Mississippi state Rep. Robert Foster (R-Hernando). (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)
Media critic

Reporters and editors commonly fret over appearances. Will people think that a former job presents a conflict of interest for a political reporter. What about that spouse who works in the Capitol? Or that best friend who does PR for gubernatorial campaigns?

A story out of Mississippi, however, showcases a politician who’s freaking out about appearances. “I don’t trust the perception that the world puts on people when they see things and they don’t ask the questions, they don’t look to find out the truth,” said Mississippi Republican gubernatorial hopeful and state Rep. Robert Foster (R-Hernando) in an interview Thursday morning with John Berman of CNN. “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.”

The context for that quote comes straight out of Mike Pence World: Foster fielded a request from Larrison Campbell, a political reporter from the nonprofit news site Mississippi Today, for a ride-along with the candidate. He responded that Campbell would have to come with a male colleague. You know, for the sake of appearances.

“I’m a married man and I made a vow to my wife. And part of the agreement that we’ve also made throughout our marriage is that we would not be alone with someone of the opposite sex throughout our marriage. And that is a vow that I have with my wife,” said Foster to Berman, noting that an interview is just fine. A ride-along with a member of the opposite sex, though — well, that is a far different matter. Allow Foster to provide the fulsome explanation, via his interview with CNN:

You know, it was going to be a 15- to 16-hour day. And I have a very small campaign staff at this point in my campaign. I’m, you know, the underdog candidate running with a grassroots campaign and we don’t have a big staff and there’s a lot of times where my campaign director and I have to go separate ways, even during the middle of the day to try to, you know, cover different things from stop to stop. And I didn’t want to end up in the situation where me and Ms. Campbell were alone for an extended period of time throughout that 15- to 16-hour day. And so out of precaution, I wanted to have her bring someone with her, a male colleague.

That Foster sounded proud of his man-must-accompany-us demand suggests he’s happy that this is how his campaign has broken into the national news media. “Honestly, I don’t think he’s terribly mad at us for the story,” says R.L. Nave, editor of Mississippi Today, in a phone interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, referring to a July 9 story by Campbell about the ride-along negotiations: “Robert Foster, GOP governor candidate, denies woman reporter access because of her gender.”

If you might suppose that such a headline would prompt a backlash from Foster, consider how he answered Berman’s question about whether he would have greenlighted a ride-along request from a man: “I would have,” he responded. In the same interview, Campbell put the matter in stark language: “Why is it my responsibility to make you feel comfortable about something that, you know, that is — that, again, as your campaign director said on the phone with me, is this weird request that you have?”

It boils down to vehicular prerogative, suggested Foster: “It’s my rules, my truck.”

Perhaps Campbell would have pried such a nugget of a quote from Foster in a ride-along. Probably not, however. As it turns out, the act of requesting a ride-along is an act of journalism in itself — one that has produced the media story of the week, if not the summer. Mississippi Today is now in full gallop on the fallout from Foster’s ride-along rider, with Campbell and Adam Ganucheau reporting that Foster had sent out a fundraising email based on the brouhaha. “The liberal-leaning Washington Post and Hollywood are attacking me for my Christian faith and choosing not to be alone with another woman,” reads a key line from the email appeal.

Nave said he and his colleagues at Mississippi Today had never before heard of such a condition — and that made it newsworthy. “For people who think we set out to destroy Robert Foster’s political career, they should know that as a news organization, we’re smarter than that,” says Nave, who oversees an editorial staff of 16. “Our calculation was not based on how it would affect his campaign. We thought it was a story.”

Mississippi Today, says Nave, has profiled the other two candidates for the Republican gubernatorial nomination — Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and former state Supreme Court chief justice Bill Waller Jr. — and the ride-along was part of an effort to finish out the field. The publication will continue trying to piece together a comparable story on Foster, though the bring-a-man demand complicates matters. “We’re hoping he reconsiders. We have about three weeks before the primary, and if we don’t get the ride-along, we’re going to have to figure out something else,” says Nave.

In the meantime, Mississippi Today is hustling to broaden the scope. “At this point, the next phase for us is to talk to other campaigns about this policy in terms of how they would govern,” says Nave.

Good move: A politician who pledges to his wife not to be alone with other women also pledges to discriminate against women in the workplace. Any governor living under such an agreement would per force discriminate against female applicants or marginalize existing female colleagues from workplace opportunities. Mississippi Today has checked in with Gov. Phil Bryant. “What do you think about this policy, governor? Is this how you’d like to see all Republican governor candidates conduct themselves,” says Nave, summing up the inquiry.

Read more:

Dear Robert Foster and Mike Pence: I have some ideas for how to protect your virtue

Alexandra Petri: Do NOT leave me alone with a woman

Erik Wemple: Why is CNN making things easier for Democrats?

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