Written by Karen Zraick
Robert Foster, a Republican 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 Tuesday night that 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.
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,” Campbell wrote.
In blocking the reporter, Foster, 36, 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.
Campbell, 40, wrote in her article 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 Foster numerous times and broke the story of his candidacy. Robison would also have been present during the trip. But the campaign would not budge, she wrote.
After the article was published, 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 a radio interview Wednesday, Foster said he had the same policy of not being alone with women at the agri-tourism business he runs. He said the report was slanted, and he criticized other write-ups of what happened.
“That’s part of the process that I knew I was getting into, is that the media has their agenda and it doesn’t align very often with the conservative agenda,” he said.
“I would much rather be called names by the liberal press than to be put in a situation where it could do damage to my marriage or my family.”
In an email hours later, Foster struck a more conciliatory tone.
“We don’t mind granting Ms. Campbell an interview,” he wrote. “We just want it to be in an appropriate and professional setting that wouldn’t provide opportunities for us to be alone.”
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, Campbell said she believed that Foster’s comments on the radio program were disingenuous. She pointed to the many interviews she had conducted with him.
“I have covered him very closely, and we wouldn’t have that kind of relationship if I were a biased writer,” she said.
She said that Mississippi Today strives to do hard-hitting watchdog journalism and refuted the notion that it was 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:
What exactly is the ‘Billy Graham rule’?
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.
Where does Mike Pence come in?
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.
Where does public opinion stand?
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.
What are possible reasons for this?
In the #MeToo era, some men have expressed greater reluctance to interact with women at work, wary of being accused of sexual harassment. That could curtail women’s opportunities.
“What we’re seeing now is men are backing away from the role that we try to encourage them to play, which is actively mentoring and sponsoring women in the workplace,” Al Harris, who runs workplace equality programs, told The Times in a 2017 interview.
What’s next in Mississippi?
The Republican primary has drawn high interest from Mississippi readers, and political observers believe Foster could force a runoff vote, said R.L. Nave, the editor of Mississippi Today, a 3-year-old nonprofit site that seeks to provide information on government and politics in the state.
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.
Nave said his organization decided to publish 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,” 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.”