Open Up White Space

 

Out on Assignment: Newspaper Women and the Making of Modern Public Space

By Alice Fahs

Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2011, 376 pp., $37.50, hardcover

 

Uncovering Race: A Black Journalist’s Story of Reporting and Reinvention

By Amy Alexander

Boston:  Beacon Press, 2011, 240 pp., $28.95, hardcover


Reviewed by Carol Sternhell

 

These two books are very different—one scholarly, the other journalistic and personal—but reading them together is oddly poignant, especially to someone like me, who still loves newspapers—the actual messy paper kind, though the ink is cleaner than it used to be, and the heady smell is gone. I found myself thinking of poetry, aging, and time.  None of which, I imagine, would be most readers’ first reactions to these earnest, informative, inside-baseball (or rather, hot-to-cold-to-virtual-type) stories.  But let’s not bury the lead:  where a century ago women journalists found a new freedom, visibility, and power in the “public space” of newspapers, today that space is cramped and disappearing.  Journalists of all genders and races must explore newer frontiers—must, like Amy Alexander, “reinvent” themselves.  (It’s no accident that Alexander’s bio describes her—a former newspaper journalist—as a “content producer.”  Sigh.)

In Out on Assignment, Alice Fahs, a professor of history at the University of California–Irvine, tells the first part of this story. Around the turn of the last century, women journalists began writing for newspapers in large numbers, claiming both metaphorical and literal space formerly reserved for men.  Leaving the domestic sphere, they went “out on assignment,” licensed by their work to explore.  “One of the chief fascinations of newspaper work was the wide public exposure it gave women,” Fahs comments.  “Involving an expansive relationship to public space, turn-of-the-century newspaper work was dramatically different from women’s mid-nineteenth-century literary and journalistic work, which had emphasized privacy and the home.” Whether disruptively using the “woman’s page” itself to criticize the banality of women’s pages, interviewing other working women about the world of work, or charming snakes and scaling bridges like “stunt girl” Kate Swan, women journalists were marking new territory.

As Fahs explains,

Newspaper women of that era emphasized new forms of selfhood centered around freedom and independence (even if that freedom was often a fantasy).  They rejected much of earlier sentimental culture, with its emphasis on the importance of a domain of privacy for women. Through their work they instead sought to live their lives in public—both the public spaces of the city and public spaces of print.  In the process they created distinctive modes of modern selfhood.

 

Out on Assignment is in many ways a gift to journalism historians.  Fahs seems to have unearthed every single newspaper story with a female byline appearing in a mainstream big-city paper between the mid-1880s and about 1910; she quotes avidly, introduces us to the writers, and provides social and political context.  (Although I teach courses on Women and the Media, many of these journalists were brand-new names to me.)  This approach is both exhaustive and at times exhausting—it’s not a book for nonspecialists—but it’s a pleasure getting a peek at some largely hidden history.  The pure excitement many of these journalists felt about their new careers may be particularly moving to those of us who live in more dispiriting times.  Fahs quotes the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Zona Gale, talking about her early newspaper work in New York:  “I shall never forget my thrill at the phrase cover it.” Or Edna Ferber, who worked briefly as a reporter before turning to fiction:  “I wouldn’t swap that year and a half of small-town newspaper reporting for any four years of college education.”

How is it that so few of these women are known today?  As Fahs comments,

Given the prominence of many of them—some were nationally syndicated columnists—they might have been surprised by their invisibility today.  After all, they were not powerless; they were overwhelmingly white and therefore racially privileged in American society; they were largely though not exclusively middle-class; and, crucially, they left behind a substantial body of published writings in their newspaper articles.

 

Fahs blames their invisibility both on the (familiar to feminist readers) devaluation of women and on the (less familiar) devaluation of newspapers by cultural critics.   The women were dismissed as “sob sisters,” trapped in the ghetto of the woman’s page.  The newspapers were dismissed as “sensational,” of much less cultural interest than books or film.  “But why not instead explore newspapers as one of the great public spaces of entertainment in turn-of-the-century cities?” Fahs asks.  “Why not explore how they created ‘sensation’ and how they fit into a larger emerging culture of leisure?” Putting newspaper women on the front page, Fahs notes, may challenge traditional interpretations of history:

Newspaper women especially celebrated “experience”—which forces us to rethink some of our assumptions about turn-of-the-century literary history, as well.  We often tell a narrative of “masculinization” in this period, pointing out that numerous male authors embraced new values of rough readiness and the strenuous life, even as they repudiated an earlier sentimental literature they associated with female authors.  But newspaper women, too, embraced a strenuous life; they, too, rejected an earlier Victorian sentimentalism; they, too, explored an expansive new relationship to public space.

 

Out on Assignment is more encyclopedic than narrative, an approach that sometimes makes it a bit numbing.  A chapter called “Human Interest” catalogues all the women who wrote slice-of-life feature stories, color pieces, and profiles of ordinary people.  “Adventure” surveys all sorts of “death-defying” reporting, from undercover exposés to stunts like dangling from bridges or spending the night in a burial vault.  In each chapter, Fahs has pretty much the same insight:  once again, women journalists have entered/created/claimed “public space.”  Human interest journalists “created an important new social space within the pages of the newspaper.” Their daredevil sisters illustrate “the ways in which newspapers became a new public space of adventure for newspaper women.” As women covered the fight for suffrage, “The woman’s page was one of the public spaces of the suffrage movement”; indeed, “In striving for political representation for all women, newspaper women simultaneously created new public representation for themselves: after all, in each fresh article they inhabited a new public space in print.”

