Whatever Happened to the Gender Gap?
Let's call it "The Case of the Missing Gender Gap." Ever since September 11, corporate media have denied that men and women have significant differences of opinion on terrorism and war, despite contradictory evidence in polls conducted before and after we dropped our first bomb on Afghanistan. To solve this mystery we have to start at the beginning of George W. Bush's new world order -- when, in the president's words, anyone who did not support America's "war on terrorism" would be judged to be in cahoots with "the evildoers."
Following the devastating attacks, major news networks subjected a shocked nation to video clips of the Twin Towers being struck by planes, exploding in flames and collapsing, often accompanied by "Oh my God!" audio, on repetitive-loop day and night. (Talk about a recipe for post-traumatic stress disorder.) These painful images sometimes appeared in split-screen while anxious anchors interviewed current and former White House and Pentagon officials, security experts and CIA spooks, who presented military retaliation and civil liberties rollbacks as necessary and inevitable. While such sources made up more than half the authorities appearing on NBC, ABC and CBS in the week following the attacks, experts from the international law community who could advocate legal, non-military responses to crimes against humanity were nowhere to be seen on these programs, according to a survey by the media watch group FAIR.
Feminists and progressives who dared give the question "Why do they hate us?" an answer more substantial than the ubiquitous "because we love freedom" -- say, by noting that the Arab world has never forgotten Madeleine Albright's 1996 comment on CBS that half a million dead Iraqi children were "worth the price" of US sanctions -- were quickly labeled traitors, or worse.
When Susan Sontag sinned in the New Yorker's first post-9/11 issue by noting that US foreign policy might have contributed to the vicious anti-American sentiment behind the attacks, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter blasted her in a scathing column titled "Blame America At Your Peril." It was "ironic," Alter hissed, that "the same people always urging us to not blame the victim in rape cases are now saying Uncle Sam wore a short skirt and asked for it."
And when a small but vocal peace movement called for the US to "prosecute the criminals" rather than bomb innocent Afghans, their dissent was either ignored or distorted by a derisive press -- as when the New York Times reported a late September anti-war action in DC under the headline "Protesters in Washington Urge Peace With Terrorists."
Amid this "with us or against us" feeding frenzy, poll stories proliferated, with headlines like the Washington Post's September 29 "Public Unyielding in War Against Terror; 9 in 10 Back Robust Military Response." The numbers seemed overwhelming: the "9 in 10" figure measured Bush's approval rating, while upwards of four-fifths of the public generally supported some sort of military action. According to the Post, Americans were "unswerving" in their support for war and unified in their "demand for a full-scale response."
But were they, really? Buried at the end of the 1,395-word story was the striking information that women "were significantly less likely to support a long and costly war" then were men, and their hesitant support might develop into "hardened opposition" over time. In fact, though 44 percent of women said they'd favor a broad military effort, "48 percent said they want a limited strike or no military action at all."
The gender gap appeared again in an October 5 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, which found that 64 percent of men thought the US "should mount a long-term war" and just 24 percent favored limiting retaliation to punishing the specific groups responsible for the attacks -- but that women were "evenly divided -- with 42 percent favoring each option." Though 88 percent of women and 90 percent of men support some military action, women reconsider in greater numbers as soon as conditional questions are asked, Gallup's analysis showed. For example, only 55 percent of women said they would support military action if a thousand American troops would be killed, whereas 76 percent of men would still support a lengthy war under these circumstances; women were also much less likely than men to support war if it would continue for several years, bring about an economic recession, or provoke further terrorist attacks at home.
When presented with only two possible post-9/11 alternatives -- "drop some bombs" or "do nothing" -- it's not surprising that majorities of the public would choose the former. What's alarming is that politicians, pundits and the press first roundly ignored the Post and Gallup data about women's more conditional approach to the "war on terrorism," then claimed the traditional gender gap familiar from the Persian Gulf and Kosovo crises had disintegrated with the Twin Towers.
