Social media always vibrates at a high frequency when Mississippi makes the national news. Unfortunately, national scrutiny rarely paints the Magnolia State in a positive light.
The latest buzz concerns state Rep. Robert Foster, a Republican candidate for governor, and a reporter, Larrison Campbell of Mississippi Today, a non-profit online news organization based in Ridgeland, Miss.
On July 9, Campbell wrote a story headlined “Robert Foster, GOP governor candidate, denies woman reporter access because of her gender.” The story quickly went viral. By the following day, stories appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post as well as numerous lesser-known newspapers across the country. CNN interviewed Campbell, and videos popped up on YouTube on both sides of the issue.
Why all the fuss? In Campbell’s words:
In two phone calls this week, Colton Robison, Foster’s campaign director, said a male colleague would need to accompany this reporter on an upcoming 15-hour campaign trip because they believed the optics of the candidate with a woman, even a working reporter, could be used in a smear campaign to insinuate an extramarital affair.
“The only reason you think that people will think I’m having a (improper) relationship with your candidate is because I am a woman,” this reporter said.
Robison said the campaign simply “can’t risk it.”
“Perception is everything. We are so close to the primary. If (trackers) were to get a picture and they put a mailer out, we wouldn’t have time to dispute it. And that’s why we have to be careful,” Robinson said Tuesday afternoon by phone.
Foster slapped back to Campbell’s story almost immediately. According to The New York Times: “In blocking the reporter, Mr. Foster, 36, a Republican, invoked the ‘Billy Graham rule,’ which refers to the Christian evangelist’s refusal to spend time alone with any woman who was not his wife.
“I’m sorry Ms. Campbell doesn’t share these views, but my decision was out of respect of my wife,” Foster wrote on Twitter.
“I refuse to change my moral stance on any issue because it’s not popular among the radical left,” he wrote in a later tweet. “My wife and the State of Mississippi deserve a governor who doesn’t compromise their beliefs, and I’m sticking to my guns.”
Campbell and her supporters accuse Foster of sexism. “What you’re saying here is a woman is a sexual object first and a reporter second,” Campbell said in an interview.
In her July 9 story, Campbell said she had requested the ride-along in June, and that her editor, a man, made the call.
On July 7, Robison, the campaign manager, called about joining the candidate on an upcoming trip to the Gulf Coast and Laurel. At the end of the conversation, in what he acknowledged was a “weird request,” Robison said I would need a male colleague to accompany me on the trip.
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.
He reiterated that the campaign couldn’t agree unless a male colleague was present — this despite my offering to wear a Mississippi Today press badge in plain view at all times.
In a follow up story, Mississippi Today reported that Foster was capitalizing on the publicity with paid posts on social media and a fundraising email.
“Once again, the liberal left and Hollywood are attacking someone for their integrity, professionalism, and Christian beliefs,” Foster wrote on Facebook Wednesday morning. “They aren’t just attacking me. They are attacking the countless Mississippians who also share these values. All the more reason we need someone leading Mississippi who will safeguard our traditional and conservative values.”
Foster has been polling in single digits behind GOP rivals, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and former Mississippi Supreme Court chief justice Bill Waller Jr. Foster believes the publicity can help him in the race.
“It’s funny how that works sometimes, isn’t it?” Foster told Supertalk radio on Wednesday morning. “It sometimes can backfire on them when they try to play these games with the liberal press. It sometimes helps the person they’re trying to hurt.”
Social media comments on the issue have clearly been on one side or the other.
Comments on Foster’s Facebook page include people now ready to give him their vote: “I support him on his decision,” wrote one commenter. “In fact the more I read about him the more I believe he is the right man to lead Mississippi.”
Another comment disagreed: “If the female reporter had already interviewed you several times prior to this without any problems then why has it become a problem now? And why did you request that she have a male colleague present with her? That made you appear sexist. Just because someone disagrees with your handling of the situation doesn’t make it tantamount to ‘liberal hatred.'”
Mississippi primaries are August 9. The votes will show whether the controversy has hurt or helped Foster.
“I know I made the right call,” he said on Supertalk. “I don’t have any regrets about it.”See a typo? Report it here.