This is an image of Donald Trump mocking Serge Kovaleski. He has his arms contracted and is flapping them about while making a confused face. Under him, there is a news crawl that reads: "Donald Trump Mocks Reporter with Disability."

Can We All Stop Talking About The ‘Disabled Reporter’ Incident Now?

Serge F. Kovaleski is a Pulitzer-awarded investigative reporter at The New York Times.  He has been a journalist for more than 30 years and has worked for the New York Times since 2006. Kovaleski has been in the media quite a lot recently, but most times I see his image or hear him discussed, his name has been stripped away.  He has been re-shaped into the iconic “disabled reporter mocked by Donald Trump.”

I am not defending Trump’s mockery.  It was childish and despicable.  That said, in the long litany of Trump’s offenses against human decency, it is not the worst thing Donald Trump has done during this election cycle.  But Kovaleski has been treated poorly now by both sides and it’s time to stop presenting him as a token in ongoing political battles.

Trump is not the only one to assault Kovaleski’s humanity.  Since Trump’s ridicule , the story has been told again and again.  Trump’s opponents pull Kovaleski’s humiliation out again and again to prove why Trump is so awful. Kovaleski’s identity is regularly stripped from the story.  He is pulled into the fray like a Dickensian Tiny Tim, only existing as a plot point.  His name matters less than his role as the helpless disabled person in need of a savior.

Meryl Streep trotted the trope out yet again in her acceptance speech at the Golden Globe Awards.  Streep, like so many others, did not find it necessary to use Kovaleski’s name.  Instead, she depicted him as, “a disabled reporter” and spoke of how Trump outranked Kovaleski, “in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back.” She called for “the principled press to hold power to account, to call them on the carpet for every outrage,” as if Kovalevski were not part of doing exactly that.

I agree with Ms. Streep that we need to protect the press. I agree with Ms. Streep that it is heart-rending to see a bully in the White House.  But I do not agree with her choice to use Serge Kovaleski yet again as a nameless, iconic line in the sand between Trump supporters and Trump opponents.

Kovaleski is a reporter with decades of experience as a journalist for some of the nation’s leading newspapers, winning a Pulitzer Prize and a George Polk Award. Born in South Africa, raised in Australia and New York City, he studied French philosophy at the Sorbonne and traveled Europe extensively.  These are not the traits of one with limited voice or power to fight back against the attacks of an overgrown schoolyard bully.

Yes, Kovaleski is a disabled reporter.  And yes, he was mocked by Donald Trump.  But we are no less ableist than our opponents when we reduce Kovaleski to little more than a nameless inspiration porn token.  We must take care not to become that which we fight against.

16 thoughts on “Can We All Stop Talking About The ‘Disabled Reporter’ Incident Now?”

  1. “Trump’s opponents pull Kovaleski’s humiliation out again and again to prove why Trump is soawful. Kovaleski’s identity is regularly stripped from the story.”

    Those two sentences directly contradict each other. They remove his name from the story so that they’re NOT pulling out Kovaleski’s humiliation out again and again, but rather focusing on Trump’s lack of character.

    1. What you’re suggesting in this comment is the same ableist thought process, that Kovalevski needs to be coddled, as does every disabled person (an identity, by the way, that Kovalevski does not claim in any of his online profiles, technically correct as it may be). His name is already out there, as a result of his work and his position with the New York Times. He does not need any abled saviors to grant him a protective anonymity that he never consented to receiving.

      1. Listen. I have multiple significant disabilities and work for a disability rights organization: ableism isn’t a new concept to me. The reporter’s identity is usually not (if ever) *relevant* when this incident is brought up. The comment is on Trump’s boorish behavior.

        And, btw, I was pointing out a logical contradiction in the article. I nowhere near implied that Kovaleski needs to be “coddled” by “abled saviors.”

        If his name is mentioned, it’s “pulling out his humiliation again and again”; if his name isn’t mentioned, it’s “coddling by abled saviors.” There’s no pleasing anyone, is there. And then while the dust is settling, everyone forgets the *actual* problem is Trump being rude, cruel, compassionless, and utterly devoid of any tact or composure whatsoever.