Polls whose results seemed to confirm the media's image of a flag-waving, Rambo-embracing populace met with a much warmer reception. When an early November poll by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Pew Research Center for People & the Press found that women's support for increased military spending doubled from 24 to 47 percent after September 11, and that the same number of men and women (64 percent) now favor the creation of a missile defense shield, a front-page Christian Science Monitor story reported that "Women's voices are resonating across the country and doing away -- for the first time in recent history -- with the gender gap on many military issues." The article was headlined "In this war, American women shed role as 'doves'" -- even though separate Gallup data, also from November and referenced in the same article, showed that women were more than twice as likely as men to be "doves." The Pew research was featured in outlets from leading dailies to tabloids (e.g., the Daily News), debate shows (e.g., The McLaughlin Group) and the conservative press (e.g., Insight on the News). The Washington Post crowed, "When it comes to attitudes toward the military, men are from Mars, and so are women," while a Washington Times op-ed praised "Missile Defense's Feminine Mystique."
While polls were covered selectively, news content about women and war was often opportunistic. Outlets seized on the restrictive burqa forced on Afghan women as a symbol of the Taliban's cruelty and a reason why they should be vanquished, and ran triumphant visuals of women removing their coverings upon the Taliban's ouster -- yet only rarely devoted serious attention to the history of extreme violence and sexual assault committed against Afghan women by the US-endorsed Northern Alliance, or asked whether they might oppress or violate women once installed in the Afghan government. On the domestic front, the Bush administration was portrayed as a bastion of women's empowerment. Andrea Mitchell began a late November MSNBC segment this way: "In the war on terrorism, American women are playing a major role at almost every level, especially the top. It's a striking contrast with the way women have been treated in Afghanistan." Republican bigwigs like Condoleezza Rice, Karen Hughes and Mary Matalin are "not only making the strategy; their gender is part of the strategy, a weapon to attack the Taliban's treatment of Afghan women," Mitchell said. As a result, a Republican official told the Washington Post in early January, George W. Bush "has not only erased any question about legitimacy, he has also erased the gender gap."
Perhaps the gradations in women's support for or opposition to the war didn't make the news because focusing on simple, surface-level "do you or don't you?" questions requires less research and investigation -- always premium in our profit-driven, time-is-money media climate -- and provided sexier numbers. Certainly women's differing degrees of dissent might have seemed inconsequential to some of the country's most powerful -- and pro-war -- journalists. Time magazine's defense correspondent Mark Thompson confessed to warm fuzzies for tight-lipped military leader Donald Rumsfeld, telling the Chicago Tribune that "Although he has not told us very much, he has been like a father figure." With stars (and stripes) in his eyes, CBS' Dan Rather actually volunteered to suit up, telling Entertainment Tonight that if George Bush ever "needs me in uniform, tell me when and where -- I'm there." ABC's Cokie Roberts unself-consciously admitted an almost blind faith in our boys at the Pentagon: "Look, I am, I will just confess to you, a total sucker for the guys who stand up with all the ribbons on and stuff," she told David Letterman. "And so, when they say stuff I tend to believe it." (This eager journalistic acceptance was surely music to the ears of the unnamed military official who told the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz that lying would be an integral part of the Pentagon's press strategy.)
But to find the simplest reason why women's perspectives were missing or misrepresented by media, forget all this cerebral posturing. A college-style drinking game will do the trick. The rules are simple (and almost guaranteed not to get anyone drunk). Grab a few friends and the remote control, start flipping between network news broadcasts, pour a drink every time a female expert is interviewed about terrorism and war. I promise you, you'll end up parched -- and peeved.
Take the Sunday morning talk shows on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and Fox, for example. According to a study released in December by the White House Project, a nonpartisan women's leadership group, women were a measly 11 percent of all guests on five of these influential, agenda-setting programs from January 1, 2000 to June 30, 2001. As if this wasn't dismal enough, that number fell to just nine percent for six weeks after September 11. And women fared no better in print: in the month after the terrorist attacks, men wrote a whopping 92 percent of the 309 bylined op-eds published by the New York Times, the Washington Post and USA Today, according to a survey I conducted for FAIR.
To Nancy Nathan, executive producer of NBC's "Meet the Press," the underrepresentation of women on programs like hers is irrelevant. "I don't think the female viewpoint is different from the generic, overall viewpoint," Nathan told me. There's no conspiracy to suppress women's voices, she said, it's just that men hold most power-positions in Washington, so they are the most sought-after guests. Women might have unique perspectives to add to health care or reproductive services discussions, she added, and with those sorts of stories the talk shows might be able to book people outside the male-dominated pool of officeholders. But programs like "Meet the Press" "are not having long discussions about issues that are not at the forefront of the agenda." The White House Project study's authors can "advocate more women on the air," Nathan said; "but the object here is to deliver the news, not to get women on the air."
