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American Journalism Review
Laying It on Too Thick?  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   January/February 2001

Laying It on Too Thick?   

By Valarie Basheda
Valarie Basheda, a former AJR managing editor, is an editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.     



LITTLE DID KATHERINE HARRIS know that her name would be smudged by mascara.
The Florida Secretary of State--thrust into the media glare as the presidential recount dragged on--surely expected some less-than-favorable coverage. Point out that she also co-chaired George W. Bush╣s Florida campaign. Fine. Tell readers that she's the granddaughter of a citrus baron, OK. But focus on her makeup?
"Her mask of mascara and eye shadow cannot hide the obvious," wrote Joan Vennochi of the Boston Globe. She "appeared to have piled on 10 tons of mascara," wrote Margery Eagan of the Boston Herald.
The references culminated in a November 18 Washington Post Style section piece whose sole subject was the Harris makeup phenomenon. "Caterpillars seemed to rise and fall with every bat of her eyelid," wrote Fashion Editor Robin Givhan. She seemed to have "applied her makeup with a trowel."
Givhan then linked Harris' makeup job to her real job: "[O]ne wonders how this Republican woman, who can't even use restraint when she's wielding a mascara wand, will manage to use it and make sound decisions...."
While people do notice appearance, references to Harris' looks went "beyond the point," says Jane Hall, assistant professor at American University's School of Communication. "It's surprising in this day and age.... To do a critique of her looks is questioning her authority."
And it can have other serious consequences. James Devitt, Columbia University's senior public affairs officer, who has published two studies on how women candidates are covered, says it's difficult for women in public office to maintain their credibility when stories belittle their appearance.
Givhan says her piece was intended to be a "cheeky" look at why Harris' makeup had become a popular topic of conversation. "I thought it was interesting that people zoned in on that."
She points out that she did not attack Harris' physical features, but something she could control. "She's a public official who should know better, that people, as they listen to your words, are also looking at you, and that has an impact," Givhan says.
"If it was mean, or if it was perceived as mean, it was because the verdict on her appearance was a negative one. If it was snarky--sorry. Sometimes snarky is the right tone."
Some Post readers didn't agree, including Ombudsman Michael Getler. Of the more than 400 calls, e-mails and letters he received after the story appeared, only two were positive.
"People were genuinely upset over this piece," says Getler, who wrote a column slamming the story. "The idea of mocking someone and to make a linkage between appearance and competence is not a thing to do."
He adds, "I must say, I share that view."
Eugene Robinson, the Post's assistant managing editor in charge of the Style section, defends the piece and says it's OK to have disagreement about the story, internally and externally. "The last thing I would want is for the writers in this section to look over their shoulder and to think they shouldn't take chances and push the envelope."

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