Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez makes some people very uncomfortable, and apparently that includes some editors and reporters at the New York Times.
So rather than report on how Ocasio-Cortez’s riveting, viral speech on the House floor on Thursday was a signal moment in the fight against abusive sexism, Times congressional reporters Luke Broadwater and Catie Edmondson filed a story full of sexist double standards and embraced the framing of her critics by casting her as a rule-breaker trying to “amplify her brand.”
First things first: If you haven’t watched and heard her remarks yet, do so now. (There’s a transcript here.)
Here is my full response regarding Mr. Yoho and the culture of misogyny that inspired his actions.
I am deeply appreciative of my colleagues and everyone speaking up and out against the rampant mistreatment of women both in Congress and across the country. ⬇️ https://t.co/nFfxy5UdmP
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) July 23, 2020
Then consider that the Times described the speech as “her most norm-shattering moment yet,” leading with the fact that “she took to the House floor to read into the Congressional Record a sexist vulgarity that Representative Ted Yoho, a Florida Republican, had used to refer to her.”
Washington Post reporters John Wagner and Paul Kane, by contrast, led their story by describing how “House Democrats rallied around a high-profile congresswoman Thursday in an extraordinary denunciation of sexism.”
A critical “tell” in the Times’s coverage – something perhaps only fellow journalists would fully appreciate at first – was how the paper had previously avoided directly quoting Yoho’s particular words, but did so now:
“In front of reporters, Representative Yoho called me, and I quote: ‘A fucking bitch,’” she said, punching each syllable in the vulgarity.
Author, cultural critic (and close friend) Mark Harris was quick to call the Times out:
The NYT, which would not use the words when Ted Yoho spoke them, uses them tonight to quote @AOC–and it describes HER behavior, not his, as "disruptive" and a "norm-shattering moment," one that it implies is about "amplifying her own brand."
— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) July 24, 2020
In the first Times article on the matter, on Tuesday, Broadwater described Yoho’s words as “a pair of expletives” – noting that Ocasio-Cortez “sought to turn the insult to her advantage.”
In his second article, on Wednesday, he referred to it as “a vulgar and sexist expletive.”
Now, all of a sudden, the Times was printing the words “fucking bitch.”
James Fallows, the renowned Atlantic national correspondent, asked in a tweet: “WHY should these words appear in a quote from AOC, at whom they were hatefully directed, rather than one from Rep. Yoho, who actually said them?”
Progressive journalist Benjamin Dixon suggested a possible explanation:
When I heard @AOC use the exact phrase Ted Yoho insulted her with, my gut told me that someone somewhere would be more upset at her saying the words than Ted Yoho.
Behold, the NYTimes:
“… she had her most norm-shattering moment…punching each syllable in the vulgarity.” pic.twitter.com/bkan0VX8dF
— Benjamin Dixon (@BenjaminPDixon) July 24, 2020
The Times reporters wrote that after her speech, “Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, who excels at using her detractors to amplify her own political brand, invited a group of Democratic women in the House to come forward to express solidarity with her.”
Only then did the Times acknowledge the actual significance of the occasion:
More even than the profanity uttered on the House floor, where language is carefully regulated, what unfolded over the next hour was a remarkable moment of cultural upheaval on Capitol Hill.
But then it was back to ascribing mercenary motivations, describing how “the media-savvy Ms. Ocasio-Cortez had sprung into action to create a disruptive and viral event.”
Who edited this story? There’s no way to know. But the fact that the Times printed the word “fucking” means it must have got to the very top of the foodchain.
Hamza Shaban, a business reporter for the Washington Post, called attention to the similarities between the Times’s framing of the story and the story’s own description, toward the end, of how Republicans have demonized Ocasio-Cortez.
This story frames AOC as a norm-shattering, virality-chasing politician because she uses her social media platform and her position of power to call out colleagues who dehumanize her in racist and sexist ways….instead of focusing on the racism and sexism https://t.co/nVRbNsGkLD
— Hamza Shaban (@hshaban) July 24, 2020
The fundamental problem with the story, as Shaban noted, was that it cast Ocasio-Cortez as the violator of norms, rather than questioning the norms she was denouncing so eloquently.
As British educator Sinéad Fitzsimons put it in a tweet: “’…her most norm-shattering moment…’ is standing up against abusive #sexism ? What exactly is the norm then?”
Science fiction author Sarah Pinsker noted the double standard, tweeting: “The NYT is doing exactly what AOC complained about in that speech, shaming her as if she somehow did something wrong in repeating the words he used against her.”
In fact, the double standards were everywhere. New York magazine writer Rebecca Traister, responding to Harris’s tweet, noted: “Women’s anger at male power abuse [is] regularly presented as path to self-advancement for the women. Voicing fury at systemic degradation is read as opportunistic. Whereas men’s abusive behavior rarely understood as fundamental to how they attained & maintain THEIR power. But it is!”
Progressive journalist Elizabeth Spiers:
When AOC does something to exhibit leadership, it's an exercise in brand building. When men do it–white guys, in particular–it's statesmanship.
— Elizabeth Spiers (@espiers) July 24, 2020
Vanderbilt University law professor Gautam Hans:
This has so many anti-woman notes it’s Exhibit A on why it’s (still) a man’s world.
— Gautam Hans (@dispositive) July 24, 2020
Washington Post columnist Helaine Olen tweeted: “I’m not into NYT bashing – newspaper work is hard and reporters and editors make bad calls! — but referring to @AOC masterful speech as a ‘brand’ exercise is a major, major miss.”
David Remnick’s appreciation of Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks serves as an antidote of sorts to the Times story. Writing for the New Yorker, he gave her credit for her achievements:
Ocasio-Cortez has been at the forefront of major issues, including climate change, immigration, campaign-finance reform, and income inequality. Her ability to skewer a balky witness in committee hearings has proved as uncanny as it is entertaining.
In a speech that “should be studied for its measured cadence, its artful construction, and its refusal of ugliness,” Ocasio-Cortez “defended not only herself; she defended principle and countless women,” Remnick wrote.
And he clearly identified the real norm-killer:
The politics of our moment are dominated by a bully of miserable character, a President who has failed to contain a pandemic through sheer indifference, who has fabricated a reëlection campaign based on bigotry and the deliberate inflammation of division. His language is abusive, his attitude toward women disdainful.
In the Washington Post, Monica Hesse wrote that “On the subject of misogyny at least, her Thursday address was the speech of a lifetime.”
Ocasio-Cortez is an extraordinary political figure: a smart, brave, charismatic, young Latina who refuses to be intimidated by anything or anyone.
Her very existence in Congress, along with her insistent, progressive agenda, her bold words and actions, and the ease with which she navigates pop culture and social media, have turned her into an icon – a singular walking, talking challenge to the conservative white male power structure.
As such, she tends to bring out the worst in some people.
And on Thursday, she brought out the worst in the Times.
A note from Dan Froomkin:
I write a lot about the New York Times because it is hugely influential but does a terrible job of holding itself accountable. They won’t pay for a public editor. But you can help support Press Watch with a donation!