Scene: An Emmy-winning local TV news reporter in North Texas is on the hunt for his next story. He sees a woman from Dallas has posted something on Facebook that is, shall we say, controversial.
“A female shouldn’t be President,” the woman has written, and she explains that if that event should come to pass, well, she will be moving to Canada. “Let the haters begin,” the woman continues, “but with the hormones we have there is no way we should be able to start a war.”
The comment might seem just a random speck in the torrent of sexist remarks chucked into the wilds of the Web on any given day. But this one will be different. The local reporter recognizes this woman. He knows her as the CEO of a local marketing company, a successful businesswoman who is raising a family. Her Facebook post, he realizes, has “sparked debate.”
News—news of a sort that would not just make the local evening news but would soon rack up more than 25,000 interactions on Facebook, and spark a round of Twitter mockery for both the reporter and the woman.
The TV reporter is Steve Pickett; the woman is Cheryl Rios. Pickett pitches Rios’ views as a news item to his bosses at DFW/CBS 11, a station serving the Dallas-Ft. Worth area.
“I told my executive producers, news director, and others about this local businesswoman’s view. I called her. I discussed that her post was garnering reaction nationwide. Would she like to explain her view, a woman achieving so much, believing [the presidency is] one job no woman should hold. She said yes. My superiors said go forward with the story.”
That’s what Pickett would later tell a correspondent for CJR, who had become curious about the story after seeing that the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative political news site, had dubbed it “A new low for journalism.”
Pickett would be happy to discuss how the broadcast came about.
“I want to emphasize that the merits of this report were debated and discussed in the same manner as any other story pitch,” he said via email.
The curious correspondent was also cynical. He wondered if perhaps the decision to highlight the woman’s inflammatory but seemingly inconsequential comments wasn’t a calculated ploy for social-media clicks. He pointed out how much attention the story was getting on Facebook.
The TV reporter said he wasn’t following his own story’s social-media traction.
“That wasn’t on my radar,” he said, and the cynical correspondent believed him.
He did, however, have one more question. What kind of value was the TV reporter hoping to deliver to his viewers by airing such a report? What made him want to chase down this particular story for the evening broadcast? What, in other words, was Pickett thinking?
“My journalistic sense gravitated toward the news value of people in our community hearing a point of view from someone who’s achieved so much suggest that someone of her gender shouldn’t achieve something,” the reporter said. “Many suggested the story was targeting, based on politics. Ms. Rios told me Condi Rice shouldn’t be President either.”
And, in the end, in a big city in Texas on the day after Hillary Clinton announced her campaign for president of the United States, that would be news.