Three Feminist Media Principles: Envisioning a Path to a Less Violent, More Truthful Media

Three feminist media principles described by Dr. Donna Allen in the 1970s provide a framework and inspiration for helping America move beyond our current media landscape.

A “sting” video targeting Planned Parenthood was released by the anti-choice group Live Action on February 1st -- and declared a lie the same day by media watchdog group Media Matters for America. Planned Parenthood, whose clinics were the target of at least 12 visits by a two-person “sting” team, one of them posing as a pimp in a sex trafficking ring, was way ahead of the story. The group’s leaders issued a press release on January 24, in which they underscored that they had contacted the FBI and that they believed they were the victims of a hoax carried out by anti-choice activists. That release was reported by the Washington Post.

Still, since the beginning of February, well over 600 articles covering the bogus “sting” video have appeared in media across the U.S. Many of them failed to fact-check the story at all.

Wading through such lies, especially those fanned by the vastly greater proportion of air time given to conservative media figures, becomes a monumental challenge.


Mere hours after the January 9 mass shooting in Tucson, in which six people were murdered and thirteen others, including Congresswoman Garbielle Giffords, wounded, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik spoke out against violent rhetoric in a national news conference, launching a long overdo public conversation about dangerous language and imagery in the media. “I'd just like to say that when you look at unbalanced people, how they are -- how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths, about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous,” said Dupnik.

But is the mainstream media allowing for a full and accurate discussion about the depth of this problem? There seems to be unsubstantiated acceptance that such foul, derogatory and inflammatory, and deceitful language comes equally from the political right and left. Melissa McEwan of the blog Shakesville wrote an excellent piece, reprinted here on AlterNet, debunking that myth:

There is, demonstrably, no leftist equivalent to Sarah Palin, former veep candidate and presumed future presidential candidate, who uses gun imagery (rifle sights) and language ("Don't Retreat, RELOAD") to exhort her followers to action....

There is no leftist equivalent to Rush "I tell people don't kill all the liberals. Leave enough so we can have two on every campus—living fossils—so we will never forget what these people stood for" Limbaugh, nationally syndicated radio show host and invitee to the Bush White House.

There is no leftist equivalent to Pat "Hitler's success was not based on his extraordinary gifts alone. His genius was an intuitive sense of the mushiness, the character flaws, the weakness masquerading as morality that was in the hearts of the statesmen who stood in his path" Buchanan, a regular MSNBC contributor and syndicated columnist.

There’s been significant push-back against this notion from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, who said in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, “The sheriff of Pima County has made a fool of himself. I don't know if he knows it yet or not. Most in the State-Controlled Media, the Drive-By Media, are illustrating why we call them ‘the Drive-By Media’….Hold your heads high and turn this back on the media.” Then there was Noel Sheppard of the blog NewsBusters, who attacked New York Timescolumnist Paul Krugman and Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos for “doing the same thing,” i.e., using the word “target.” Sheppard even implied that a bulls eye graphic that he pulled from HillBuz was actually Moulitsas’. Very deceitful.

Hot to deflect the flames from herself and her fellow conservatives, Michelle Malkin quickly wrote a piece called “The Hate Speech Inquisition”, in which she suggested that Democrats are trying to silence political speech (rather than simply make it more civil and non-inflammatory).

The reality is that hate speech and imagery are used specifically to stir people up and vilify individuals or groups. Such speech, which detaches people’s human authority, is antithetical to public dialogue.

Commercial, mainstream media have a sordid history of victimizing women with imagery, having made the sexualization of women a “normal” part of our culture. This type of irresponsible visual or verbal rhetoric has helped foster a culture in which hate speech is commonly used against doctors, staff and patients at abortion clinics over the decades. Terms such as “baby-killer” have prompted zealots who feel justified in murdering. Eight people have been killed to date, and according to data collected by the National Abortion Federation, there have been: 17 attempted murders; 416 death threats; 184 incidents of assault or battery; and 4 kidnappings committed against abortion providers in the U.S. and Canada since 1977. That is a lot of violence, all stemming from hate speech.

Interviewed on MSNBC last March, Congresswoman Giffords called out Sarah Palin for using an image of cross-hairs on Giffords and other left-wing politicians. That would have been the appropriate moment for the former vice-presidential candidate to act responsibly and condemn violent imagery. Instead, Palin waited until after the Arizona representative had been shot through the head to lamely claim the cross-hairs were actually surveyor marks.

