As a journalist, I am somewhat ashamed of Katie Couric.
Part of journalism is knowing when to ask the right questions. Couric is known for being able to do this , especially when it matters. This is the job of a journalist: to get at the important truths. Her interview with former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin was an example of knowing what questions to ask and being able to back them up. Palin was grilled, and grilled hard, by Couric because Palin was running for a significant role in the governance of the United States.
In the case of her recent interview with actor Laverne Cox and model Carmen Carrera, I would argue that Couric asked an unnecessary question. Namely, she asked her two guests to divulge information about their genitalia. Carrera, during her portion of the interview, audibly — though not aggressively — shushed Couric at this question, detailing that she had other things to talk about.
Later on, when Cox is invited to the set, Couric once again brings up the question of genitalia, pointing out that Carrera had “recoiled a bit” when she brought up the topic. Cox, without a beat, answers, “the preoccupation with transition and with surgery objectifies trans people” and goes on to explain why the whole topic of conversation is unnecessary and insulting.
It would be easy to defend Couric’s line of questioning as a way to disclose and demystify what “being transgender is” for an audience that may not have any knowledge of the subject. But realistically, that’s too easy and is dismissive of the lives of the individuals whose stories you are ostensibly trying to portray judiciously.
As someone who has written about trans issues, I get that people want to talk about genitalia. I also believe that it’s my job, as a journalist, to be respectful of the people I write about. That means knowing what language to use. Understanding what is appropriate and inappropriate in terms of questions. When Couric pointed out that her guest, Carrera, had “recoiled,” she was not being respectful of Carrera as a person or as an interview subject. I recently wrote a story for Vice about how certain trans people are using crowd-sourcing to help pay for sex reassignment (or gender reassignment, depending on who you ask) surgeries. In that story, I did have to talk about genitalia, and in a roundabout way; so did the people seeking out funds. In the case of the story, I made sure that the people I interviewed felt that they and their stories would be respected. I believe that in this case talking about genitals was necessary, but I’d like to think I was respectful of the people whose lives I was telling. In fact, I state:
I’ve also always been a big follower of the cardinal rule stated at the top of this article: not your junk, not your business. But in the case of this story, I had to talk to people about their genitals, insofar as their own needs and desires towards SRS. In the case of those who seek out crowdsourced funds, they often find themselves having to talk about their genitals, either directly or indirectly, to the world.
It was only because of that specific situation that I found it necessary to talk about anatomy. Otherwise, there is no sound journalistic reason to discuss anatomy when discussing the lives of trans people. And Couric, a true veteran of journalism, missed the mark here.
Carrera and Cox responded with grace under fire with the entire situation, both during and after the taping of the episode. In fact, as of this morning on her blog, Cox stated:
I am so deeply moved by the dialogues that are happening around my appearance with Carmen Carrera on “The Katie Show” on Monday. It is my dream that by highlighting the deep humanity of trans people’s lives in the media, elevating actual trans voices to speak the truth of our lived experiences in ways that don’t sensationalize and objectify us, those human voices and stories can be a part of the disruption needed to end the disproportionate injustices that threaten so many trans people’s lives, particularly the lives of trans women of color. It is a state of emergency for far too many trans people across this country. The stories of women like Islan Nettles and CeCe McDonald are far too commonplace in our community. I look forward to engaging in more dialogues about the complicated intersectional issues around these injustices and ways to make them a thing of the past.
And then Cox says something that shows true grace and poise, something not everyone would possess in this situation: “I am so grateful to Katie Couric and her show for the opportunity to highlight these important issues.”
Kudos to Cox. Kudos to Carrera. And here’s to hoping Couric has learned what not to ask.