Why Fixing the Media System Should Be on the Feminist Agenda

This essay was adapted for Reclaim the Media and NOW's NW Organizing Project from an essay in BitchFest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine.

Ask a feminist to identify what the most important issues are facing women, and she might mention reproductive freedom, violence against women and children, the disproportionate burdens women bear in light of the growing gap between rich and poor in America or the many ways in which war specifically impacts women. Chances are she wouldn't immediately point to the media. But she should.

Without accurate, non-biased, diverse news coverage and challenging, creative cultural expression it is virtually impossible to significantly impact public opinion of women's and human rights issues or to create lasting social change. Indeed, corporate media are key to why our fast-moving culture is so slow to change, stereotypes are so stubborn and the power structure is so entrenched. Pop culture images help us determine what to buy, what to wear, whom to date, how we feel about our bodies, how we see ourselves and how we relate to racial, sexual, socio-economic and religious "others."

Journalism directly links and affects every individual issue on the socio-political continuum in a national debate over the pressing matters of the day, from rape to racism, hate crimes to war crimes, corporate welfare to workplace gender discrimination. By determining who has a voice in this debate and who is silenced, which issues are discussed and how they're framed, media have the power to maintain the status quo or challenge the dominant order.

And how have media used this power where women are concerned? With a vengeance.

Let's start with female politicians. Ever since the midterm Democratic upset, media have been exclaiming over Democratic Representative Nancy Pelosi's new position as the first female Speaker of the House, a position which puts her only two steps away from the presidency -- but few outlets have noted that in 2006, we still lag behind many other developed countries in electing women to the highest political offices.

Ever wonder why American women are still stuck with only token representation in the House, the Senate and the Supreme Court, or why the closest a woman has come to the Oval Office was Geena Davis on a short-lived ABC drama? In part, it's because women audacious enough to seek political office are routinely dogged by double-standard-laced news coverage that focuses on their looks, fashion sense, familial relationships and other feminizing details that have nothing to do with their ability to lead -- as noted in a previous TomPaine.com commentary, "Commander In Chic."

From headlines speculating about whether or not New York Senator Hillary Clinton "had millions of dollars of work done" to make her look less "hideous" to the New York Times likening Pelosi to a nagging grandmother, this sort of coverage implies that women should be taken less seriously and are less electable than their male counterparts. (Of course, their male counterparts aren't helping to dispel such stereotypes, as when Dubya said, in his first post-election press conference, that his "first act of bipartisan outreach" he "shared with [Pelosi] the names of some Republican interior decorators who can help her pick out the new drapes in her new office.")

Even the most powerful women in America suffer this media indignity: When Condoleezza Rice wore black leather boots last year, the Washington Post described the Secretary of State as a "dominatrix"; on the day she was chosen as America's first African-American female national security adviser, a front page New York Times story reported that "her dress size is between a 6 and an 8," and she has "a girlish laugh" and "can be utterly captivating -- without ever appearing confessional or vulnerable."

Media content matters, and not just to women at the highest echelons of power. In fact, the more vulnerable women are, the more hostile media coverage becomes. Young, low-income mothers of color have been derided for decades by a bigoted and misogynistic press as "promiscuous," "lazy moochers" and "brood mares" supposedly popping out babies for welfare checks. A Newsweek editor once even insisted that "every threat to the fabric of this country from poverty to crime to homelessness is connected to out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy." The end result of this scapegoating? Punitive welfare reform that decimated the social safety net for poor women and children.

As feminists, we need to prioritize media among our top political concerns. Is sexual assault your most urgent issue? Media still imply that women "ask for it," as when a Wall Street Journal column blamed rape and murder on "moronic" women who don't have enough "common sense" to keep themselves safe. Think anti-abortion violence is a threat to women's safety and to our reproductive freedom? An American anti-abortion fanatic attempted to blow up a women's health clinic in Iowa on September 11, 2006, yet only one newspaper in the entire Nexis news database deigned to report this terrorist attack. Against the war? When three pretty, blond country singers are called "Dixie Sluts" by major magazines and TV news reports, banned from airplay by ClearChannel, Cox and Cumulus Radio and censored with radio-funded CD-stomping spectacles simply for expressing anti-war sentiment, it's a safe bet that corporate media won't be giving much press to Iraqi women who complain that their safety and autonomy are now curtailed by new Sharia laws imposed by the U.S.-approved Iraqi Constitution.

