not to be taken seriously in a still male-dominated profession.

In my 20s and early 30s, I did everything I could to ignore double standards. I was a team player who tried to deflect sexual harassment, accepted getting paid less than men with less experience, and didn’t take a day off work after a painful miscarriage. I put in weeks of unpaid labor to prove that allowing me to occasionally work at home as a single mom wasn’t a burden. 

Jennifer Granholm | Wikimedia Commons

I told a female colleague who filed a sex discrimination suit that I couldn’t be part of it because I’d never get hired again. She rightly argued that nothing will change unless we fight back, but I arrogantly and naïvely told her, “I have to believe my talent will be enough in the end.”

This was the backdrop to my coverage of Gov. Granholm. Journalists aren’t infallible and we should admit that. I made more than my share of mistakes. As a younger woman, my instinct was to roll my eyes when the governor’s staff or better female journalists than I said many pieces were tinged with sexism.

When I first became a political columnist in 2006, it was a lonely place for a woman in Michigan. I soon found that my stinging columns criticizing Granholm were my ticket to being taken seriously by my bosses and the political class. 

I was one of them, unblinded by my ovaries.

Susan J. Demas: It’s a new day in Michigan, boys. Try and keep up.

As a cool girl journalist, you think you’re speaking truth to power. But once we elected another male governor, my snarky style suddenly was a problem. (Calling Granholm “Jenny” was hilarious; referring to Snyder as “Ricky” was disrespectful.) 

What does it say that Granholm got worse press for a bad economy, which everyone knew was largely out of her control, than Snyder did for having a major American city poisoned on his watch? Nothing good.

I’ve run my own show since I was 36 and bought Inside Michigan Politics, which definitely hasn’t unnerved folks, like a gubernatorial candidate who summed up my two decades in journalism as writing a “fun blog thing.

That’s given me the freedom to hire lots of talented female journalists — especially here at the Michigan Advance — and speak out against sexism when my younger colleagues can’t. I am absolutely fine being hated; it beats the soul-crushing compromises of access journalism any day.

Whitmer: ‘Rational conclusion’ that sexism was a factor in campaign coverage

But you know what? It shouldn’t just be experienced journalists like Detroit Free Press columnist Nancy Kaffer and I — or progressive women on social media like Angela Vasquez-Giroux and Laura Hornshaw — always tasked with calling out misogyny.

It’s exhausting. And plenty of male journalists know it’s a big problem. So say something, my dudes. You know damn well that your takes will automatically be taken more seriously because of your gender (which sums up the problem in a nutshell.)

But if you think it’s somehow biased to acknowledge sexism staring you right in the face, that says a lot. And we should probably start to question what else your coverage is missing.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ people, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.