By Lena Williams
Journalists are supposed to ask questions. It’s their job to question authority, government officials and ordinary people.
In order to accurately report the news, to get to the bottom of the issues of the day and unfolding events, journalists must be able to probe, prod, challenge, raise doubt and elicit information.
April Ryan, the White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, was simply doing her job when she asked a question of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
“How does this administration try to revamp its image two and a half months in? Ryan asked during the daily press briefing on March 28. “You’ve got this Yates story today, you’ve got other things going on. You’ve got Russia. You’ve got, you’ve got wiretapping, you’ve got…”
At that point Spicer had heard enough.
He interrupted Ryan: “No, we don’t have that. No, no, no. I get it. But you keep—I’ve said from the day I got here until whatever there is no connection. You’ve got Russia. If the president puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that’s a Russian connection.”
Spicer wasn’t joking. He accused Ryan of having an “agenda” and failing to “report the facts.”
“The facts are that every single person who has been briefed on this subject has come away with the same conclusion,” said Spicer. “Republican, Democrat. So I’m sorry that that disgusts you. You’re shaking your head. I appreciate it. But but.”
The back-and-forth between Ryan and Spicer immediately became a trending topic on news programs and across social media.
Some said Spicer’s behavior was racist and sexist – Ryan is black.
There were those who found Spicer’s comments, condescending and downright patronizing. Others said he was disrespectful of one of the few black journalists in the White House press corps, one who has covered presidents and dealt with press secretaries for more than 20 years.
I’m a black woman and retired journalist. I’ve been shouted at and shouted down, condescended to by sources, athletes and politicians who didn’t like the questions I asked or a story I’d written. It was all part of the job, I didn’t take it personally. But Ryan did.
“It is getting personal, but it should never get personal in that room,” she told CNN the day after the incident. “It should be about the issues. I have no agenda, calling people out by name. If you get personal, it could go back and forth for days, and it’s not about the issues.”
I don’t know if Spicer is a racist or a sexist, but this much is evident: he is an obstructionist.
An obstructionist causes problems. Obstructionism has been described as one of the three dimensions that encompass the range of workplace aggression. It is a deliberate act intended to hinder an employee from performing their job.
That’s what Spicer was doing. He was deliberately trying to prevent Ryan from asking an innocent enough, obvious question about the Trump administration’s public perception by shouting her down, treating her like a child in a classroom and embarrassing her in front of her colleagues.
Instead he fueled yet another controversy of his own making.
The hashtag #BlackWomenatWork trended on Twitter, linking Ryan’s behavior with a disparaging comment Fox News host Bill O’Reilly made about California Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ hairstyle earlier that same day. O’Reilly later apologized saying his comment was made in “jest” and was “dumb.”
Even Hillary Clinton weighed into the Ryan/Spicer controversy.
Speaking before a group of professional business women in San Francisco that day, Clinton pointed to the altercation between Ryan and Spicer and O’Reilly’s comment as examples of the kinds of indignities women of color suffer every day.
“April Ryan, a respected journalist with unrivaled integrity, was doing her job this afternoon in the White House press room when she was patronized and cut off trying to ask a question,” said Clinton.
“One of your own, California Congresswomen, Maxine Waters, was taunted with a racist joke about her hair.
“Now too many women, especially women of color have had a lifetime of practice taking precisely these kinds of indignities in stride,” Clinton went on to say. “But why should we have to? And any woman that thinks these couldn’t be directed at her is living in a dream world.”
The White House press room is increasingly becoming a hostile work environment where journalists are subjected to harassment, threats and public humiliation. It has become increasingly clear that the White House wants to silence and censor the press, to break journalists down, to create an environment that few would want to work in.
Ryan noted that a white female reporter for Politico was called an “idiot” by Spicer a few days before she was berated. It also made headlines.
“We are the press who’s under attack,” said Ryan. “We are under attack by this administration. It is about discrediting credible media.”
Ryan said it should be about the American people.
“We cover the president of the United States for the American people,” she said. “It’s not about us. It’s about you, the people. It’s just, it’s turning into a different day.”
A day many of us in the media saw coming.
It’s been clear from day one of the Trump presidency that this administration is out to impede journalists from their fundamental right to report the news to the people by creating a hostile working environment.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission describes workplace harassment as “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion or sex, national original, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information — conduct that is severe and pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile or abusive.”
Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and the American with Disabilities Act of 1990.
If the White House press room were a Fortune 500 company, it would be sued. But a general rule known as sovereign immunity says you cannot sue the government unless the government says you can. The administration knows the media doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on and is acting with impunity and will continue to do so.
Journalists must keep reporting the news regardless. They must stand together to face the administration’s anti-press crusade.
“You don’t get the public to pay attention by caving,” said Ken Auletta, a media critic for The New Yorker magazine. “The fourth estate has a role to play. That role is we are representatives of the public—we are supposed to ask the question to better inform the public.”
Kyle Pope, editor-in-chief of Columbia Journalism Review, urged journalists to “cooperate and help one another whenever possible.
“So when you shout down or ignore a reporter at a press conference who has something you don’t like, you’re going to face a unified front.”