Mississippi Republican says gay female journalist covering his campaign must have male chaperone

Clark Mindock

A Republican candidate for governor in Mississippi has banned a female reporter from riding along on a campaign trip unless she brought a male colleague to accompany her, citing concerns that the journalist could be used in a smear campaign alleging an extramarital affair.

The reporter, Mississippi Today’s Larrison Campbell, wrote about the incident with state representative and candidate Robert Foster on Tuesday, noting that two other candidates in the state’s Republican primary agreed to “ride alongs” with a fellow male reporter from her news organisation.

In her post, Ms Campbell noted that she had been the first to report several important stories related to the campaign, including Mr Foster’s original entrance into the race. She has also said she made several efforts to satisfy the campaign's concern, including offering to prominently wear a press badge on the trip or to produce her story quickly so that Mr Foster would be able to quickly stop any rumours.

"I was frustrated. I felt like I was banging my head against the wall, and then I was angry because there was no reason other than my gender that I wasn't getting to write this story that I felt needed to be written," Ms Campbell, who is openly gay, told The Independent.

Ms Campbell said that, since going public with the story, she has heard from women in Mississippi and all across the country, saying that they have experienced different versions of that same sexism in traditionally male-dominated fields.

"I think politics is traditionally a male arena, and for some people out there they're not used to seeing women working in that arena," she said. She continued, noting the women who have reached out to her since publishing her story: "It's political reporters, but it's also campaign staff. It's people who have just been women in predominantly male areas who say they're tired of being treated differently. It is sexist, and it is something that we need to be talking about."

In her post, Ms Campbell says that Mr Foster’s campaign director, Colton Robison, had told her that she would need a male colleague with her for an upcoming 15-hour campaign trip. That man was necessary, Mr Robinson reportedly said, because the campaign “can’t risk” the possibility that photos or videos would be taken of the reporter and candidate together, and used in a smear campaign insinuating the two are having an extramarital affair.

“The only reason you think that people will think I’m having an (improper) relationship with your candidate is because I am a woman,” Ms Campbell said she told Mr Robison.

We “can’t risk it,” he replied.

Ms Campbell has reported for Mississippi Today for the past three and a half years, a time in which she both broke the story about Mr Foster’s campaign announcement, but also the story about him being offered $1m to drop out and pursue a different position.

Mr Foster is a far right candidate, and his candidacy is considered to be a long shot bid to become the state party’s standard bearer.

Ms Campbell wrote that she declined the request from the campaign.

“My editor and I agreed the request was sexist and an unnecessary use of resources given this reporter’s experience covering Mississippi politics; Tuesday, Robinson was informed that this reporter would participate in the ride-along story alone,” she wrote.

The campaign then reiterated the refusal. In response to a request for clarification, Mr Foster said that he would welcome an interview with Ms Campbell provided the circumstances were "appropriate", and said that his decision regarding the ride along was in accordance with an agreement he made with his wife.

"Before our decision to run, my wife and I made a commitment to follow the 'Billy Graham Rule', which is to avoid any situation that may evoke suspicion or compromise of our marriage. I am sorry Ms Campbell doesn’t share these same views, but my decision was out of respect of my wife, character, and our Christian faith," Mr Foster told The Independent in an email.

He continued: "We don’t mind granting Ms Campbell an interview. We just want it to be in an appropriate and professional setting that wouldn’t provide opportunities for us to be alone."

Ms Campbell said that, while this isn't the first time she has experienced sexism working as a political reporter, it was the first time it has actually stopped her from doing her job. Recalling a time when a politician grabbed her waist in the middle of an interview, or of times when fellow women reporters have been slipped notes by male sources after hours when out on the town, Ms Campbell said the issue can be found everywhere.

"It's gross. This stuff happens all the time, and it doesn't just happen in Mississippi. It happens everywhere," she said. "The difference here is it hasn't yet stopped me from doing my job, and this time it stopped me from doing my job. It's the straw that broke the camel's back. It isn't fair, and it isn't right [that these other incidents repeatedly occur], but this is the first time it has really stopped me from doing my job."