Clearly, the time has come to tone down violent verbal and visual rhetoric. But how do we achieve that? We no longer have a Fairness Doctrine requiring broadcasters on the public airwaves to provide equal airtime for differing views. Not coincidentally, hate speech-filled talk radio has become more common since the demise of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Today, conservative talk radio makes up 91% of weekday radio programming time ( -- that is a huge proportion of the public airwaves, filled with a lot of vitriol. A study by the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center examined hate speech in talk radio in July 2008, finding an incredible 334 instances of hate speech in just 80 minutes of air time. That is over four hate comments per minute.

The FCC has some rules and some jurisdiction in this arena. But do they have moxie and teeth?  Limbaugh has already laid into this possibility, noting that someone “in an FCC bureaucrat's office” is “just waiting for the right moment for a clamp down.” A number of groups under leadership of the National Hispanic Media Coalition requested the FCC investigate hate speech once eighteen months ago and a second time in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings. (Malkin vehemently attacked the coalition in her January 19th blog post.)

There is also some legal precedent for quashing dangerous hate speech. A website targeting abortion doctors, which some maintained was protected by the First Amendment, met the “true-threat” standard and was ordered to be shut down by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2002.

And finally, there are three feminist media principles that are worth some examination in this context. Laid out in the 1970s by Dr. Donna Allen, a feminist communications theorist and the founder-director of the Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press, the principles include:

1. “No attacks on people.”In a culture predisposed to violence (such as the U.S.), this principle turns the common communication process on its ear. Reasoning and negotiation become more essential, and citizens are required to listen to others.

2. “More factual information.”The staccato of unsubstantiated facts and the flow of single-minded opinion that make up a great deal of today’s talk radio content lead to this second principle. Nothing underscores this tenet better right now than the Tea Party’s mantra that “the American people have spoken” about wanting the health care bill repealed, when in fact polls show that the majority of Americans support health care reform or want to make it more progressive. Despite this and other deceptions, the Tea Party commands significant media attention. Meanwhile, last June over 15,000 people gathered at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit to share community development strategies, and no mainstream media reported the meeting.

As the Live Action incident demonstrates, professional newsrooms clearly need to do a better job of fact checking before releasing stories to the public. Their persistent failure to be more publicly accountable only serves to de-legitimze their role. Greater media literacy among the reading, listening watching public is warranted more and more daily.

3. “People should speak for themselves.” It is a tragedy that the voices of more people are not heard in the public arena; the persistent economic crisis is a horrific example of this. Until her death in 1999, Dr. Allen was an outspoken advocate for having a much wider range of viewpoints voiced in the public sphere to inform better, healthier, more lasting and viable decisions.

In Media Report to Women, which Allen edited for fifteen years, she chronicled anything and everything relating media, from the release of the first Olivia Records album to the sex discrimination settlement with New York Times, extensively covered in the 13th issue in 1978. Hundreds of feminist media today are inheritors of this emblamatic history. Uprising radio, GRITtv and Women’s eNews represent more traditional daily news outlets. But teaching organizations like Chica Luna and Beyondmedia Education provide critical skills building while bringing the voices of low income women of color or disable girls into media production.

Then, there are dynamic and original activist groups like Hollaback. Dr. Allen would be proud of  this young organization and its dedication “to ending street harassment using mobile technology.” In particular, because laws about street harassment are so limited, in the spirit of changing violence, Hollaback is using the cell phone to make this “gate-way” objectification against women no longer culturally acceptable. This is what we need with hate speech; it should no longer be culturally acceptable to viciously attack people.

These working principles provide a common framework. And inspiration! They allow the public to understand parameters for discourse, to take a more active role in speaking on behalf of themselves and to participate in the exchange of opinions and comments.These principles provide civility, based on non-violence, while respecting our First Amendment rights. 

The responsibility to end the rancor and vitriol lies with us all. It will take a large public with vigilance and continued dedication to see this change. But let us begin. This is not political. It is a matter of morality. In his concurring opinion in Whitney v. California in 1927, Justice Louis Brandeis wrote: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

Ariel Dougherty works to expand the resources available for a broad range of women's media through Media Equity Collaborative. She is a producer on Lynn Hershman's !Women Art Revolution now circulating at film festivals.