        1. Forgot to make clear that I *don’t* believe that his identity should necessarily be kept anonymous. But it’s not automatically wrong to do so, either.

        2. OK first of all, don’t be flashing your credentials at me. I’m also a disabled leader of a disability rights group. Tada! Guess we’re equal. Moving on.

          Mentioning him by name and mentioning him without his name aren’t the only options. You can also not mention him at all. You can stop talking about the story altogether, which seems like a logical choice if your goal is to be “NOT pulling out Kovaleski’s humiliation out again and again”.

          I wrote and published my own article about this (you can click on my name to visit my blog) before I knew that Sparrow was also writing about it. Looking at both of the finished products, they’re very different responses (so don’t assume that I’m a shill for NOS or anything like that).

          Obviously we’re starting with the same story and each coming from a disability rights perspective, but that’s where the similarities end. Sparrow’s article, the one this comment is attached to, is about Kovalevski. Mine isn’t.

          I mention him, of course, BY NAME, because he’s a relevant element of the story, but when I watched Meryl Streep, I didn’t get the sense that her speech was about Kovalevski. I got the sense that her speech was about stroking her own ego and the egos of her colleagues. So that’s what I wrote about.

          Frankly, I can’t help but notice that writing an article about the 2017 Golden Globes, without addressing Meryl Streep’s racism, without referring to Streep as dredging up old news, mentioning Serge Kovalevski in every paragraph but mentioning Streep in only 2 out of 7, without mentioning Kovalevski’s own response to Trump, without asking Kovalevski whether he WANTS to be called a “disabled reporter”, is violating the spirit of Nothing About Us Without Us.

          The only contradiction in this article is that it asks us to stop talking about Kovalevski, when the article, via its existence, is doing exactly that.

          1. That is another serious irony here. Can’t tell someone to stop talking about something without talking about it yourself.

            One thing that bothers me is references to Kovaleski’s “humiliation”. In my opinion, the only person who should be humiliated is Trump. If someone mocked me in the media I’d be angry, not humiliated.

            I’d like to know Kovaleski’s own take on all this but haven’t been able to find anything he’s written about it online.

          2. Also, I’m checking out your blog now. One of my disabilities is autism too, believe it or not. I guess we have more in common than we thought :p

  2. I agree with JAM. The focus should be on the reprehensible conduct, not the victim. That is why many newspapers do not publish the names of rape victims. This is the first time someone has tried to say not using the name of a victim was somehow degrading to that victim. This smells of spin and misdirection. Would the writer of this article prefer that everyone use this journalist’s name? For most people that would be victimizing that journalist all over again.

    1. The false equivalence here is that the reason we (wise and compassionate activists) avoid publishing the names of rape victims is because they weren’t in the public eye before. Making someone a public figure, with being the victim of a crime as the only thing they’re known for, is likely to further victimize them.

      This does not hold true for celebrities, even in the case of coming forward with rape allegations. We don’t try to preserve their anonymity because they already have none, because they’re celebrities. In fact, they often WANT to be named, to inspire fans to come forward with their own allegations.

      Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Serge F. Kovalevski was not a John Doe before his interactions with Donald Trump. His position with the New York Times already puts him in the public eye, albeit with less attention on him than he had prior to being bullied by a presidential candidate. But fluctuations in media attention are a normal thing for celebrities and public figures – the same could said of Meryl Streep: Fewer people were talking about her prior to her Golden Globe speech.

      If, say, Anderson Cooper were covering the occupation of Palestine, and in the process he was shot, I don’t think anyone would object to sharing Anderson Cooper’s name when saying that he was the victim of a shooting, nor would they just refer to him as “a gay reporter”.

      1. If Trump imitated Anderson Cooper with a limp wrist motion and high falsetto, I can absolutely imagine people saying “and remember the time Trump mocked a gay reporter”?

    1. It would be really nice if, instead of talking about the tokenized “disabled reporter” and portraying him as a helpless pawn, as Meryl Streep implied, we could talk about Serge Kovaleski, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has answered back to Trump’s harassment.

      But obviously I can’t stop you from perpetuating the infantilization and ableism if that’s really what you want to do…..

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