`The Girls in the Van': What Happened When a Lot of Women Journalists Reported on Hillary Clinton's Campaign? (Women: United States).(Column)

By Harpaz, Beth J. | Nieman Reports, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview
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`The Girls in the Van': What Happened When a Lot of Women Journalists Reported on Hillary Clinton's Campaign? (Women: United States).(Column)


Harpaz, Beth J., Nieman Reports


While covering Hillary Clinton's New York senate race for The Associated Press, I happened to read "The Boys on the Bus," Timothy Crouse's classic tale of reporters on the McGovern-Nixon campaign trail. Although nearly 30 years had passed since the 1972 presidential race, many aspects of campaign coverage remained unchanged--bad food, silly songs, inside jokes, and speeches we knew by heart.

But there was one big difference. Crouse and his colleagues were nearly all men. When I covered Hillary Clinton, my colleagues were predominantly female. Of course there were exceptions, notably correspondents for New York City's major dailies, The New York Times, Daily News and New York Post. But they were outnumbered by women from AP, Reuters, Gannett's suburban daily The Journal News, The New York Observer, Newsday, USA Today, an ABC producer, the WCBS-TV and WCBS radio correspondents, and crews from a local news cable channel, NY1.

Throw in a few female photographers, three out of Clinton's four press aides, her personal assistants, and female TV correspondents from around the globe (who were always interrupting press conferences about taxes with questions like, "Hillary! What is your message for the women of Italy?") and I felt like I was back in my all-girl high school. Only instead of giggling with my friends in the stairwell, I was sharing stories about my kids with the other working moms on the minivan that drove us from one campaign stop to another.

We were no longer the boys on the bus. We were the girls in the van.

How did that make things different? Well, for one thing, if campaign events ran later than scheduled, those of us with kids had to make emergency calls to babysitters and pay late fines to day-care centers. Some evenings I finished dictating my story by cell phone while pushing the stroller home; other nights I relied on campaign staffers (Clinton's or her opponents') to call with an update on an event I couldn't make without upending a complicated routine of homework, bedtime stories, and baths.

Still, I worried that any small kindness the campaign showed towards my children might compromise my integrity. When Clinton surprised me with a copy of her book, "Dear Socks, Dear Buddy," inscribed to my boys, I sweated buckets worrying that it was an ethical lapse to take her gift. I immediately turned it over to my boss. But it turned out that The A.P. deems a copy of a book from an author to be a token gift, like a cup of coffee, and therefore not a conflict of interest. (I later sent Clinton a copy of my book about the campaign, so I figure we're even.)

One day when I had to pick my kids up on time, I got word that Clinton was about to release a new campaign ad. The candidate had a favorite phrase to explain some of the choices she makes politically--"conflicting values"--so I e-mailed her press secretary to ask when the ad would be ready and added, "I'm probably walking out the door at four-thirty, so if I need to plan a stop at your office on my way home, I need to know. Sorry, but it's the old conflicting values dilemma. Hillary on one hand. Seven-year-old Danny and two-year-old Nathaniel on the other."

Two minutes later, the press secretary e-mailed me back. "Release is going out now. Ads should be available at the office presently. I vote for the kids, by the way."

Was I wrong to push for the timely release of the ad because I needed to get home? Was I abusing my working mother status? Or was I merely asking for a small scheduling accommodation that might be requested by any reporter, male or female, who had a doctor's appointment or tickets to a World Series game? This was the kind of question I struggled with daily and hoped that, on balance, my dilemmas were not all that different from anyone else's.

By the way, I can confidently report that cynicism--the disease that overtakes most political reporters when they watch a candidate up close day after day--is gender-blind.

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