The Journalism of Gender
< color="#000000" size="2">Women's activists and
their male advocates have made a big point lately that the media do a poor job
of "representing" women. Men, on the other hand, have expressed little
dissatisfaction with the way they are treated in the press. Before we conclude
that women must therefore be suffering a severe indignity and that men are being
treated well, we should observe that sometimes a complaint tells us more about
the demands and expectations of the complainer than the worthiness of the claim.
We might take time to observe whether any of America's unsqueaky (male) wheels
might be in need of some media-fairness grease.
< color="#000000" size="2">Feminism attempts to
prove anti-female media bias by tallying the gender of people pictured and
quoted in newspapers. Since there are more men than women in the news, their
reasoning goes, newspapers are exhibiting a sexist bias against females.
< color="#000000" size="2">A recent example of this
allegation can be found in an April 8, 1991 press release from the Women, Men
and Media Project, which observed critically that "the vast majority of
[Gulf War] stories were about men, their jobs, their weaponry, their
< color="#000000" size="2">But consider the nature
of those stories. Were they about men(!) or about selfless servants whose gender
is essentially irrelevant -- except that it induces them to put themselves at
risk for others? Moreover, is a story about an electricity rate hike a
"male story" simply because the Public Service Commission executive
who announces it is a man?
< color="#000000" size="2">Furthermore, why did
Junetta Davis' landmark Journalism Quarterly article, one of the first to use
story counts to substantiate a claim of anti-female bias, not mention -- except
in a table of numbers -- that in every one of the eight papers she studied, men
were portrayed unfavorably proportionally more often than women?
< color="#000000" size="2">No, before we resolve
that women -- and only women -- need and deserve better treatment from the media
let's take a more careful look at the journalism of gender.
< color="#000000" size="2">Imagine for a moment that
you are an editor who assigns a reporter to cover the bankruptcy proceedings of
a major department store driven to insolvency by shoplifting. Your writer
returns with the fact that the judge decided to let the store stay in business,
but only with the requirement that all women -- and only women -- sign a police
log upon entering. That's it. End of report.
< color="#000000" size="2">Would you not demand that
the reporter re-open the story at least to mention the issue of the judge's
colossal sexist bias? Would you not suggest that perhaps the ACLU, a law
professor or a local women's group might have something to say about the judge's
discriminatory ruling and the egregious prejudice that underlies it?
< color="#000000" size="2">You might be dismayed,
then, with the way the Baltimore Sun, a large, well-respected, totally orthodox,
mainstream American daily handled the story of a day care center plagued by
allegations of child sexual abuse.
< color="#000000" size="2">The state wanted to shut
the center down pending the investigation. The judge allowed it to stay open,
but only with the requirement that all men -- and only men -- sign a police log
< color="#000000" size="2">The Sun, in stories
spanning several weeks, was absolutely oblivious to the issue of prejudice
< color="#000000" size="2">Failure to handle men's
gender issues creditably is not always based on such ignorance and
insensitivity. Sometimes it is rooted in gullibility and misplaced
< color="#000000" size="2">CBS News Correspondent
Bernard Goldberg told me that "when it comes to gender issues, journalists
generally have suspended all their usual skepticism... We accept at face value
whatever women's groups say. Why? Because women have sold themselves to us as an
oppressed group and any oppressed group gets a free ride in the press... I don't
blame feminists for telling us half-truths and sometimes even complete
fabrications. I do blame my colleagues in the press for forgetting their
< color="#000000" size="2">The absence of media
skepticism has been especially glaring in the recent reporting of
"studies" claiming variously that 15 - 25 percent of all college women
have been victims of actual or attempted rape and that nearly half of all women
will be victims of rape sometime in their lives.
< color="#000000" size="2">Kathryn Newcomer, a
professor of statistics and public policy at George Washington University, warns
us in Insight that these statistics are unreliable: "No one cares what the
real numbers are. They just want to make political statements." The
unfortunate result is that our editors and writers swallow the assertions whole
and regurgitate them for public consumption.
< color="#000000" size="2">As Berkeley professor of
social welfare Neil Gilbert wrote in The Wall Street Journal, the misinformation
has been "so widely cited that it has gained authority by repetition."
< color="#000000" size="2">Untested by appropriate
journalistic scrutiny, women's activists have used political statements
masquerading as fact to manipulate public attitudes not only on rape, but also
on divorce, child custody, child support enforcement, domestic violence, pay
equity and sexual harassment -- in general: men.
< color="#000000" size="2">The idea that men are
enriched by divorce, for instance, is now a "fact" that "everyone
knows"; statistical evidence to the contrary -- such as the thorough
analyses published in law and sociology journals and circulated to the media by
fathers' and children's organizations -- goes unnoticed.
