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House of Cads

The psycho-sexual ordeal of reporting in Washington

Illustration by Kirsten Rothbart

“We’ve all done it,” begins one of the spicier dialogues in the new Netflix political thriller, “House of Cards.” Janine Skorsky, a veteran political reporter, is revealing to her young colleague, Zoe Barnes, how female journalists in Washington snag their scoops. “I used to suck, screw, and jerk anything that moved just to get a story.” She runs through her carnal C.V.: the communications director on a Senate race, a staffer in the Department of Defense, her “very own” White House intern. “I even had a fling with a congressman,” she says, with a hint of pride.

In popular fictions of Washington, everyone is a prostitute in one way or another; when it comes to female journalists, though, the comparison is often tediously literal. “I can play the whore,” Barnes later tells her very own congressman, House Majority Whip Francis Underwood. It’s not that sex never happens between political reporters and their sources, as David Petraeus’s affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, recently reminded us. It’s not even that women (and men) don’t sometimes flirt in the process of news gathering. It’s just that the notion of sexy young reporters turning tricks for tips is not how news is usually made in the nation’s capital. For every Judith Miller, the exNew York Times reporter who would sometimes quote her live-in lover, former Representative and Defense Secretary Les Aspin, there are dozens of female journalists for whom the power of appropriations is not an aphrodisiac. We have not “all done it,” as Skorsky claims. And yet, the reporter-seductress stereotype persists, in part because some men in Washington refuse to relinquish it.

As a political reporter for GQ, I’ve been jokingly asked whether I ever posed for the magazine and loudly called a porn star by a senior think-tank fellow at his institute’s annual gala. In my prior job as a Hill reporter, one of my best source relationships with a member of Congress ended after I remarked that I looked like a witch who might hop on a broom in my new press-badge photo and he replied that I looked like I was “going to hop on something.” One journalist remembers a group of lobbyists insisting that she was not a full-time reporter at a major publication but a college coed. Another tried wearing scarves and turtlenecks to keep a married K Street type from staring at her chest for their entire meeting. The last time she saw him, his wedding ring was conspicuously absent; his eyes, however, were still fixed on the same spot. Almost everyone has received the late-night e-mail—“You’re incredible” or “Are you done with me yet?”—that she is not entirely sure how to handle. They’re what another lady political writer refers to as “drunk fumbles” or “the result of lonely and insecure people trying to make themselves feel loved and/or important.”

These are the stories you don’t hear, in part because they don’t occupy the fantasies of the mostly male scriptwriters of Washington dramas and in part because women reporters are reluctant to signal to any source—past, present, or future—that they might not be discreet or trustworthy. Such stories tend to fall on the spectrum somewhere between amusing and appalling. Sometimes they reach the level of stalking: One colleague had a high-profile member of Congress go out of his way to track down her cell-phone number, call and text repeatedly to tell her she was beautiful, offer to take her parents on a tour of the Capitol, and even invite her to go boating back home in his district.

“I think journalism schools should have workshops for young female reporters on managing old men who have no game and think, because you’re listening to them intently and probing what they think and feel, that you’re romantically interested, rather than conducting an interview,” says Garance Franke-Ruta, a senior editor at The Atlantic. “Every female reporter I know has had this issue at one time or another.”

Sometimes it’s enough to turn a reporter off from her source permanently. “I can’t bring myself, at least for a while after such an incident, to call them again, mostly because I find this behavior presumptuous and then I can’t help but find these people revolting, even as sources,” according to one Washington reporter, who says men have interrupted national security discussions to call her pretty and have invited her to movies. “It’s just a totally visceral thing. I also think women reporters don’t talk about it because we don’t want to seem presumptuous or full of ourselves. Complaining makes it seem like you’re humble-bragging or that you’re delusional.”

This is to say nothing of the idea that we might prostitute ourselves for a communications director, a Department of Defense staffer, or—for the love of God!—a White House intern. One woman reporter who covers national politics remembers going out with a regional Obama fund-raiser who seemed particularly impressed with himself. Over a round of overpriced margaritas at Washington’s Lauriol Plaza, the fund-raiser turned to the reporter and asked suggestively, “Would you ever sleep with a source for a story?” She replied: “If I did, it would be with someone much higher up the command chain than you.”

Studies suggest that men are more likely than women to interpret friendly interest as sexual attraction, and this is a constant hazard for women in the profession. The problem, in part, is that the rituals of cultivating sources—initiating contact, inviting them out for coffee or a drink, showing intense interest in their every word—can often mimic the rituals of courtship, creating opportunities for interested parties on either side of the reporter-source relationship to blur the line between the professional and personal. A source may invite you to meet at the bar around the corner from your apartment. If you agree, he might offer to pay for the drinks and walk you home. One Washington climate reporter remembers an environmentalist stroking her leg at one such outing and noting, disapprovingly, that she hadn’t shaved.

“I always remind young female reporters to be wary about falling victim to the ‘source-date,’ ” says Shira Toeplitz, politics editor at Roll Call. “You’re on a second glass of something, and it occurs to you, he may be misinterpreting this as a date. I advise them to drop an obvious clue along the lines of, ‘I’m going to expense this.’ ”

This sort of behavior was probably worse in the days when Americans tolerated more skirt-chasing from their politicians; but back then, there were also fewer women political reporters to target. The high-water mark for male politicians behaving badly toward their female interviewers may have been in 1994, when Lisa DePaulo (who sometimes writes for this magazine) profiled Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell and wrote that he told her “in raw and alliterative terms, how he presumes I am in bed.” Rendell had to call a press conference to address the media maelstrom, but DePaulo—who was nicknamed the “lady in red,” because she wore a red suit the day her story broke—faced the bigger backlash. The press corps questioned her relationship history and wondered why anyone would bother to waste ink on the mayor’s well-known licentiousness. But few politicians have been eager, after Rendell’s media blowup, to repeat his mistakes—some even seem reluctant to converse alone with women reporters for fear it might be misconstrued.

What all of this obsession with political power and sex might overlook is that the majority of reporter-source interactions are exceedingly polite and professional. But not always. Which is why there is one line Barnes delivers on “House of Cards” that is so relatable you might just hear it on the tongues of some women reporters. “Oh Brian, you’re so sweet, really,” Barnes tells a hopeful suitor as they reach her apartment after a night out. “But if I was going to fuck you, you’d know.”

Marin Cogan is a contributing writer at GQ magazine.