Media

Women Without a Clue

It's not the <i>number</i> of women in the newsroom that counts towards diversity. It's what they have to say.
Maureen Dowd recently made the startling discovery that she is indeed the only woman in The New York Times' roster of nine columnists. This sad state of affairs naturally inspired Dowd to dwell at length in a recent column on her own courage to be "mean."

"If a man writes a scathing piece about men in power, it's seen as his job; a woman can be cast as an emasculating man-hater," she writes, describing the many travails that can befall the rare woman who finds the gumption to be, well, exactly like her. The self-congratulatory reverie concludes with a patronizing call to "find and nurture" the many "brilliant women" still toiling in obscurity.

Dowd's sudden interest in gender parity in the nation's op-ed pages was inspired by the ongoing feud between Susan Estrich and the Los Angeles Times. Furious at its refusal to run her syndicated column, the "liberal" commentator retaliated by declaring an all-out war against its editorial page editor, Michael Kinsley, accusing him of "blatant sex discrimination."

The paucity of female writers is not exactly news. Caryl Rivers and Alicia Mundy have long noted the preponderance of testosterone in leading newspapers, especially in the post-9/11 era, when women's voices have become scarcer still with the increased focus on the so-called "Big Issues" like war and terrorism. During November, 2002, only 14 of 92 bylines in the opinion pages of the Times were women. In that same year, Dennis Loy Johnson found that 80 percent of all New Yorker articles are written by men, while women are pushed mainly to the back pages. And this in a magazine with a majority of female subscribers. That editor David Remnick has since hired Caitlin Flanagan as a staff writer to rail at length against feminists – even as she espouses the benefits of domestic virtue – can hardly be described as an improvement.

There's much to bewail about the lack of diversity in journalism. The classrooms in journalism schools may be filled with women, but most will be pushed into soft news beats such as lifestyle or culture. And few of them will ever make their way to the top of the masthead in a national newspaper or magazine. Yet the successes of women who have defeated the odds as writers – be it Estrich, Flanagan, or, to a lesser extent, Dowd – should give the advocates of diversity pause. Their examples suggest that the traditional practice of measuring diversity by numbers is at best inadequate, if not entirely flawed.

Would, for example, the inclusion of Estrich on the pages of the L.A. Times really promote the cause of diversity, or, for that matter, women? This is someone who previously attacked the same newspaper for publishing an expose of Arnold Schwarzenegger's sordid sexual history five days before the gubernatorial election. In her column, Estrich dismissed reports of "touching a woman's breast in the elevator, whispering vulgarities and pulling a woman onto his lap" as not meeting the legal definition of harassment. Her current gig on Fox News, moreover, seems to consist entirely of fawning over the likes of Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich. Estrich's self-description as a liberal feminist – a label eagerly embraced by her right-wing buddies – just adds grievous insult to injury.

This isn't to say that female columnists must be feminist or even progressive, but in the absence of a truly diverse newsroom, writers like Estrich and Flanagan allow a publication or news channel to fulfill its "quota" at the expense of all women. Pick an Asian American like Michelle Malkin – Ann Coulter's heir-in-the-making best known for defending the internment of Japanese Americans – and you've got yourself a great two-for-one deal.

These women are just the most flagrant examples, but there is plenty of evidence that the profession rewards women who confirm conventional wisdom rather than challenge it, especially when it comes to issues of gender. Here is Katha Pollitt running down the list of journalists who led the lynch mob against Judy Dean during the Democratic primaries – they are all women:
The attack on Dr. Judy began on the front page of The New York Times (you know, the ultraliberal paper) with a January 13 feature by Jodi Wilgoren, full of catty remarks about her "sensible slipper flats and no makeup or earrings" and fatuous observations from such academic eminences as Myra Gutin, "who has taught a course on first ladies at Rider University in New Jersey for 20 years." ... "The doctors Dean seem to be in need of some tips on togetherness and building a healthy political marriage," opined Maureen Dowd, a single woman who, even if she weds tomorrow, will be in a nursing home by the time she's been married for twenty-three years like the Deans.
Tina Brown, another goddess of the hearth, compared Dr. Judy to mad Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre. On ABC News' Primetime Diane Sawyer put both Deans on the grill, with, ... 90 negative questions out of a total of 96. Blinking and nodding like a kindly nurse coaxing a lunatic off a window ledge, Sawyer acted as if she wanted to understand Dr. Judy's bizarre behavior: She keeps her maiden name professionally (just like, um, Diane Sawyer, aka Mrs. Mike Nichols); she doesn't follow the day-to-day of politics (like, what, 90 percent of Americans?); she enjoyed getting a rhododendron from Howard for her birthday."
For decades, liberals have pushed numerical strength as a means to ensure better representation of those marginalized either by gender or race. We've railed against the glass ceiling on the assumption that more estrogen at the top levels of management would improve the lives of working women, in general. Yet experience shows that we may have been better off devoting our energies to improving workplace policies – on maternity leave, child care, or work-family balance – than getting Carly Fiorina into the boardroom. We have more female CEOs than ever and yet the rest of us are still forced to abandon or scale back our careers to tend to our children.

Journalism is no different. More bylines for the likes of Wilgoren and Dowd won't assure us of a more nuanced coverage of or perspectives enriched by gender – not as long as their success is predicated on thinking and writing just like the good old boys. How much ever flak she may receive for it from unenlightened men, Dowd's faux machismo does the rest of us no good. The best women journalists – such as Pollitt, Barbara Ehrenreich, Naomi Klein or Arianna Huffington – are those who can write (as scathingly as Ms. Dowd) about the so-called Big Issues without distancing themselves from their gender.

Simply changing the demographics of newsroom won't change the product, especially not in this era of media consolidation. As news outlets transform themselves into corporate empires ever more concerned with the bottom-line, they are less inclined to challenge the status quo. Adding more women to the masthead is not likely to alter that trend. Currently, the Wall Street Journal's publisher, The New York Times' managing editor, editorial page editor, and deputy managing editor are all women. So is Judith Miller, the reporter best known for making the Bush administration's case for the Iraq war. Need we say more?

True diversity is not about getting the right mix of partisanship, or gender, or race. It's about good journalism. A newspaper staffed by different kinds of people with different life experiences can offer a vastly richer and more complex perspective on the world. So until we as consumers demand diversity in substance rather than in bylines, we'll have to content ourselves with the Susan Estrichs of this world.
Lakshmi Chaudhry is senior editor of AlterNet.
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