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Do We Still Need Feminist Media?

Despite women's advancements, in some areas of news journalism they continue to lag way behind.
 
 
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Thirty-five years ago, as the second wave of the 20th-century U.S. feminist movement burst into action, women were all but shut out of newsrooms, press clubs, editorial boards and broadcasting booths. Women did the research; men got the bylines. Feminists were determined to be included, and to change the media. They wanted to counter and correct the mainstream news -- and start their own press(es).

Today, women are writers, producers, anchors, editors and publishers at every important newspaper, news magazine, television network, and local TV and radio station. So in an era in which women seem to have integrated into the mainstream, do we still need feminist media?

More than ever.

Feminist media remains an instigator and a feeder of content, as well as providing a gender lens through which to view the news. And it's had quite an impact: As Patricia Bradley points out in her book Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 1963-1975 , subjects like domestic violence, sexual harassment and equal pay eventually became issues accepted in the broad society without a specific feminist framing.

As feminist media has affected the larger news media from without, feminism has equally affected the media from within. One of the key tenets in the founding document of the National Organization for Women (NOW) was to protest and contest the false images of women in the mass media, but that was merely the first step. The feminist movement as a whole called for inclusion in the institutions of power, including the media: There were numerous lawsuits, sit-ins and other protests to end blatant sex discrimination and sexist programming, improve coverage of significant women's issues and boost the numbers of women delivering news.

In the 1960s, only a handful of pioneers held network TV reporting jobs, but with the prodding of feminism in the 1970s and 1980s women such as Barbara Walters, Judy Woodruff, Connie Chung, Carole Simpson, Diane Sawyer, Jessica Savitch and Jane Pauley rose to national prominence. Too often, though, the typical hierarchy of the broadcast was that a "serious" older white man served as the primary news anchor, while a "perky" younger woman anchor read script and offered a smile.

Over the past 10 years we have seen more women journalists than ever on the national airwaves, but they are still evaluated as visual objects in ways that men are not. Thus, the mere presence of women doesn't solve the problem of gender bias when it comes to who is most capable of possessing and delivering information and ideas. That's why what goes on behind the camera has been crucial in advancing women's causes and perspectives.

As Carole Simpson, a trailblazing African American woman who was ABC's former weekend anchor for World News Tonight , explains, the news of old was solely decided by men -- "And they were usually white, middle-aged and upper-middle-class. The news they presented was not in the public interest, but in white men's interest.'"

Nonetheless, women in the news media have sometimes been instrumental in obtaining coverage of issues. For example, it wasn't accidental that Anita Hill's testimony against Clarence Thomas appeared for hours on national television, and the term "sexual harassment" came to permeate public discourse -- it was women reporters that made it happen. Then again, the Anita Hill story had sexual content. Would it have gotten the same coverage and ignited the same water-cooler conversation if Hill had instead complained that Clarence Thomas paid her less than male employees?

Despite women's advancements, in some areas of news journalism they continue to lag way behind. Women are still rarely asked to comment as experts on serious events, trends or policies: They comprise less than one in four newspaper opinion writers. In radio, women program less than 11 percent of all stations, and just four of Radio Ink magazine's 40 "Most Powerful People in Radio" are women. Even in the more liberated blogosphere, only a handful of Technorati's 100 most-visited blogs include women writers, among them the Huffington Post and Gawker. But a recent study found that women now make up half of all bloggers, and breaking into the top echelons are feminist blogs such as Feministing, Echidne of the Snakes and blac(k)ademic.

We're in the midst of a digital revolution, which is changing everyone's thinking about the news and its delivery. Will there be more and more room for other voices -- those of women, people of color -- in the new environment that is arising?

In any case, there is no reason for us to be satisfied with a nonthreatening, depoliticized feminism proffered by the mass media. Yes, mass media can bring about progress and social change -- but not without feminist and other alternative media pushing and guiding.

The full text of this article appears in the Fall issue of Ms., in which the magazine celebrates its 35th anniversary. The issue is now available on newsstands and by subscription from www.msmagazine.com.

L.S. Kim is an assistant professor of film and digital media at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of the forthcoming Maid for Television: Race, Class and Gender on the Small Screen.

 
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