Media Discrimination Begets Biased Content

 

The mainstream media often enlists women to proclaim that the wage gap is either the fault of feminists (Kate O’Beirne’s National Review article “59 Cents, and Other Rot - A look at some feminist myths” is typical of headlines in conservative magazines and major corporate news outlets alike), or something women bring on themselves. The New York Times regularly publishes such widely debunked yet influential stories as Lisa Belkin’s “The Opt-Out Revolution,” which posited that women have little interest in the responsibility or stress of working life, and Louise Story’s “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood,” which declared that female college students plan to forgo careers while their children are young. Even the progressive media plays this game: in the American Prospect Linda Hirshman argued that inequity in the workplace is the fault of feminists who gave women the “choice” to “opt-out.”

 

To understand the media-wide campaign to discredit working women’s anti-discrimination complaints, we have to look behind the news and into the industry that produces it.

 

In Getting Even, Evelyn Murphy and E.J. Graff describe the problem of “pink collar” tracks in white collar professions, in which women are steered toward lower paying, lower profile jobs within the corporate, academic and nonprofit arenas. They could have been writing about the media itself. According to various studies, women are just fifteen percent of sources interviewed on nightly newscasts, eleven percent of Sunday morning debate show guests, a quarter of syndicated columnists (and even fewer on the op-ed pages), and only five percent of top executives and twelve percent of board members at Fortune 500 communications companies.

 

Compounding the effects of these grim numbers, women journalists are steered toward “soft” beats such as fashion, lifestyle, and “women’s issues” (the latter, maddeningly, are considered as lightweight as the former), while men are called upon to report on and opine about the red meat issues of politics, global economics, and war. Take a guess which beat pays more, gets front-page placement or top broadcast story glory, and commands greater respect?

 

Beyond tracking female journalists into “pink collar” positions, male editors and news managers often replicate themselves by choosing men they know – usually from their own ethnicity and class background – to fill positions, rather than doing public searches. And in boys-club newsrooms, women are penalized for what Murphy and Graff call “working while female,” a phrase that recalls ‘70s-era class-action lawsuits to force the New York Times and other major outlets to allow women journalists out of the steno pools and into reportorial, editorial and managerial jobs.

 

Further, it’s an open secret that media women must not age on the job. In the early 1980s, California TV anchor Christine Craft was fired for being “too old, too ugly and not deferential enough to men.” Currently, top-performing Weather Channel meteorologist Marny Stanier, who is 41 years old, is suing the network for sacking her after a senior vice president complained that their female weathercasters looked “matronly and dowdy” and said he wanted on-air talent to be “younged up.” Instead of being a subject of outrage, this kind of illegal discrimination against media women is presented as fodder for adolescent, late night humor: NBC’s Conan O’Brien quipped that the Weather Channel fired Stanier for being “partly saggy with a chance of menopause.”

 

The way the media industry treats its female workers limits the ability of the U.S. press to accurately convey the true costs and impact of workplace gender discrimination. When female journalists are subjected to such a wide range of discriminatory practices – and when women are marginalized in newsrooms, executive suites, and corporate media boards – it’s no surprise that news outlets blame women for the wage gap, the glass ceiling, and the so-called “mommy wars,” rather than aggressively reporting the need for legal accountability on the part of discriminatory employers.

—Jennifer L. Pozner

 

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