Mississippi reporters confront the ‘Billy Graham Rule’

Screen grab from CNN's July 11 interview with Larrison Campbell (right) and Robert Foster (lower left).

Mississippi’s Republican gubernatorial primary, just two weeks away, has been marked by a scandal over the ways female reporters are treated. On July 9, Mississippi Today politics reporter Larrison Campbell wrote that state representative Robert Foster refused to let her shadow his campaign because of her gender:

In two phone calls this week, Colton Robison, Foster’s campaign director, said a male colleague would need to accompany this reporter on an upcoming 15-hour campaign trip because they believed the optics of the candidate with a woman, even a working reporter, could be used in a smear campaign to insinuate an extramarital affair.

“The only reason you think that people will think I’m having a (improper) relationship with your candidate is because I am a woman,” this reporter said.

Robison said the campaign simply “can’t risk it.”

Ahead of the gubernatorial primary, Mississippi Today assigned Campbell and Adam Ganucheau to cover the state’s three Republican candidates for the office. Ganucheau drew Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves and former state supreme court chief justice Bill Waller, Jr.; Campbell got Foster, whose campaign she had covered for months already. Foster’s campaign invited Campbell to join the candidate on the road so long as a male colleague joined her—an offer Campbell detailed in her story, and pushed back against as sexist. 

Related: Subtle sexism in political coverage can have a real impact on candidates

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Foster’s decision—part of what is known as the “Billy Graham Rule” (and, to a lesser extent, the “Mike Pence Rule”)—attracted coverage from national news outlets, including The New York Times, People magazine, and USA Today

Foster responded on Twitter to coverage from The Washington Post by accusing the paper of political bias and terming it “totally out of touch with America.” In other tweets, he shared news coverage and appended identical statements: “My wife and the State of Mississippi deserve a governor who doesn’t compromise their beliefs, and I’m sticking to my guns.”

Foster’s campaign has since embraced the incident, using the hashtag #MyTruckMyRules on social media and selling a t-shirt with the phrase on it. (The campaign also printed the phrase on bumper stickers which it pledged to send to donors who gave $5.) Last week, the Foster campaign released a new ad in which Heather Foster, Robert’s wife, speaks about his character and portrays the  issue as a distraction. “Robert’s not trying to set a standard, he’s just living by one,” she says. “But it shouldn’t distract us from the issues that concern Mississippians.” Foster and Campbell both spoke with CNN’s John Berman last week about the incident. Foster repeated that he would offer the sort of access requested by Campbell to a male journalist, but not to her. “When a woman isn’t given access to the same things a man would be given access to, it’s sexism,” Campbell said. (Foster’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment from CJR.)

Campbell calls her exchange with Foster a “difference of opinion over how a professional situation was handled.” “I’ve texted him actually, and we were at the same event last Monday and acknowledged each other,” she says. “I don’t think there will be a problem of access moving forward.”

Still, female journalists in Mississippi say such problems plague the political beat. Donna Ladd, editor in chief of the Jackson Free Press, says her newspaper is mainly run by women. “We’re lucky to get a return phone call or invited to press conferences from many elected officials in Mississippi,” she says. According to Ladd, female reporters have left Mississippi because of poor treatment by men they’ve encountered in the field. “Many women reach out to me about these problems,” she says, “but feel powerless to do anything and afraid to speak up.” 

On July 11, Mississippi Today released a special episode of The Other Side, its politics podcast, titled “What it’s Like Covering Mississippi as a Woman” and featuring five female staffers. “I feel like I’ve been in female-dominated newsrooms during my career and that hasn’t changed the sexism that I faced,” reporter Anna Wolfe* said, “because men are still in charge of these agencies and men are still the [majority of the state’s] politicians.” They also discussed the US media’s gender gap: While female journalism students outnumber their male peers, male journalists continue to author most news, whether for wire services, evening TV broadcasts, online news outlets, or print publications. 

The same day, Free Press state reporter Ashton Pittman wrote in an op-ed which noted that Foster’s decision had become a rallying point online for criticism of the #MeToo movement. “If I had known when I sat down with Foster in January that a woman doing the same job as me would not have been afforded the same opportunity unless she acquiesced to the indignity of having a male chaperone,” concluded Pittman, “I wouldn’t have done it.”

Rolling Stone Senior Writer Jamil Smith seized on a similar point and encouraged male journalists to refuse coverage of those campaigns that block female journalists:

“The responses of the voters shouldn’t deter every journalist from being firm in this stance: we will not cover your campaign unless you treat people of all genders equally on the trail,” he tells CJR via email. “The press is an extension of the public. If you cannot be in the same room with a reporter who is a woman, how can you be expected to represent women equally if elected?”

Ladd hopes the widespread coverage of the Foster incident inspires systemic change in politics and journalism, but fears the stories might just make for click bait. “Age and gender diversity in leadership provides needed perspective, and probably would help with solidarity coverage across media outlets on speaking out against sexism toward women journalists and others,” she says. “What must happen is that men of both parties take a look at their own fragility over being challenged, and start to understand that they will benefit from inviting women to all their tables.” Those men, Ladd says, should also hire “top women leaders, advisers, and editors who have experience and vital training, who know misogyny when we see it, in all its forms.”

After Campbell’s exchange with Foster made headlines, she asked other Mississippi gubernatorial candidates whether they also follow the Billy Graham Rule. Democratic candidate Jim Hood, the state’s attorney general, said he does not  because it would jeopardize his duties to female constituents. Republican candidate Tate Reeves’s campaign told Campbell, “Provided they are fair to our campaign, we treat all journalists the same.” 

But Waller—the former state supreme court justice running for the GOP nomination—told Campbell he also follows the Billy Graham Rule. “I just think it’s common sense,” Waller told Campbell. “I just think in this day and time, appearances are important and transparency’s important, and people need to have the comfort of what’s going on in government between employees and people.” Those comments have attracted less media attention than Foster’s.

Despite the burst of media attention, angry comments, and mean phone calls, Campbell is appreciative of the Mississippi Today newsroom for standing up with her and fostering a positive conversation. She also wonders how the incident might shape hiring for Foster’s administration, should he be elected. 

“I do think it’s worth pointing out that this experience has not been bad for [Foster’s] campaign—we can all agree on that,” Campbell says. “He’s had a ton of support in Mississippi from Democrats and Republicans over his stance.”

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This story has been updated to correct a reference to a Mississippi Today reporter.

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Terricha Phillips is a freelance journalist based in Mississippi. She has worked for a number of news outlets, incuding the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, the Newspaper Network of Central Ohio, and the Clarion-Ledger.