Women, Unlisted

City magazines are fond of lists of the best and worst, who's in and who's out. Such lists are notoriously subjective, relying on layers of opinions rather than sophisticated data collection. This month (December 2005), Washingtonian Magazine has delivered a list that will cause heartburn in the city's journalism world, especially among women in the field.

The list is the testosterone-heavy lineup of Washingtonian's Top 50 Best and Most Influential Journalists. Just seven of the listees are women. Minorities are in short supply as well. Editor at large Garrett M. Graff acknowledged in his introduction to the list that it "contains fewer women than it had in some years past" (Washingtonian produces the list every four years, publishing the first one in 1973). He says, "The heyday for a generation of ground-breaking women reporters like Helen Thomas and Mary McGrory has passed and a new generation has yet to emerge." This will come as quite a surprise to women journalists who have been working in Washington for many years and won't be pleased to hear themselves described as if they are chicks that haven't hatched. Without arguing the merits of those who did make the Top 50 list, its composition reflects the fraternal nature of how things get done in the Federal City.

Furthermore, a companion article about journalists to watch -- the people who will be the influentials some day -- tells us that men will continue to dominate Washington journalism just about as much as they do now. Of 12 journalists mentioned as up and comers, only two -- Jessica Yellin of ABC and Maureen Groppe of Gannett News Service -- are women. Projecting from that, women would be about 16 percent of future top journalists -- just a hair more than Washingtonian's current Top 50, of which women are 14 percent. One can say don't take it too seriously, it doesn't mean all that much, but such lists confer bragging rights and prestige on those who are on them. Washingtonian periodically publishes a list of the metropolitan area's best physicians, and I, like many others, am happier when I see that my doctors are on it.

And when women are such a very small component of a list of movers and shakers, the message is that they're not in a position to deliver the goods. In the city whose journalists generate stories of major importance far beyond Washington, this is no small thing. Women have been the majority of college journalism majors since 1977, and they constitute better than a third of journalists working in the U.S. today. So why are so few on a list like this?

It's not that women Washington correspondents are a new breed working their way up: the first one, Jane Swisshelm, arrived in 1850 to write for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune. It's not a lack of acumen or access to power, both of which are obvious factors in the compilation of these types of lists. Plenty of women journalists are walking around Washington with the home phone numbers of the Bush cabinet and the Congressional leadership. 

It's not time in grade, either. Helen Thomas is 85, and the late Mary McGrory would be 87 now. Their successors are in their 40s and 50s, the peers of the top guns on the Washingtonian list. 

The problem is with the system of measurement. The Washingtonian list really isn't the definitive catalogue of the best and most influential journalists. It's primarily a catalog of some of the best-known faces working at the White House/Defense Department/Supreme Court, or hosting or regularly appearing on a politically oriented television program. There are a few exceptions, such as sports scribe Michael Wilbon of ESPN and the Washington Post, and reporter Tom Sherwood of Washington's NBC-owned-and operated TV station; but by and large, it's a group focused on the political machinations of the current administration.

If those who nominated journalists for the Washingtonian list had moved beyond their obsession with the who's up-who's down political game, and had considered reporters devoted to policy issues public opinion polls say most animate Americans -- health care, education, financial security, job creation, poverty, the environment -- the net would have been cast much wider, and the list of top journalists likely would look somewhat different and more diverse.

Graff says he compiled the list after he and others talked to "scores of political observers, pundits, Washington figures, and members of the Fourth Estate." That huge echo chamber, protective of turf and the status quo, reflects the persistent clubbiness of journalistic Washington, whose press club opened membership to women journalists only in 1971, and only after newsmakers decided it was a political liability to appear before journalists in a venue that discriminated against women. Many women surged into Washington journalism in the years that followed and succeeded brilliantly at their work, joining Thomas, McGrory and others who paved the way. The list-makers have recognized some of them. But they'd get a richer list if they followed the example of the Top 50 reporters they've singled out for praise and dug a little deeper in the search for the best and most influential reporters in the Fourth Estate.


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