< color="#000000" size="2">Similarly, the notion
that full-time working women earn 59 percent of the money earned by full-time
working men is firmly installed in the American mind as evidence of male
< color="#000000" size="2">There are at least three
important ways in which this "fact" has been misrepresented by women's
activists and inexplicably unchallenged by the American press:
< color="#000000" size="2">1) The U.S. Bureau of
Labor Statistics uses "full-time" to refer to everything from 910 to
3700+ hours per year. Men are far more likely to work the fuller of the two
types of full-time job schedules.
< color="#000000" size="2">2) As Dr. Warren Farrell,
author of Why Men Are the Way They Are, points out, "Both sexes have equal
knowledge that engineers will average a higher income than a French Literature
or Art History major. Yet even in 1986, more than 90 percent of engineering
majors are male and more than 90 percent of French Literature and Art History
majors are female."
< color="#000000" size="2">3) Dr. John Gordon,
author of The Myth of the Monstrous Male and Other Feminist Fables, says he
wrote to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and requested clarification for the
famed 59 percent figure. He reports that the Commission's response referred him
to a study called "Discontinuous Labor Force Participation and Its Effects
on Women's Market Earning," which explains that the main reason for the
gender gap in earnings is that women are many times more likely (Farrell says 43
times more likely) than men to opt for the joys and burdens of parenthood over
the joys and burdens of paid jobs.
< color="#000000" size="2">Moreover, as Farrell
asks, "If women really earned 59 cents to the dollar for the same work as
men, what business could compete effectively by hiring men at any
< color="#000000" size="2">Presumably, the media are
capable of asking such questions. Presumably, they are capable of gathering
facts from universities and government agencies. Evidently, when such scrutiny
might reveal the inaccuracies of feminist propaganda they are reluctant -- or
afraid -- to do so.
< color="#000000" size="2">One of the first men with
the courage to acknowledge feminist-inspired fear is gay writer and historian
< color="#000000" size="2">At the Gay Academic Union
Conference in New York City in 1976, Lauritsen said, "It has become almost
taboo to criticize anyone who identifies herself as a 'feminist'... Why have
feminists enjoyed this virtual immunity from criticism?... Because feminists
have so often demanded that things they disagree with be censored, and have so
often gotten their way, that some men frankly are afraid of them." I called
Lauritsen earlier this year to ask if he still finds those words true.
< color="#000000" size="2">He does.
< color="#000000" size="2">Three notorious news
stories further illustrate the readiness -- even the eagerness -- of the media
to accept whatever women say as truthful, accurate and complete. First we'll
look back to the infamous New Bedford gang rape of 1983.
< color="#000000" size="2">Dr. Eugene August, a
professor of English at the University of Dayton, wrote, "For months after
the gang rape occurred in a New Bedford bar, lurid stories of a barroom full of
male patrons who cheered on the rapists were circulated in the media...[T]he
press went on one of its periodic man-hating binges, endlessly re-telling the
story of the cheering patrons and augmenting it with righteous denunciations of
the average man as secret admirer and bloodbrother of the gang rapist."
< color="#000000" size="2">But those cheering men --
though they are now indelibly etched into America's Understanding of Maleness --
never existed. In a March 5, 1984 story on the rapists' trial Time Magazine
quietly, unobtrusively, belatedly and impotently reported the fact "that
aside from the six defendants and the victim, only three people were in the bar,
and that the bartender and a customer sought to call the police, but were
prevented from doing so by one of the six."
< color="#000000" size="2">Professor August is
rightly unimpressed with the truth so timidly applied to such ferocious myth.
"To my knowledge," he writes, "no one in the media has bothered
to ask why reporters were so willing to believe and disseminate stories of male
fans cheering the rape or why the media engaged in such an orgy of sexist
caricaturing. Certainly, no apology or expression of regret for the
misinformation has been forthcoming."
< color="#000000" size="2">The Lisa Olson-Boston
Patriots locker room incident is the second notorious case in point. There seems
no doubt that Olson was the victim of some rather rude behavior. But in the
Boston Herald Olson published an article in which she said, "several
[players] approached me, positioned themselves inches away from my face, and
dared me to touch their private parts." The NFL investigation of the
incident concludes, "This description does not fully accord with the
account she later gave the investigators," and "The stories attacking
the Patriots did not let up. There were substantial exaggerations of the facts
as we believe them to have been."
< color="#000000" size="2">... Harvard Law School
Professor Paul Weiler followed the Olson case closely and expressed grave
disappointment over the media's coverage. "The way the press played it was
a total vindication for Lisa Olson," he said. "I was astounded at the
disparity between Olson's story and the results of [the NFL] investigation. But
there wasn't a word in any of the papers about it."
< color="#000000" size="2">Boston Globe sportswriter
and NBC commentator Will McDonough said, "It was like a cover up. The most
gripping part of her story was that sexual equipment had been put in her face;
the NFL's report said her story was inaccurate, but you'd be hard pressed to
find that in any paper."
