Mississippi Politician Denies Access to Female Reporter So as Not to ‘Insinuate’ an Affair – The New York Times


Robert Foster, a state representative, invoked the “Billy Graham rule” of not spending time alone with women other than one’s wife.

Robert Foster said that before he announced his candidacy for governor, “my wife and I made a commitment to follow the ‘Billy Graham Rule,’ which is to avoid any situation that may evoke suspicion or compromise of our marriage.”CreditCreditRogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

Robert Foster, a state representative in Mississippi who is running for governor, blocked a female reporter from shadowing him on a campaign trip “to avoid any situation that may evoke suspicion or compromise” his marriage.

The reporter, Larrison Campbell of the news site Mississippi Today, wrote in an article published on Tuesday night that Mr. Foster’s campaign manager, Colton Robison, had told her that a male colleague would need to accompany her for a “ride-along” on a 15-hour campaign trip around the state.

Mr. Robison said that the campaign “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,” Ms. Campbell wrote.

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.

The practice has drawn renewed attention in recent years, especially after the resurfacing of a 2002 comment by Vice President Mike Pence that he would not eat alone with any woman other than his wife.

That led to a fierce debate among Americans, with some arguing that such limitations on interactions are necessary in the workplace, and others saying that they are unfair to women in professional settings and reduce them to sex objects.

Ms. Campbell, 40, wrote in her article on Tuesday that she and her editor had decided that the request was sexist and “an unnecessary use of resources” given her experience. She has interviewed Mr. Foster numerous times and broke the story of his candidacy. Mr. Robison would also have been present during the trip. But the campaign would not budge, she wrote.

After the article was published, Mr. Foster responded on Twitter that he and his wife had committed to following the Billy Graham rule before he announced his candidacy.

“I’m sorry Ms. Campbell doesn’t share these views, but my decision was out of respect of my wife,” he wrote.

In an email, Mr. Foster indicated he would grant Mississippi Today additional interviews, as long as they were conducted according to his rules.

“We just want it to be in an appropriate and professional setting that wouldn’t provide opportunities for us to be alone,” he wrote.

The controversy has raised the freshman lawmaker’s profile, and his posts have garnered many supportive comments, along with criticism.

On social media and in interviews on Wednesday and Thursday, Mr. Foster criticized “the liberal press” and painted himself as an uncompromising man of principle. Mississippi Today reported that his campaign was boosting his social media posts and had sent out a fund-raising email asserting that he was being attacked for his Christian faith.

He and Ms. Campbell appeared on CNN’s morning show “New Day” on Thursday. He noted that they would have been traveling in his vehicle during the ride-along.

“This is my truck, and in my truck we go by my rules,” he said.

“Perception is reality in this world and I don’t want to give anybody the opinion that I’m doing something that I should not be doing,” he added.

Ms. Campbell repeated her belief that she had been unfairly stopped from doing her job.

“Why does it appear improper for a man to be with a woman?” she asked. “I mean, why wouldn’t, like, a gay affair be construed if you were with a man? Unless, at the end of day, what you’re saying here is, a woman is a sexual object first and a reporter second.”

Mr. Foster is running to the right of his opponents and is considered a long shot to win the primary election on Aug. 6, Mississippi Today has written.

In a phone interview on Wednesday, Ms. Campbell, who has written about being married to a woman, said that Mississippi Today strives to do hard-hitting watchdog journalism and rebutted the notion that it is a liberal organization.

“They’re trying to take something that is inherently sexist — not giving a female reporter the same access they would give a male reporter — and they’re trying to turn it into this liberal versus conservative thing,” she said.

“It’s just sexism, and that’s not a liberal or conservative issue.”

She added that after posting her article on social media, she had heard from women around the country who were glad she had called attention to how politics is still seen as a largely male space.

Here are answers to other questions you may have:

Mr. Graham, who died last year at 99, was the country’s best-known Christian evangelist. He sought to avoid any situation involving a woman other than his wife “that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion,” he wrote in his autobiography.

More recently, the practice has been referred to as “the Mike Pence rule.”

A 2017 Washington Post profile drew attention to a statement he made in 2002 that he would not eat alone with any woman other than his wife, or attend an event where alcohol was served without her.

While many have criticized the practice as sexist, the attitude behind it is common among Americans: A 2017 poll conducted by Morning Consult for The New York Times found that many men and women are wary of a range of one-on-one situations.

Around a quarter said that private work meetings with colleagues of the opposite sex are inappropriate, while nearly two-thirds believed that extra caution should be taken around members of the opposite sex at work, the poll found.

And a majority of women — and nearly half of men — said it was unacceptable to have dinner or drinks alone with someone of the opposite sex other than their spouse.

The Republican primary has drawn high interest from Mississippi readers, and political observers believe Mr. Foster could force a runoff vote, said R.L. Nave, the editor of Mississippi Today, a three-year-old nonprofit site that seeks to provide information on government and politics in the state.

Mr. Foster’s primary opponents are Bill Waller, a former State Supreme Court chief justice, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, both of whom agreed to let another reporter for the site, who happens to be male, shadow them.

Mr. Nave said his organization decided to publish Ms. Campbell’s account of her interaction with the campaign in order to be transparent with readers. He still hopes that the Foster campaign will allow greater access.

“Our women reporters are exposed to a lot of very sexist behavior by the men that they cover,” Mr. Nave said. “But this is the first time in the three years we’ve been in existence, and the first time in my 15-year career in journalism, that we’ve had this experience with a political candidate. And so for that reason, we thought it was news.”

Related Coverage

It’s Not Just Mike Pence. Americans Are Wary of Being Alone With the Opposite Sex.

Men at Work Wonder if They Overstepped With Women, Too

Karen Zraick is a New York-based reporter and editor, covering a wide variety of stories with a focus on breaking news. Previously she wrote the Evening and Weekend Briefings, and worked on the International Desk and the home page team. @karenzraick

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