“Workers shouldn’t have to be ready to duck flying objects or fear that they can’t ever advance in their career,” Laura McGann wrote yesterday, for Vox. It was a plain enough proposition, in response to reports about presidential aspirant and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar’s supposed mistreatment of her staff—except McGann was defending Klobuchar against those reports.
Although it was true that throwing things at workers or sabotaging their efforts to get new jobs was not good behavior, the argument went, there was something wrong about the “intensity of the coverage and the vitriolic tone of the anonymous sources.” Was there? The report that everyone was reacting to over the weekend had come from the New York Times, operating a good two weeks behind younger and nimbler publications—and on inspection, the Times‘ reporting on Klobuchar was not so much intense as merely large.
If Vox’s take on Klobuchar seemed confused, it may have owed some of that to the confusing nature of the Times piece. The Times had opened with a gross and sensational anecdote in which Klobuchar, irate at a staffer who’d brought her a salad without any utensils on a flight, resorted to eating the salad with a comb from her purse, and then ordered the staffer to wash it.
It was theatrical, but it was more nauseating than obviously sadistic. And, as Vox noted, the flight had happened more than 10 years ago. Most of the rest of the piece dealt with mean and belittling remarks. Why was the salad the strongest thing the Times had come up with?
Vox guessed that the answer was sexism. Lots of politicians are aggressive and bullying, the premise goes, but only women pay the price for it:
Assertiveness, decisiveness, and command of others are all considered positive qualities. These fit the role men are expected to play in the same patriarchal system that punishes women for stepping out of their expected role.
It’s true that sexism is deeply encoded into our political discourse. But what was really wrong with the Times piece was that it was written in a different kind of code: the cryptic house style of the New York Times political desk. On stories like the Klobuchar one, where a politician’s character or judgment are at issue, the Times believes its job is to simply signal—through the fact of having published a story in the New York Times—that the problem is officially a problem, in the political narrative.
The resulting stories come out both presumptuous and coy: the Times wants the readers to know that it knows a lot of things, so the salad incident, being previously unreported, represented all the stuff it could tell the public, if it chose. So, in turn, Vox could write that “a handful of truly bad boss moments from the last decade and a half are dwarfed by more modest complaints that are taken to an extreme,” and not be wrong.
Despite slotting the story as front-page material, the Times failed even to produce its own versions of the most damning material that other outlets had already published. Klobuchar was “known to throw office objects in frustration, including binders and phones, in the direction of aides,” the Times reported, where BuzzFeed had long since written something much worse, and more specific: “one aide was accidentally hit with a flying binder, according to someone who saw it happen, though the staffer said the senator did not intend to hit anyone with the binder when she threw it.”
A boss throwing an object and hitting someone with it is atrocious and newsworthy behavior, regardless of gender. So is specifically sabotaging someone’s attempt to get another job, as HuffPost described in two different cases:
In one instance, Klobuchar went so far as to confront a fellow Democrat in Congress who had offered a job to one of Klobuchar’s staffers to express her extreme displeasure and try to interfere with the hiring process, said a source with knowledge of their conversation. The member held their ground and the staffer ultimately made the jump.
On another occasion, Klobuchar blocked Obama’s Treasury Department from hiring one of her longtime aides. It’s common courtesy in Washington for the White House to ask senators of the same political party for their blessing before hiring their legislative staff. But instances of senators refusing are not common. The staffer in question was a finalist for a coveted job and “pissed” when Klobuchar refused to sign off, a source said.
Yet all the Times had was a vague mention that Klobuchar would “complicate the future job opportunities of some staff members who sought to leave, former aides said, sometimes speaking to their would-be employers to register her displeasure”—with no specific examples.
The premise behind the story was that Klobuchar’s behavior has been meaningfully worse than other bosses’ behavior. Does she lose her temper and punch holes in walls? No, that was Dean Baquet, now the executive editor of the Times, when he was chafing under the reputedly abrasive leadership of his predecessor, Jill Abramson. Gender and power do operate in funny ways!
But reading the story end to end, it felt as if the Times had done Klobuchar a favor. Aside from the unappetizing and logistically bizarre salad story, the only real news the paper came up with arrived in the 27th paragraph:
Among other concerns, her office’s paid parental leave policy has been described as unusual on Capitol Hill. Two people familiar with the policy said that those who took paid leave were effectively required, once they returned, to remain with the office for three times as many weeks as they had been gone. The policy, outlined in an employee handbook, called for those who left anyway to pay back money earned during the weeks they were on leave.
That could have been an embarrassing policy story, in a primary field of candidates trying to show their support for workers in general and women in the workforce in particular. Instead, it was a side note in a personality story. The Times didn’t write the story to advance the scandals about Klobuchar’s behavior; it wrote it to mark that, as far as it was concerned, the scandals had gone far enough.