Public Editor

Describe Elaine Chao by her resume, not her husband

Elaine Chao, left, and husband, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell
Elaine Chao, left, and husband, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell AP

On Nov. 30, reader Theresa Hupp contacted me to point out an item on that day’s front page that she considered an example of sexism.

“I noted that the front page of today’s Star contained the following blurb: ‘More cabinet jobs filled: A former Goldman Sachs executive is chosen for Treasury secretary, and the Senate majority leader’s wife is picked for transportation chief,’” she wrote. It pointed to a story inside the section on Page 10A.

“While accurate, I believe The Star’s description of Elaine Chao was sexist. Ms. Chao has a long and illustrious resume of her own, quite apart from being Mitch McConnell’s wife.

“If the male Treasury secretary was described by his past career, why didn’t The Star describe Ms. Chao by her past career? It would have been far more equitable to state ‘and a prior Labor secretary is picked for transportation chief.’”

This is an excellent illustration of a subjective but entirely valid inequitable pairing of related items. Both labels are correct, but they treat the subjects quite differently.

To play devil’s advocate, many critics have pointed out that Chao’s role in shaping President-elect Donald Trump’s proposals could be complicated by her husband Mitch McConnell’s leadership role in the Senate.

Will nepotism come into play? Could that elevate the importance of mentioning the relationship on Page 1A?

That’s also fair — but the story The Star ran didn’t mention this potential conflict. That makes my reader’s point even more trenchant.

Uncertain ‘balance’

I’ve had particularly striking variety of conversations with readers in the weeks after Trump’s surprise victory. For as much as we’ve heard about the hyper-partisan divide in the run-up to the election, I’m sensing a lot of ambivalence.

Hands down, the most common refrain I’m getting from Trump opponents is demand for The Star to catalog his unambiguous lies, and state for the record they are untrue.

“Take it head on,” said one particularly articulate caller. “Don’t be afraid, and don’t just do the ‘he said, she said’ stuff when one side of it isn’t based on facts. We aren’t stupid.”

That closely echoed something a Trump supporter had told me earlier in the week, too.

“I voted for him, but I didn’t really want to. Yeah, I know he just says whatever he’s thinking, but don’t think we’re stupid and bought it all. We know he’s putting on a show. Take it with a grain of salt.”

That “grain of salt” thing can feel like a boulder to a lot of people, though. While we expect politicians of all stripes to twist and stretch the truth, the sheer volume of Trump’s outright lies and contradictions are unprecedented a modern presidential election — in particular his pronouncements on Twitter and at rallies.

But as I wrote in my last column about the scourge of “fake news,” I know people reading The Star simply aren’t the audience for that junk.

Other Trump voters contacting me have offered surprisingly disparate views on what they expect from news coverage.

One woman, who seemed to be on the verge of tears, told me she had voted for Trump because as an evangelical Christian, she felt “God sometimes uses evil men to make good happen in the world. … Keep an open mind and realize he doesn’t mean everything he’s been saying.”

One called himself a “deplorable,” and asked why he hadn’t seen more anti-Clinton quotations in news stories from Trump supporters. However, he also claimed not to have voted for Trump in the first place. While I enjoyed our talk, I hope he’ll forgive my skepticism on that detail.

Another caller told me: “(Trump has) lied about everything else so far, and here is he already walking back on some of his (key) promises. But at least he isn’t another damn Clinton. I couldn’t vote for her with a clear conscience.”

That is emerging as a major theme at my lines: These folks voted specifically and enthusiastically against Clinton, but not so much for Trump’s policies. And certainly not for the man himself.

So what counts as “balanced” coverage in such a fractious political landscape? What we’re seeing during the transition is the definition of uncertain. We’ll have specifics once Trump takes office.

I’m sure I’ll hear more comments as time and coverage unfold. Keep them coming.

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