 

All this space may have been a new frontier for women—but only if the women were white.  As Fahs notes, there were “absolute (if unstated) barriers to African American women on the major metropolitan papers.” Many African American women, including the great antilynching activist Ida B. Wells, were writing for and editing newspapers during this period, but these were mainly “race” newspapers.  The big-circulation, big-city papers remained overwhelmingly white.  Public space, yes, but in restricted neighborhoods.

A century of struggle later—a good overview of this history can be found in my colleague Pamela Newkirk’s book Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media (2000)—the gates had opened, but unexpected boulders blocked many paths.  When the young Amy Alexander, “a child of the post–civil rights era,” enthusiastically embarked on a reporting career, she tells us in Uncovering Race, “It did not occur to me that the world of journalism might not be open to people like me:  a black woman from a working-class family who would not attend an Ivy League university.”  Older and sadder, she realizes that her years as the only black female reporter on the metropolitan staff of her hometown paper “marked the beginning of a long, Conradian journey through the heart of darkness of American news organizations.”

Uncovering Race is a hybrid:  partly about mainstream media’s racial biases and blind spots (including the still discouraging underrepresentation of journalists of color), partly about the recent collapse of so many traditional news organizations in the face of new technology, and partly about Alexander’s personal story.  The personal angle makes the book engaging, of course—I always love a good-human interest story (and in fact went Googling to figure out the name of Alexander’s mysterious “Hubby”)—but also complicates the picture (as personal stories often tend to do).

When Alexander isn’t hired by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, for instance, is it because of race, because of a changing media environment, or because she tells the editor interviewing her “in direct language that I hoped was honest without sounding unduly judgmental or resentful” that the paper is “by my lights more a booster than a snapping watchdog”? When she leaves the Fresno Bee for the Miami Herald, is it because a hostile white editor inserted inflammatory language (“savage” and “rampaging”) into her painstakingly balanced stories on the riots that shook Los Angeles after four white police officers were acquitted in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, or is it because she “had become twitchy and short-tempered and was drinking too much,” or it because her new “Romantic Prospect” worked for the Herald? When a Herald editor takes her off her beloved minority affairs beat and sends her out to a suburban bureau, is the problem race or personality? “I didn’t think of myself as a diva,” she writes, “but somehow my reputation had entered that territory.  My closest reporter friends cautioned me against becoming a grumbler.”

I don’t mean to grumble either:  in real life it’s difficult to separate these issues.  The personal is political, the political is personal, and on-the-job racism or sexism can make anyone feel twitchy, short-tempered, and badly in need of a drink.  Many journalists will identify with Alexander’s story as she moves from newspapers to online magazines to blogs.  The entire profession is undergoing “reinvention” these days.

Nevertheless—and here’s the “nut ’graph,” the key news in Alexander’s analysis—the new online, interactive media world of blogs and tweets poses particular difficulties for journalists of color.  Traditional journalists have long been drilled in the importance of “objectivity,” the (now largely discredited) idea that journalists should express no opinions of their own, simply “report.”  (My colleague Jay Rosen calls this the “view from nowhere” model of journalism.)  The new world of blogs, on the other hand, is bristling with opinions.  This transition is difficult for many traditionally trained journalists, but it is particularly wrenching for journalists of color, who for years or even decades may have had to defend their “objectivity” to white editors. Just as male editors often assumed that women reporters were “biased” on the subject of feminism—but male reporters were “unbiased”—white editors often assume that black reporters—but not white reporters—are biased on the subject of race.  As Alexander explains:

Because most of us had learned to carry any agendas lightly, we old-school journalists of color still felt uncomfortable at the prospect of completely “coming out” with any crusades, whether in print or via online sites.  This reluctance, in my view, is the inevitable result—a form of battle scars—of having worked in mainstream news organizations, where black journalists were often penalized for betraying any hint of an agenda when covering race or class issues.

 

In this era of industry retrenchment, Alexander notes, journalists of color are particularly vulnerable.  Locked out of the profession in earlier eras, as we saw in Out on Assignment, today journalists of color—“rare birds to begin with”—are the first to be laid off.   “Only after the tumultuous 1960s and the publication of the Kerner Commission’s report on the urban riots of that era did big news outfits begin hiring blacks and Latinos in measurable numbers,” Alexander comments.  “Now our ranks are shrinking faster and more dramatically than those of white journalists amid the massive downsizing that is taking place in mainstream media.”

Where most—OK, virtually all—analysts blame the struggles of old-school print media on the digital revolution, Alexander points to the “obtuseness” of these institutions on the subject of race.  “While everybody had an opinion about what led to the drop of revenue and readership at legacy news organizations, few dared to suggest that the mainstream media’s historic inability to focus on minorities might have played a role in the downturn as ethnic communities nationwide expanded,” she argues. In this analysis, if the traditional news media had done a better job of covering people of color in the first place, they might not be in so much trouble now—a trouble that disproportionately affects journalists of color.

An old-school shoe-leather newspaper woman might write “-30-” here—the story’s over, in journalism jargon—but I tend to be more of an optimist.  In the most literal sense, the public space created by newspapers—numbers of pages and column inches—has contracted, but what killed it, paradoxically, is the expansion of truly public space on a previously unimaginable scale.  The actual public has claimed the space.  Readers have become writers, audience has become performer, reinvention has become the story.  (How anyone is going to make a living in this dizzying arena isn’t clear.) But we need to stake our territory now and make sure the new frontiers aren’t colonized by the same old crowd, the ones Alexander calls “the white men who have always defined Serious Journalism in the United States.” This story isn’t over.  Instead of

-30-, let’s say “More.”

 

Carol Sternhell teaches in the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, where she was the founding director of the undergraduate women’s studies major in NYU’s College of Arts and Science.

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