former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

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THE BLOG: Dear Aaron, about your “woman problem”…

In Blog on September 2, 2012 at 7:40 pm

Dear Aaron,

I have been entertained by The Newsroom these past weeks.  I could overlook the fact that The Newsroom did not, in fact, resemble any newsroom I had ever worked in.  But then again, my experience had been in print journalism, not broadcast.  So perhaps broadcast newsrooms have more paper hearts for Valentine’s Day than a typical day care center, and people in broadcast share their life secrets and dating history spontaneously and almost continuously.

I grew somewhat fond of the plot lines, and could tolerate the endless references to Don Quixote, when I would have preferred H.L. Mencken. I could even suspend disbelief and imagine a news environment entirely devoid of cynicism and black humor.

But what I can’t forgive is the mess you make of your women journalists.

I realize that young women bloggers were on to this sexism long before I was.  My daughter opened my eyes, and referred me to posts on The Hairpin like this one.

But now that I’ve been sensitized, I have gotten more and more angry.

Sexism in journalism has had a long and storied history. It still is not entirely dead, so how you portray women in the news matters.  We haven’t achieved that level of professional security where we can just laugh it off.

Early in my own career, I was turned down for a reporting job in a very small town in upstate New York because the editor said he “wanted to replace a man with a man.”  By then, there were laws in place that would have permitted me to sue that editor for sex discrimination.  But what would have that gotten me in the long run?  Damages, maybe, but also a reputation in the news business for being “difficult.”  So I didn’t sue.

When I interviewed women journalists for my book, Out of the News, I realized how prevalent the gender discrimination has been.  While some benefited by being mentored by women who were pioneers in the field, others still bore the brunt of unequal treatment with men into the 1980s, 1990s and even the 21st century.   Beverley Lumpkin is a good example of a talented reporter who faced sexism her entire career.  Although she’d done extensive investigative work for congressional oversight committees and ABC’s 20/20 newsmagazine, Lumpkin was stuck on stakeouts when she took a job with ABC’s Washington news bureau, waiting to shout a question to newsmakers as they emerged from their homes or offices.  It was nearly a year before she got substantive news assignments.  Her reportorial skill and expertise covering the Department of Justice never earned her an on-air reporting position on the prime-time network news shows, and after more than 20 years of service, when the bureau was cutting costs, she was one of the “older” women journalists who were let go.

Just last month, a survey revealed that about 75 percent of the print stories about the 2012 presidential campaign have been written by men, during an election when the voting bloc most dear to the candidates of both parties is the “women’s” vote.

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