Pro-Feminist Media Bias?
A new book about the news media's allegedly liberal bias suggests that journalism is too "pro-feminist." A review of recent reports on women proves quite the opposite.
That's the charge made by former CBS newsman Bernard Goldberg in his new book, "BIAS: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News." He says the big newspapers and the networks are full of lefties, and they have a decidedly pro-feminist bias.
If the elite media had a pro-feminist bias, women and their issues should be everywhere on the news. Are they? Decidedly not.
Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz notes. "Most of the officials, lawmakers, experts and political figures who parade their opinions on Sunday morning television have something in common. They don't wear pantyhose."
Women represent barely 11 percent of guests on the five major network shows, reports The White House Project, a group dedicated to getting more women in politics. Since Sept. 11, pictures of Afghan women in burkas have been seen more often on American television than female talking heads.
And when women do appear on network "ideas" programs, on op-ed pages and on cable shows, ultra-conservative women are more likely than feminists to give the female perspective. The Washington-based conservative Independent Women's Forum opposes Title IX, affirmative action, the Violence against Women Act, and funding for day care--positions few American women support. But the Post notes that the group's members get quoted and invited on talk shows with "astonishing regularity" despite the fact that the group has only some 600 members.
In 1995, The New York Times published six opinion pieces by forum leaders, the Wall Street Journal published five, and the Washington Post three, reports Fairness and Accuracy in Media. During that period, those same papers chose to publish no commentary on any subject by anyone from National Organization for Women (275,000 members) or the Feminist Majority Foundation (more than 60,000).
Overall, when the media covers feminism, it focuses on how dead the women's movement is, when it died, and how it will never rise again. One Time magazine cover showed the demise of feminism as running in a straight line from Gloria Steinem to Ally McBeal.
The truth is that the major tenets of mainstream feminism have been largely absorbed by young women, who now fill more college seats than men, run marathons, join the Army, play contact sports and seek out good jobs. But most of the media ink is devoted to how "post-feminist" women have rejected the movement.
Good News Ignored, Bad News Exaggerated
And bad news about women gets consistently overplayed. Women are endlessly shown as facing grave risks if they are too "ambitious." Such articles are often based on bad science, but they get huge play and as a result, flawed data becomes immortal. It gets repeated over and over again for years, often migrating from the leads of news stories to the "background" paragraphs, where it is presented as undisputed fact.
For example, an obscure study of the marriage habits of baby-boom women in 1986 led to screaming headlines--and covers on People and Newsweek. The stories claimed that women who weren't married by 35 had as much chance of being wed as they did of getting killed by a terrorist. (That idea even ended up as a line of dialogue in the film "Sleepless in Seattle.") The underlying message, of course, was that if women put off grabbing a guy to get more education or advance in their careers, they risked becoming "old maids."
This "factoid" just won't die. It still gets cited today. What were the true facts? A baby-boom woman who would only marry a man two or three years her senior would have a small pool of males as prospective mates. But if she would marry someone her own age, or younger, there was no man shortage at all. The story was completely bogus, but the careful refutations got no headlines or cover stories. In fact, new research shows that the more education a woman has, the more marriageable she is. You almost never see that reported.
Another bad-news scenario is the coverage of day care. A pro-feminist media--by definition--would be ecstatic about day care and its benefits. The reverse is true. The federal National Institute of Child Health and Human Development is conducting an ongoing, very large and very sophisticated study of children in day care, with a control group of children at home. When the first results of this major study were announced in 1996, finding that children in such care were firmly attached to their mothers, this important news was largely ignored by most media. A database search I conducted just after the release of the data turned up a mere 12 stories--and half of those I wrote myself, with my frequent co-author, Dr. Rosalind Barnett of Brandeis.
On the other hand, when one researcher claimed in 2001 that the institute's study showed that children in day care were more aggressive than kids at home, the media ran wild with stories that day care was making bullies out of kids. While "bullying" got all the ink, reports from the same study that kids in days care had better cognitive skills than those at home did not make the headlines. And the "bullying" stories were wildly overblown. Only 17 percent of kids were labeled "aggressive." And what sorts of things did they do? Here's some of the actual behavior that was cited: bragging, arguing, showing off, talking too much, being loud. This is normal, boisterous kid behavior. But it got lumped into the "aggressive" category.
And despite the gains women have made in the press, ancient myths still color media coverage. Two of the most potent are the Myth of Female Weakness and the Myth of Female Strength. In one, a woman is a sniveling, small-brained, hormone-racked creature so filled with anxieties and chemical twitches it seems a miracle she can get out of bed in the morning. In the other, she's Wonder Woman and Medusa combined, able to reduce men to besotted fools or emasculate them with a glance. Women are still "the other," prone to be judged by archetypes about Woman rather than by individual qualities.
Senator Clinton Labeled a Witch
Hillary Clinton, for example, was portrayed either as a strong-willed Amazon or a weak, pathetic wronged wife. In the pre-Monica days, when Strong Hillary was in vogue, I tracked no less than 50 mentions of her that used the words "witch" or "witchlike." When she moved her office into the West Wing of the White House, forsaking the first lady's traditional East Wing quarters, it became a major story. You'd have thought Rasputin was moving in. One story compared her to the murderess Glenn Close played in the film "Fatal Attraction." On the other hand, after Monica, she was called a weak-willed woman who was actually aiding and abetting her husband's bad behavior by her passivity. Either way, the descriptions tended to be over the top.
Male political figures may be called mean and nasty names, but those words don't usually reflect superstition and dread. Did the press ever call Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, or Clinton warlocks? Or compare them to movie murderers?
Anita Hill was another woman who fell prey to archetypes. She was pictured either as a naive, silly female being used as a pawn in a political battle, or as a "scorned woman" whose pleasure lay in destroying men. In the latter incarnation, Hill apparently spent her time prowling through old copies of "The Exorcist" looking for obscure references to pubic hairs, or doing a little light reading of Oklahoma obscenity cases to come across the porno star "Long Dong Silver."
All in all, media coverage of women may have improved since the days when a lady could expect her name to appear in the paper only when she was married or when she died, but we have a long way to go. Pro-feminist stories in the media are, unfortunately, still an endangered species.
Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.