Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Sexism Inherent in Firing of Reporter Amy Jacobson

The talk of the town in Chicago is the firing of reporter Amy Jacobson after competitor WBBM-TV aired a video of her appearing in a bikini at the house of the husband of a missing woman in Plainfield, Illinois. The husband, Craig Stebic, is a figure of suspicion in the case of his missing wife, Lisa.

According to Jacobson in an interview with WGN-AM's Spike O'Dell, Craig Stebic's sister, Jill, called her on her day off, and said she had something to talk to her about. Jacobson said that she had been on her way to the swimming pool with her two children, so they were already clad in bathing suits, and she does not have a sitter on her day off. She said she is competitive and hard-working and wanted to take this opportunity to get a scoop. She also said that she rarely gets time to spend with her children, a two and a three year old, so she wanted to take this opportunity to "be a mom" and do her job at the same time. She also knew that other children would be there.

At Stebic's house, Jacobson said, the Channel 2 WBBM-TV people were refused entry earlier, but she was allowed in. She said she is "very good friends" with Lisa Stebic's family and this was a chance to become friendly with the other side of the family. Someone, presumably from WBBM-TV, filmed her without her knowledge.

Largely, the outcry has been against Jacobson for a fault in judgment. Read this article Chicago SunTimes editorial titled "Partying with source rightly sinks TV reporter."

That is an extreme exaggeration to say that Jacobson was "partying". This is unfair. What is behind this hyped up aversion to Jacobson's behavior, and the station's immediate firing of her? Sexism.

First of all, if she hadn't been wearing a bikini, there would have been no outcry, and no firing. As Jacobson said in her interview with O'Dell, the fact she was wearing a bathing suit "put this over the top." If she had been wearing more formal attire, the video would not have attracted such attention, and she would not have lost her job. Instead, the video focuses on her bikini-clad body. In admitting to a lapse in judgment, she is referring to the fact that if she could do this over again, she would have changed her clothes. Yet, the other adults in the video also seem to be wearing bathing suits, and the children are playing outside in the pool. So to fit in, and have her source feel comfortable, she had to have her clothes look the part, too. This isn't unusual. The public doesn't realize to what extent reporters have to cozy up to sources all the time in order to get them to talk, and they don't lose their jobs.

Second, the position Jacobson found herself in, called to duty on her day off, without a sitter for her two children, is a situation that women are more likely to find themselves in than men. The Chicago Sun Times states bluntly in its editorial, ". . . she should have changed into something a little more appropriate and dropped the kids off at home." But what an assumption that is---Jacobson didn't have a sitter. Therefore, it's a situation that men (and men are her superiors at the station) are going to find it difficult to relate to or sympathize with. (The Chicago Sun Times has a separate piece entitled, "Did she step over the line?, Media experts from around the nation weigh in. . .," and only quotes three men, not one woman expert.) Here she was on her day off, and a source called, and she admits she is competitive and hard-driving and wanted to get the story. She said that the previous week she had worked 72 hours and she hadn't spent any time with her children. She wanted to seize the chance to "still be a mom and work a source." What should she have done? Turned down this potential opportunity to get a scoop because it was her day off and she didn't have a sitter? Can't one be sympathetic to her situation? What is indictable about her behavior--that she was wearing a bathing suit? That she brought her children with her? Do these actions merit her being fired? Has she indeed broken explicit rules for reporters? Or is what's bothering people the fact that here is a woman who is too aggressively blending the borders between her maternal role and her professional role, somewhat like blending the archetypes of "virgin" (or "mother") and "whore" that society has traditionally insisted on keeping separate.

At the end of her interview with Spike O'Dell, Jacobson thanks all the families that over the years, while suffering from tragedies, have let her into their homes. She likely took this chance to explicitly thank the families for allowing her into their homes because she wants people to know that this is a common thing for reporters to do, enter people's homes to find out information, to get to know them, blurring the lines between reporter and friend, in order to find out information.

What made this particular act of a reporter entering a source's home attract people's attention, and lead to Jacobson's losing her job, is that on a superficial level it has a sordid side: the video shows Jacobson wearing a bikini and Craig Stebic is shirtless wearing a bathing suit. But ask yourself this question, if Jacobson were a man in this same situation, would the reaction have been different? Jacobson thinks so (as she said in the O'Dell interview) and I agree.

If Jacobson were a man, the video would not have been so potentially lurid, and would not have attracted such attention. On CBS 2's website, CBS 2's Vice President and News Director Carol Fowler explains the reasoning behind initially delaying airing the video: "Once we got this video, it was clear it was provacative [sp], but there were so many questions. For sure we could have thrown it on the air, but it wouldn't have been the right thing to do because there was no context. What was it? Was it newsworthy? We had many, many discussions about that."

She uses the word "provocative." What's provocative? Jacobson's body. The male body is not as sexualized as the female. The video shows Stebic wearing a towel around her lower body, but wearing a bikini top. In fact, she is constantly opening a screen door to talk to her children, to admonish them or tell them something: she's in her maternal role, and trying to be in her professional role, she's trying to juggle these competiting identities as so many women do, both nonsexual roles, and yet the male gaze is looking at her and seeing something sexual, and assuming something lurid is going on, and that is why she was so quickly fired.

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