When sexist and vulgar remarks are new
Is it news when a public official makes sexist remarks? What do you report, and why?
By Liz Brensinger
Liz Brensinger is a freelance writer and former news editor for the Pocono Record, Stroudsburg, Pa.
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 2 (May 1989), p. 6.
This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.
When the popular county sheriff makes sexist remarks during and after a public meeting of the prison board, is it a story? Or is it simply a harmless attempt at “humor” that should be allowed to die quietly?
At The Pocono Record we wrote the story – and unleashed a storm of controversy that sparked two days of anti-sheriff protests, dominated a local call-in radio show for more than a week, and made the newspaper as much a focus of debate as the sheriff himself.
Sheriff Forrest Sebring had made his comments during discussion of a plan to house female inmates for the first time in Monroe County’s history. It was dominated by the male officials’ view that women prisoners would likely pose numerous problems.
“Everybody we talk to says we’re crazy to start housing women because they’re so much trouble,” the jail warden was quoted as saying. As examples, he mentioned drug problems, social diseases and possible pregnancies and miscarriages.
It was then that the sheriff commented: “Every woman that you get in over there (at the jail) has to have some kind of complications. She has to be rebushed or something.” Following laughter from fellow board members, all male, he added, “OK, recycled.”
Asked during a later interview what he’d meant by “rebushed,” Sebring told the two female reporters questioning him, “If you can be straight with me, I can be straight with you….It’s jailhouse talk. It’s prison talk. It’s cop talk. But if you write it, I’m going to tell you right now I’ll sue both of you.”
Questioned again, he told them, “You take a 10-pound ham, you stick it up a woman’s bug and you pull out the bone, and that’s how you rebush a whore who comes to jail.”
“To recycle a woman,” the sheriff also told the reporters, “is to send her down to the Virgin Islands and make a virgin out of her.”
Except for the ham quote, all of the above was reported the next day in a page one article that gave a straightforward, basically chronological account of the discussion about women inmates. The ham quote was described – inaccurately, it turned out – as “a vulgar statement apparently concerning cleansing of the female genitalia.” We later learned that the term actually referred to tightening a woman’s vagina for the enhanced enjoyment of her male sexual partners.
Decisions about story content, placement and coverage were made by the editor, publisher, wire editor (all three male) and myself, then the news editor (a combination city editor/m.e.). We saw little question that the comments were newsworthy.
The public has a compelling interest in knowing about the perspectives and judgment of its elected officials, especially those influential in the running of public institutions. Making comments that denigrate any group of people is neither acceptable nor evidence of good judgment, and this was not the first time Sheriff Sebring had done it. Eleven years earlier, he had drawn severe criticism for making racist comments. If a newspaper ignores sexist comments on grounds that they’re “just a joke” or “have always been made,” that newspaper helps perpetuate sexism.
Our editorial discussions focused, then, on exactly how to report the story, and whether to include the ham quote.
The reporter argued that the quote belonged – that no paraphrase could convey what the comment itself did. (As it turned out, she was right.) The editor and publisher, on the other hand, deemed the sheriff’s explanation too offensive to publish in a community newspaper. I agreed with elements of both perspectives; and though I conveyed the reporter’s concerns to the editor, I felt good about his final decision not to use the quote.
What clearly seems, in retrospect, to have been the most troublesome aspect of our coverage was something we had never discussed; whether the reporter who covered the prison board meeting should follow subsequent developments.
The issue was neither her ability, integrity nor her desire to cover the story, but rather the appearance of her objectivity – she, with the editor’s knowledge, was a member of the local National Organization for Women chapter. And NOW participated in the anti-sheriff protests that she covered.
Also, I too was a NOW member. Like her, I played a backseat role in what was customarily a low-visibility organization in our community.
But when supporters of the sheriff learned that we were NOW members, the degree of our involvement mattered little. To them, the story had been reported only because we were women and feminists, in a conservative area where that term remains pejorative and threatening to many people.
We, then, became the focus of attacks on the newspaper’s credibility – and on us, both personally and professionally.
By not assigning someone else to the protests, I believe, we did both the reporter and our newspaper a tremendous disservice.
While many people supported our coverage, we had unthinkingly handed those who didn’t the perfect weapon to detract attention from the real, newsworthy issue of the sheriff’s inappropriate and offensive comments.