former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Short shrift on Waxman retirement

In Blog on February 13, 2014 at 10:59 am

On January 30, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., announced his retirement from the House after 40 years of service in that legislative chamber.  His record is studded with major achievements. He was both the supreme strategist and major force behind legislative efforts that resulted in cleaner air and water, Food and Drug Administration regulation of tobacco, more humane treatment of AIDS patients, and expanded access to heath care for low-income families.

Along with then Representative Ed Markey, D-Mass., now a Senator, Waxman led congressional efforts to address climate change in a comprehensive way, one of the few reform goals he hasn’t attained in his four-decade career.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Waxman’s philosophy and record, it certainly is newsworthy in and of itself.  So why the focus on the man’s height?

I will admit that I have a dog in this fight.  I’m vertically challenged.  At just about five feet tall, I’ve been known to begin speeches not with the expected “Can you hear me?” but, often obscured by a too-tall podium, I will ask, “Can you see me?” 

Granted, not all news outlets felt that Waxman’s height was worthy of noting.  USA Today did a particularly solid news story, which gave the reader a very good understanding of the arc of Waxman’s long and productive career without describing his appearance. But many did, in what often was a pretty artless attempt at wit – contrasting the out-sized achievements with the small stature.  The height angle added nothing to the story.

The worst offender was The New York Times, which began its retirement story by calling the lawmaker a “diminutive Democratic giant.”  Oh, please.  Diminutive is wrong in so many ways.  It is an adjective that usually connotes a certain delicacy.  It is often used to describe dolls or figurines, and perhaps leprechauns, but not 74-year-old legislators.

NPR News picked up the “diminutive” term in its coverage, as did Politico and the Los Angeles Daily Times.

Other news outlets were a bit more circumspect.

US News and World Report presented ten facts the public may not know about Henry Waxman, and listed his height as fact number six.  The Sacramento Bee referred to his “modest stature.”

I continue to think that people in the news, particularly policymakers, should not have their substantive views obscured by descriptions of their physical appearance.  Lengthy profiles are the exception.  This has long been a concern that feminists have raised about women in positions of power, but it applies equally to men.

However, if a news story is going to refer to someone’s height, it should be done  in a way that is true that the person being described.  Instead of labeling Waxman “diminutive,” National Journal  painted an accurate picture of the energetic legislator, plainly noting that he is both short and bald, and calling him “a bullet of a man.”  Now that sounds like Henry Waxman.

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