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Cultivating Sources Can Be A Minefield For Women Reporters


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. The Netflix political drama "House of Cards" is generating lots of binge-watching and happy hour buzz in Washington. And I'll admit as a former congressional reporter, I couldn't resist taking a peek. Some details of life in the nation's capital are spot-on: the army of navy suits, the ever-present IDs hanging around everyone's neck.

But not everything in the show quite rings true, especially for the women journalists who are watching. That's because of a central character, an ambitious young reporter named Zoe Barnes. In this scene, she arrives uninvited at a powerful congressman's house late at night. She takes off her coat to reveal a low-cut shirt and a lot of cleavage.


KATE MARA: (As Zoe Barnes) There's no harm in looking.

KEVIN SPACEY: (As character) It's a cheap ploy.

MARA: (As Zoe) It's cheap but effective.

SPACEY: (As character) Well, you certainly have my undivided attention.

MARA: (As Zoe) Good.

CORNISH: The two soon begin a partnership based on sex and the exchange of stories that puts the young reporter's career on the fast track. And I'm not the only one who thought...

MARIN COGAN: Here we go again.

CORNISH: That's real-life Washington reporter Marin Cogan. She's watching the show with some of her journalist friends.

COGAN: It's not that I'm particularly surprised, it just contributes to this overall misconception that people have about women, about journalists, about people who live in Washington.

CORNISH: Fed up with that misconception, Cogan decided to write an article for The New Republic called "House of Cads: The Psychosexual Ordeal of Reporting in Washington."

COGAN: There's this idea on the show that it's the young, sexy reporter seducing the source, and it's just that it is nothing like a real professional woman reporter in Washington. Oftentimes, we have to sort of go out our way to make clear that this is a business transaction, or this is a professional relationship, so that there aren't any sort of confusions about what it might mean.

CORNISH: Give some examples of this confusion, anecdotes people told you in your reporting.

COGAN: One was an environmental reporter I know went out with a source that she wanted to cultivate for stories, and he stroked her leg and noted somewhat disapprovingly that she hadn't shaved. She did not end up cultivating him as a source.

I have heard of women reporters being brought flowers in source meetings. And I even had a source relationship end after a series of pretty inappropriate sexual comments from a member of Congress. So, it's this awkward sort of two-step we're always doing, where you want to take two steps closer to get to a source and you want to get closer to them, but then you want to take one step back at the same time so that there's no confusion about what your intentions are.

CORNISH: Could part of the problem be this term that you are saying, cultivating the source? What is involved in source cultivation, you know, to use the jargony term, and how can that be misconstrued or purposely used to the benefit of the reporter?

COGAN: Yeah, I mean, this is a big part of the problem because it often looks like the rituals of dating. And if you want to get to know a source better, you might ask them for coffee or for a drink. If you're hanging intently on their every word, or you're really interested in what they think about everything, it's not inconceivable that someone would be confused about what your intentions are.

CORNISH: Just the idea of cultivation means that you're trying to get someone to trust you and, thereby, like you. Why shouldn't women use their femininity to do that and how is that different from how men operate in these same spheres?

COGAN: They can, and they sometimes do, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. I think male sources can think of women reporters as less threatening. That can be an advantage at times. So this is not to overstate, it's not to say that every male source thinks this about a female reporter or say that sexual harassment is so terrible in Washington. It's just to say that things can sometimes be confused.

CORNISH: What are the things that prevent women from talking about this publicly? And, I don't know, what was it like for you even getting people to talk for your story?

COGAN: Women reporters are reluctant to out a source, in large part because they need those sources in the future. Say they're covering a particular beat. They might need to go back to that person. They might be a person of influence. Again, they're also reluctant to signal to other sources that they might not be trustworthy with their words.

In terms of talking to women for this story, a lot of them were nervous. A lot of them didn't want to attach their names to the examples that they had experienced because - for those same reasons. So it is difficult getting women to talk about these things, and that might be part of the reason why you don't hear these stories very often.

CORNISH: That's Marin Cogan. Her article appears at The New Republic Online. Karin Tanabe had similar experiences when she was a reporter in Washington, covering the political nightlife for Politico.

KARIN TANABE: I would always dress very conservatively. I would mention maybe the congressman's family in my interview, sort of a - oh, hey, remember you're married, just in case they're making advances.

CORNISH: Tanabe left reporting to write a novel. It came out last month. The book is called "The List," and it's about a gossip columnist who uncovers an affair between one of her news colleagues and a senator, yes, another woman reporter trading sex for access. So what gives?

Is it just that sex sells? I mean, you're talking about having really kind of tough experiences in Washington, and yet, that kind of sexual favor-trading is, like, the heart of your creative work.

TANABE: It is. It is the heart of my creative work. I think sex does sell, though, my book's not that sexy. Even my mother said that it needed more sex, but she had just read "Fifty Shades of Grey," so...


CORNISH: You know, you didn't end up writing, like, the kind of female Watergate or something. You know, at the end of the day, what was appealing about that? I mean, why do you think artists go back to that?

TANABE: Well, I think sex tied together with Washington, it's so much about power, and that's what really interested me, more than, like, the old cliche of the young woman having an affair with the senator. To me, it was really how power intoxicates people and how a girl with such a, you know, great head on her shoulders and such a great career could be - just do things that she never thought she would do.

And also, I wanted to look at how public figures in Washington really think that they're untouchable at times, how they do things thinking, no way, I won't get into trouble. They don't even think about the consequences, and as we've seen time and time again in Washington and other places, there are often consequences.

CORNISH: Former political reporter Karin Tanabe. Her fictional account of reporting on politics in Washington is called "The List."


CORNISH: And end note. Both reporters we interviewed for this story struggled to name a recent movie or TV show with a realistic woman reporter. Their movie role model: Hildy Johnson from "His Girl Friday," which came out in 1940. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.