The Media Today

The importance of how Amy Klobuchar treats her staff

February 25, 2019

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Earlier this month, with Amy Klobuchar winding up to enter the 2020 Democratic presidential race, HuffPost dropped a story focused not on her future prospects, but on her past behavior as a boss. Anonymous former staffers for the Minnesota senator told Molly Redden and Amanda Terkel that Klobuchar is “habitually demeaning and prone to bursts of cruelty that make it difficult to work in her office for long.” The allegations did not totally overshadow her rollout—footage of Klobuchar speaking through a snowstorm topped many outlets’ coverage. But as HuffPost and other outlets have continued to add detail, the story has gained momentum and come to dominate much media chatter of Klobuchar’s nascent candidacy.

Even before Klobuchar’s reveal, it was clear that the allegations about her conduct go well beyond garden-variety bad-bossery: BuzzFeed’s Molly Hensley-Clancy reported that Klobuchar has been known to berate staff on an almost daily basis, send vitriolic early morning emails chastising the quality of their work, and even, on occasion, throw papers and objects. The day after her announcement, Yahoo’s Alexander Nazaryan added that when employees found work elsewhere, Klobuchar, feeling betrayed, would sometimes call up their new employer demanding that the offer be rescinded. On Friday, The New York Times’s Matt Flegenheimer and Sydney Ember explicitly stressed, like the other reporters who moved the story forward, that Klobuchar’s alleged bullying was exceptional: “former aides say she was not just demanding but often dehumanizing… not merely a tough boss in a capital full of them, but the steward of a work environment colored by volatility, highhandedness, and distrust.”

ICYMI: Despite backlash, Jason Leopold stands by his story

Such qualifications have not staunched pushback. Ever since HuffPost’s initial report, critics have accused the journalists telling the story of a double standard. Coverage of Klobuchar, the criticism goes, is sexist because male politicians’ similar conduct is rarely scrutinized—and even when it is, is not discussed in the same way. Yesterday, Vox’s Laura McGann wrote that “the same kind of behavior that damages women can benefit a man. He’s not a devil wearing Prada. He’s a devil to admire.” (McGann’s piece caught some sharp flak on Twitter.) Also yesterday, more than 50 former Klobuchar staffers signed an open “letter to the editors” arguing that “positive anecdotes and stories” they shared about Klobuchar “have not been fully reported by the Times and other media.” (Klobuchar, for her part, has said she has “high expectations.”)

Most reporting on the Klobuchar story, however, has been diligent and fair. In their original piece, for example, HuffPost’s Redden and Terkel gave prominent space to the favorable recollections of some former staffers—including Erick Garcia Luna, who posted yesterday’s open letter on Medium. Journalists working on the story have often mentioned the context of sexism high up, and sought to explain where these allegations sit in relation. Female candidates are held to grossly different standards than their male counterparts—in presidential races and right on down the ballot. But that fact shouldn’t be used to diminish objectionable or abusive conduct, nor to undermine the testimony of those at the vulnerable end of an uneven workplace power dynamic.

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One can hash out what the allegations about Klobuchar mean—and whether they matter—in terms of her appeal as a candidate or fitness for office. But the voices of those alleging mistreatment should be placed front and center because this story, ultimately, is about listening to them. “I don’t think this is one of those situations” where sexism is to blame, one woman who worked for Klobuchar told BuzzFeed’s Hensley-Clancy. “Honestly, if it were a man doing these things, that story should be written.”

Below, more on Amy Klobuchar:

  • “Not sexist”: HuffPost’s Terkel wrote last week that some of her sources have been “particularly frustrated” by charges that their testimony is sexist. “Many of the aides who spoke with HuffPost are women, who consider themselves feminists and have worked for other strong female politicians.”
  • “Everyone is getting the Amy Klobuchar story wrong”: Splinter’s Libby Watson takes issue with a different aspect of the Klobuchar story’s framing. “What if, instead of approaching this story as a matter of political intrigue, we treated this story as it should be treated—as a labor story, a story of a shitty boss and workers who deserve better?” she asks.
  • Combgate: The Times led its Klobuchar article with a bizarre anecdote: in 2008, she allegedly ate a salad with a comb after a staffer forgot to bring a fork on a flight. Further down, a more important passage concerned her office’s paid parental leave policy: “those who took paid leave were effectively required, once they returned, to remain with the office for three times as many weeks as they had been gone.”

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR, Elon Green charts the curious back story behind Alex French and Maximillian Potter’s recent investigation into the film director Bryan Singer—the story ran in The Atlantic even though French and Potter are on the masthead of Esquire. The reporters say their story was killed by Hearst, which owns Esquire. “If I got hit by a bus tomorrow, and had to talk to the Big Guy, and he asked me, ‘Hey, do you know why they killed this piece?,’ I’d say, ‘No,’” Potter tells Green.
  • Contrary to recent reports, Special Counsel Robert Mueller is not expected to deliver his final report to the Justice Department this week after all. Amid feverish speculation about what the report might contain and whether it will even be made public, the AP’s Chad Day and Eric Tucker stitch a coherent, concise narrative from the damning details Mueller has already revealed. “Woven through thousands of court papers, the special counsel has made his public report,” they write.
  • President Trump will meet Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Wednesday. As US networks ready their special coverage from the ground, KCNA, North Korea’s state news agency, has broken its silence on the summit, slamming the Democratic Party and the US intelligence community for “chilling the atmosphere,” Reuters’s Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin report.
  • On Friday, YouTube pledged to remove advertising from channels that promote anti-vax content, BuzzFeed’s Caroline O’Donovan reports. Pinterest has taken a tougher approach to the problem: according to The Wall Street Journal’s Robert McMillan and Daniela Hernandez, it blocked searches for the word “vaccination” in a bid to curb the spread of misinformation on its platform.
  • BuzzFeed conducted what it claims is the first ever survey of tech workers’ attitudes toward the press. “More than half (51%) of tech industry professionals ‘somewhat agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ with the statement that ‘President Trump has a point when it comes to the media producing fake news,’” BuzzFeed’s Joseph Bernstein reports.
  • A news crew working for KPIX 5, a Bay Area TV station, was robbed of its equipment while covering a teachers’ strike in Oakland, California, yesterday. The crew’s security guard was shot in the leg.
  • And Vanity Fair disinvited the Times from its Oscar night party after the paper ran a story suggesting the glitzy event has lost its luster in recent years. During last night’s ceremony, which went without a host after Kevin Hart withdrew amid a scandal over past homophobic tweets, the controversial film Green Book won Best Picture, beating out Netflix’s Roma.

ICYMI: Rethinking foreign reporting at the AP

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.