Sexist, racist media content is fruit from a poisoned tree. The demonization of women and the near invisibility of progressive feminist perspectives in American media are the result of institutional factors, including the financial and political agendas of mega-merged media monopolies; the pandering of news networks and entertainment studios to advertisers' profit motives without regard for the public's interest; the limited access of women, people of color, low income people, LGBTQ people, Native people, immigrants and other marginalized constituencies to the means of media production, distribution and technology; decades of right-wing investment in media messaging, production and advocacy; and, funding restrictions of independent media alternatives.

Also at play is the systemic underrepresentation of women and people of color in content (on op-ed pages, network newscasts, cable debate shows, as hard news reporters) and in the industry (as top-level executives, board members and owners in news and entertainment companies), as dozens of depressing studies document.

Luckily, a vibrant movement for change is gaining steam at the grassroots level, and there are plenty of ways to begin to fight for a feminist vision of media justice and reform . Here are just a few places to start:

  • Pressure public officials to defend the public interest in media policy: The next Congress will likely have the opportunity to weigh in on media and communications policy issues which will reshape the ways we can make use of our first amendment freedoms for decades to come. These issues include Internet freedom, media ownership consolidation, privacy rights, copyright reform and more. Progressive media policy reform by itself won't make the media more just but it's a necessary step. Look into your local and national representatives' positions on media and telecommunications issues -- or ask them for their stance if their views aren't public knowledge -- and urge them to support media policy that prioritizes the public's interest rather than corporate profit.

  • Debunk media bias, amplify public interest voices and demand accountability from corporate media: Become an engaged, critical media consumer. Women In Media & News debunks media sexism and inaccuracy through multimedia presentations on college campuses, an online alert list and a women's media monitoring group blog and conducts media skills-building workshops to give women's and progressive groups the tools they need to propel their messages onto the public stage. Groups like Youth Media Council, Third World Majority and GRIID conduct media trainings, release reports and provide organizing tools to women, people of color, youth, immigrants and other underserved populations. FAIR's Extra! magazine and CounterSpin! radio show are invaluable resources.Center for Media & Democracy and Commercial Alert can help you fight corporate and governmental propaganda in the form of video news releases (VNRs) that masquerade as independent news. Send letters to the editor, conduct your own studies and organize public protests.

  • Defend the public interest in telecommunications policy: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has all but abdicated its responsibility to regulate the U.S. media industry in the public interest. Urge Congress to fight against media concentration and support legislation for diverse, local, independent and uncensored media alongside Reclaim the Media, the National Organization for Women, the Center for International Media Action, Free Press and other national and grassroots campaigns. Learn more and develop action plans at the National Conference on Media Reform

  • Demand open access to existing and emerging media technologies: It is crucial that existing and emerging media communications technologies remain broadly accessible as a public good. Join the fight for Network Neutrality at SaveTheInternet.com. Stand up to internet censorship and control, protect bloggers' rights, advocate privacy protections and work to close the digital divide between wealthy, white Americans and low-income people and people of color with help from the tech-savvy Electronic Frontier Foundation, the D.C.-based Center for Digital Democracy or the grassroots United Church of Christ's Media Empowerment Project.

  • Claim the cable systems and radio airwaves for your community: Challenge cable license renewals and equitable service to low-income communities with models from Reclaim the Media, and help press for better pricing and programming through the Grassroots Cable Coalition. Organizations such as Prometheus Radio, WINGS (Women's International News Gathering Service), Media Access Project, National Lawyers Guild and Community Media Services can help you set up low power microradio stations, advocate fairer radio spectrum regulations that support diversity and access and demand accountability from ClearChannel and other powerful radio conglomerates.

  • Protect the future of feminist and independent media: Subscribe, donate to and give Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, Ms., World Pulse, Women's Review of Books, New Moon and Teen Voices as gifts to your friends. Support nonprofit advocacy groups like WIMN, the WAM (Women, Action & Media) project, the Women's Media Center and others working to propel women's voices onto the media mainstage. Independent news sources such as ColorLines, In These Times, The Nation, Stay Free, Clamor, Democracy Now!, Uprising Radio, WomensEnews.org and AlterNet.org are crucial to our ability to inform ourselves, educate others and effectively work for social justice. Remember, if you don't like the media, be the media!

  • More tips on how you can reclaim, reframe and reform the media are available at http://www.wimnonline.org/action/ and at www.reclaimthemedia.org.

The fight for media and gender justice needs you. The right has prioritized media messaging, production, policy and ownership since the 1970s, which is in large part why the American political and media landscapes have become as problematic as they are today. If we truly care about women's rights and social justice, we cannot afford to be overwhelmed by the scope of the problems in our media system -- we must simply roll up our sleeves and begin to tackle them.

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