Nathan's perspective perfectly echoes one of journalism's most entrenched conventions: news is what the powerful say and do, not what the public experiences. But Sunday morning talk shows move the public debate by framing certain topics as cutting-edge and others as unimportant -- if they were to address reproductive rights or health care regularly, those issues would be at the forefront. Not to mention that women are invested in all issues, not just abortion and breast cancer; women are ninety percent of the world's sweatshop workers, for example, and are doing groundbreaking work in feminist economics -- meaning that journalism and those who rely on it suffer when women are overlooked as sources for stories on globalization, labor and world finance.
The news-follows-power principle not only eschews diversity, but its self-perpetuating cycle prevents change. Social and political issues will continue to be filtered through a primarily white, male, corporate lens, thereby reinforcing their authority and sidelining women, people of color, labor and all marginalized groups and issues.
Washington Post columnist Judy Mann ended the year with this reflection:
"...a society in which women are invisible in the media is one in which they are invisible, period... Women are a majority in the United States. By rights, in a democracy, we should occupy 50 percent of the slots on the op-ed pages of America's newspapers. We should occupy 50 percent of the top editorships in newspapers. We should be allowed to bring what interests us -- as women and mothers and wives -- to the table, and I don't mean token stories about child care. I mean taking apart the federal budget and seeing if it is benefiting families or the munitions millionaires. I mean looking at the enormous amount of money we've squandered on the "war on drugs" and asking the obvious question: Why are we building more prisons instead of rebuilding broken lives? I mean challenging the miserly foreign-aid budget and raising hell because we are not doing our share to educate women and girls in emerging countries. The Taliban could never have taken root in a society that educated and empowered females."
This is the type of insight Mann has offered the Post for 23 years; the column, published on December 28, was her last. Mann -- the first journalist to use the term "gender gap" in the press -- is retiring right at a moment when women's voices are being thoroughly drowned out on the op-ed pages and the public stage.
Mann's final headline read, "A Farewell Wish: That Women Will Be Heard." For that wish to become reality, we need to force the issue. Write the Post and encourage them to replace Mann with an analytically and politically savvy feminist writer. Pressure the Sunday talk shows to interview female experts, and to recognize that women's concerns focus on cutting-edge issues, but will only be seen as such if they are subject to healthy debate in prominent forums. Contact local news outlets when women are ignored, distorted, or covered in opportunistic ways. Conduct studies calling attention to the gender breakdown of particular outlets' bylines and sources, then hold press conferences, release reports and attempt to meet with editorial boards to discuss ways to improve. Organize around the concept that journalism has a responsibility to cover a variety of perspectives, not just those of people in power.
Media conglomerates are not magnanimous; they will not change their priorities without major incentives. In the 1930s, Eleanor Roosevelt would only speak to female reporters at her press conferences, forcing newspapers to employ women journalists. In the 1970s, newspapers and TV networks had to be sued before they'd stop discriminating against women in hiring and promotion; feminist columnist Anna Quindlen began her decade-long run on the New York Times op-ed page as a result of one of those class-actions, and proceeded to write about gender, race, class and sexuality issues as if they mattered.
It's time for us to reprioritize media as a top feminist issue. Today, Quindlen's spot at the Times is filled by Maureen Dowd, who's often as inclined to write about high-society balls as feminist concerns. Today, right-wing women like Ann Coulter, Kathleen Parker, Peggy Noonan, Mona Charen, Amy Holmes and Laura Ingraham maintain a high profile in the mainstream media, while progressive feminist writers like media critic Laura Flanders or journalist Barbara Ehrenreich are most often heard in the Left press. And today, NBC darling Katie Couric's astronomical new salary notwithstanding, women still have little power inside the media industry: according to various studies (cited in "Power Shortage for Media Women," Extra!, August, 2001), they are only 13 and 14 percent of radio and TV general managers, 20 percent of news executives in Fortune 1000 news companies, and 12 percent of corporate board members in media/entertainment companies.
We need to ask ourselves: What are we going to do about this, today?
Jennifer L. Pozner is the founder of Women In Media & News (WIMN), a new women's media monitoring and advocacy group. Formerly, she was Women's Desk Director for FAIR. She wrote this piece for the Women's Review of Books, which accepts letters at www.wellesley.edu/WomensReview/comment.html.