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.