Future historians will have a field day with Donald Trump’s daily coronavirus briefings. The televised spectacles, averaging 8.5 million viewers, reveal a great deal about the state of American culture in the third decade of the 21st century.
Trump’s narcissistic obsessions on display—in the midst of a historic public health crisis—breathe new life into the central thesis of Neil Postman’s 1985 masterpiece, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.
The president makes clear that he views the purpose of the nightly news events less as an opportunity to inform an anxious populace in the grip of a terrible pandemic than as a chance to remain on stage as the star of his reality TV presidency.
“Because the ‘ratings’ of my News Conferences etc. are so high,” he tweeted, “’Bachelor finale, Monday Night Football type numbers’ according to the @nytimes, the Lamestream Media is going CRAZY. ‘Trump is reaching too many people, we must stop him.’ said one lunatic.”
Some people watch precisely for the dramatic elements on display.
Adrian Chen wrote in The New York Times that it was the “voyeuristic quality” of the briefings that got him—“the sense of seeing a social drama unfold. When Trump is present, the briefings are free-flowing in a way that produces unguarded eruptions of reality, revealing remarkable things.”
One of those remarkable things is the demonstration, in real time, of the unscripted exercise of power in the realm of workplace gender politics. Because the drama of the coronavirus briefings—like all TV shows whether live or taped—unfolds in an actual workplace.
And in that workplace, the viewing public has been able to observe what untold numbers of women have experienced directly for millennia: powerful men treating them differently than men as they try to do their jobs. And not just differently, but also disrespectfully. For example, on numerous occasions Trump has called women “nasty” and “horrid” for asking questions he doesn’t like—words he never applies to men.
“The way he reacts is different, and I think it’s time to say so,” CNN’s Dana Bash said after Trump told CBS reporter Weijia Jiang this week, when she asked him about his lack of preparation for the pandemic, to “relax” and “keep your voice down.”
Of course Trump treats many male reporters with hostility and contempt, but he has a particular problem with female reporters. He can’t stand to be contradicted or criticized by anyone, but seems especially enraged when women stand up to him. He often responds by attacking their intelligence, saying as he did to CNN reporter Abby Phillip, “You ask a lot of stupid questions,” and to Cecilia Vega of ABC News, “I know you’re not thinking. You never do.”
Maybe he finds the pitch of women’s voices aggravating and annoying. Many people (not just men) seem to share this aversion and are quick to label women as “shrill” and “strident”—although they almost never describe men in this way.
Pitzer College linguistics professor Carmen Fought explains that “Men are supposed to be assertive, loud and competitive. Women are supposed to be soft-spoken, cooperative and helpful. No matter who’s saying something, a man or a woman, they’re being judged on their language via their gender.”
Trump’s attacks on female reporters underscore and legitimize these harmful stereotypes.
Former Fox News Channel personality Gretchen Carlson—whose sexual harassment lawsuit against Roger Ailes in 2016 catalyzed the firing of the network’s founding chairman, a Trump friend—called the president a “misogynistic jerk” and tweeted, “No doubt there is a difference in the way he treats women and it’s horrible.”
Trump’s aggressive and demeaning comments toward women journalists in the briefings is part of a longstanding pattern of behavior. In the first Republican debate in 2015, he infamously attacked Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, after she questioned him about his history of offensive statements about women, saying, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”
He has made headlines several times during his presidential term for making particularly disparaging remarks to African-American women journalists. At one point in 2018 he ridiculed three of these women in three days, calling them “stupid, “a loser” and “racist.”
“He’s not able to finesse his disdain for certain people,” said April Ryan, D.C. Bureau Chief and former White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks. “Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately because you can see for yourself what it is, perception is reality with this president … He attacks the people he feels are beneath him.”
It is well-known that Trump likes to surround himself with women who are young, decorative, polite and pliant.
“You should say, ‘Congratulations! Great job!’” he recently told Fox News reporter Kristin Fisher when she questioned him about the lag in coronavirus testing, “instead of being so horrid in the way you ask the question!”
Last month he told PBS NewsHour reporter Yamiche Alcindor to be “nice” and not be “threatening.”
Kayleigh McEnany, Trump’s latest press secretary, knows what her boss expects from his spokespeople. On Monday she used Twitter to attack ABC White House reporter Katherine Faulders for having the temerity to challenge Trump about the lack of testing.
Unable to respond factually to Faulders’ criticism, McEnany tweeted, “To you, he’s not Trump, he’s President Trump.”
Female reporters often find their legitimacy and competence questioned, even by seemingly well-intentioned men—and other women. But to be publicly humiliated and undermined by the president of the United States makes their work and their lives much more difficult.
However, unlike so many of the women in the past and present who had to endure such treatment in “private” workplaces, with few promising (or safe) avenues of redress, and few allies courageous enough to stand with them, women journalists who have felt the sting of Trump’s contempt have the platform—and the support—to fight back.
Trump’s misogynous behavior toward women journalists is occurring, after all, in the #MeToo era, a time of transformative shifts in cultural norms—including workplace norms. And as Catherine MacKinnon, one of the original architects of sexual harassment law, reminds us, journalism— including the groundbreaking work of women journalists—played a critical role in sparking #MeToo.
“High-quality journalism,” she wrote, “featuring in-depth, factually detailed reporting that was the product of investigative diligence, touched off this [#MeToo] movement.”
The fact is that Trump’s disrespectful treatment of women journalists—on the most visible, televised stage in the world—is not only harmful and inappropriate. It is increasingly anachronistic.
Women and men who regard fair and equitable treatment as nonnegotiable features of the 21st century workplace need to call out Trump’s unacceptable behavior and stand with these women.
The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving. During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.