< color="#000000" size="2">... Then there is the
case of Gwen Dreyer, the Naval Academy student who will live forever as the
woman who was deprived of a glorious naval career by male beastliness. The
Washington Post initially covered the story with balance and perspective. On May
30, 1990 that paper reported: "In interviews, several midshipmen said that
although what happened to Dreyer was unusual because the men who handcuffed her
were of a higher rank, it was not extremely different from common occurrences.
For example, they said that upperclassmen are often tied to chairs and put
outside or have their heads put in toilets as retaliation by plebes they
command. They also doubt Dreyer was targeted because she is a woman, but instead
think the episode, while wrong, grew out of Dreyer's involvement in a spirited
snowball fight." By July 19, however, the language in the Post had become
disturbingly New Bedford-esque: "Dreyer was chained to a urinal in a men's
room before a jeering crowd of her male classmates."
< color="#000000" size="2">"Nobody in the media
wants to look like a Neanderthal," CBS's Bernard Goldberg summarizes
sarcastically, "so we just accept the feminist agenda."
< color="#000000" size="2">Another factor which
cannot be ignored is some women's manifest hostility to points of view which
challenge feminism. The case of a free-lancer for a weekly paper in a major
California city clearly illustrates the problem. Late in 1989, the writer, who
asked me to keep him anonymous, took an assignment to write about a man who has
built a national reputation as a spokesman for men's issues. In his story the
writer tried to be objective, merely stating that his subject maintains that men
are not responsible for all the world's ills, that women do in fact have
considerable power, that we should challenge what we have been told to believe
about men and women. When the writer presented his draft to his editor, a woman
about 38 years old, she said he had failed to give her what she wanted.
According to the free-lancer, she said she expected him to
"infiltrate" the men's group and "blow these guys out of the
water." "To me it was kind of surprising," the writer said.
"I was shocked. She hasn't looked into any of this herself, yet her
attitude was already firm. She wanted to do a hit piece. And it was all the more
shocking because this was an alternative newspaper, supposedly challenging
cherished beliefs. I was naive. I expected women to be supportive. But I think
women are afraid. I think it's a matter of power. It really opened my eyes. It's
been an awakening."
< color="#000000" size="2">Kay Haugaard, a
well-respected writer who has been published in over 140 periodicals, has a
similar story. "The only things I have trouble selling," she said,
"are things in which I'm the least bit critical of women. In 1988 or 1989 I
wrote a piece on rape [suggesting that rape, like murder, should be evaluated
and punished by degrees with all the circumstances taken into account], sent it
to the L.A. Times and a woman editor wrote back to say 'I've received this type
of rubbish from men, but it never occurred to me that a woman would submit
something like this.' It was so irrational and emotional," Haugaard said,
"that it clearly shows her bias."
< color="#000000" size="2">Like Haugaard, syndicated
columnist D.L. Stewart has learned that suggesting that women are less than
perfect can be problematic. Stewart said that his work "is intended as the
exact flip side of Erma Bombeck. For instance, she can make the joke that her
husband goes into a coma during football season until after the Super Bowl. On
the other hand, I can't safely joke that my wife doesn't know the difference
between baseball and football. I must take care that I wind up being the butt of
the joke, that I'm even more benighted than my wife; Erma doesn't have to do
that. I think there's a double standard and it's certainly not improving."
< color="#000000" size="2">Harry Stein is a
well-known magazine writer who served several years as the Ethics columnist for
Esquire. "It's generally understood among people who write for women's
magazines," he commented, "that there is a certain line which you just
don't cross. Basically it's that women are right and men are wrong. It's a
personal view on the part of a lot of editors; it's also what they believe their
readers want. They want to be re-assured that their way of looking at the world
< color="#000000" size="2">Along the same lines, Jon
Ryan, an activist who seeks to protect single fathers from being coerced into
surrendering their children for adoption, had a particularly telling experience
with Family Circle. He accepted an assignment to write his own story of
surrendering his baby daughter, but his editor originally rejected the piece
because, factuality notwithstanding, he had painted too bleak a picture of his
daughter's mother and her willingness to give the baby up. The editor told Jon
to re-write the story and emphasized that the experience for the mother needed
to be as painful for her as it was for Jon.
< color="#000000" size="2">... Sometimes the media's
anti-male bias is active and purposeful; at other times it is based on ignorance
and intimidation more than on prejudice. But either way the media have
contributed to what writer Davidson has called "a serious impoverishment of
public discussion" on the societal issues arising from the politics of
gender, not the least of which are the crucial questions surrounding the
deteriorating American Family.
< color="#000000" size="2">What is the remedy for
all of this? Several steps seem warranted. Journalism's professional conventions
should include workshops and presentations which recognize gender bias against
men, journalism schools and associations should educate their students and
members to be as aware of anti-male bias as they are of any other kind,
foundations -- such as the Gannett Foundation which finances Women, Men and
Media -- should fund projects designed to identify and eliminate sexism against
men, and most importantly, editors, reporters and writers on the front lines
must develop the confidence and determination to assert that journalistic
fairness includes fairness to men and requires no "free ride" or
special treatment for women.