(WOMENSENEWS)–This year crackled with sharp, often angry discussion of media’s treatment of women as newsmakers, news analysts and popular culture images. A review of the year convinced me that women’s marginalization is rampant in our 24-7, 360-degree media world.
The first reality check came in February, when University of Southern California professor and commentator Susan Estrich went public with her complaints to Los Angeles Times editorial page editor Michael Kinsley about the sorry lack of female voices on the Times’ op-ed pages.
That got many in and out of journalism to start counting women’s bylines on newspaper columns everywhere, a probe that spread to counting pundits on television public affairs talk shows as well and prompted Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy to convene a year-end summit in Washington to discuss the problem.
Adding to the consternation was a study released in May, funded by the Pew Charitable Trust, that examined 16 newspapers, four nightly newscasts, three network morning news shows, nine different cable programs and nine Web sites for nine months. It showed that three-quarters (76 percent) of all stories studied contained at least one male source, but just a third (33 percent) contained a female source.
Other tracking efforts showed more unhappy disparities.
Ruth Davis Konigsberg, a deputy editor at Glamour, began counting male and female bylines in Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair and The Atlantic Monthly. Between September and mid-December, she had counted 468 male bylines to 154 female bylines. Columbia Journalism Review this past summer also published male-female byline ratios for individual magazines over a 19-month period: they ranged from an appalling 13-1 at National Review to 7-1 at Harper’s to 4-1 at The New Yorker to 2-1 at CJR itself.
In television, the percentage of female news directors declined. In the latest figures available, women were just 21.3 percent of news directors at U.S. television stations. Women working at U.S. newspapers constituted about 37 percent of newsroom staffs in 2005, a number that has been virtually flat since the 21st century started. With many newspapers currently making deep cuts in staffing, there is real concern that opportunities for women will be even further foreclosed.
In December, Washingtonian magazine, which keeps score of the fourth estate’s prowess in the nation’s capital, produced its testosterone-heavy lineup of Washingtonian’s Top 50 Best and Most Influential Journalists. Just seven of those selected are women. Worse, on its list of a dozen up-and-coming journalists women were stunning in their scarcity: only 2 out of 12.
Annoying Style Scrutiny
Throughout 2005, women in public life continued to receive an annoying amount of scrutiny about their personal style, as if it were a resume item that required vetting.
Washington Post reporter Robin Givhan, writing about U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit to troops in Wiesbaden, Germany, gushed Barbara Cartland-style, about Rice’s military-style coat and high-heeled leather boots: "Rice’s coat and boots speak of sex and power; such a volatile combination, and one that in political circles rarely leads to anything but scandal."
Givhan also wrote patronizingly about President Bush’s first Supreme Court nominee, Harriet Miers, practically blaming her failure to advance to the high court on Miers’ "clumsy merger of Washington’s particular brand of stodgy power-dressing with one of the iconic markers of gender: dark-rimmed, look-at-me eyes."
Some of the cattiest chatter in the media was reserved for Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, when she journeyed to the United States in November. The 58-year-old wife of Charles, Prince of Wales, received the full DI-agnosis. By most accounts, she passed. But the column inches and video wasted on it all! This type of slavish attention to manufactured celebrity crowds out important and worthwhile stories about women and girls.
Sports Illustrated’s perennial swimsuit issue appeared in February with a new "innovation": swimsuit model trading cards. They’re formatted like baseball cards, but with photos of young women, only without the uniforms or much clothing at all.
Pinup Mentality in Sports Media
The pinup mentality is alive and well elsewhere in sports media.
In April, South Florida Sun-Sentinel writer Jim Sarni complained that conventional standards of beauty still too often trump skill in the appraisal of and attention paid to female athletes. Writing about the Nasdaq 100 tennis tournament then under way, he said, "ESPN can’t get enough of Maria Sharapova, but the network is biased toward the men. It aired a men’s quarterfinal over the second women’s semifinal."
And ABCNEWS national correspondent Dean Reynolds couldn’t resist describing racing rookie Danica Patrick, who came in fourth in the Indianapolis 500 in May, as embodying "the intersection of speed and sex appeal."
Still, there were bright spots in 2005.
Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Connie Schultz won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for commentary as questions about the small number of female-authored commentaries raged. In December, though, Schultz’s boss, Editor Doug Clifton, raised potential conflict-of-interest issues about Schultz’s position at the newspaper and her husband’s candidacy for U.S. Senate. Schultz has said she doesn’t believe a male columnist with a political wife would have been singled out the same way.
At last, TV viewers received an alternative to "West Wing" President Josiah Bartlet: Mackenzie Allen, the female "Commander in Chief." The television drama debuted in September to enthusiastic audiences. Despite time-slot competition from the hugely popular "House," "Commander" remains in the top 20 most-watched prime-time broadcasts.
After The White House Project’s 2001 study of the paltry number of women invited to appear on Sunday morning public affairs programs, CBS in particular pledged to improve its record. In the follow-up study released in 2005, CBS had made the most improvement of all the networks, increasing its female guests to 18 percent from 9 percent.
Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, informed of Konigsberg’s male-female byline ratios (34-12 for Vanity Fair), pledged to balance assignments between the sexes.
This look at 2005 should prompt some New Year’s resolutions. Here are mine: Use e-mail to tell editors and programmers as soon as you see what you do and don’t like. Use it also to express your support for media women and men who are producing content you value, and copy their bosses. Challenge the assumptions that keep women off the best-of lists. Hold editors such as Graydon Carter to their promises.
So get ready. The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue will be out in just a few weeks. It’s time to sharpen that poison pen.
Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism" (Strata Publishing), which received the "Texty" Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association, and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World" (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, publishers).
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For more information:
Ratio of male to female writers in national "general interest" magazines:
"Multi-media tune-out: Ignoring female expertise":
"Female Op-Ed Journalists Should Ignite Fireball":