former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

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.

So the inequality has not gone away. And truly, Aaron, your characters aren’t helping.  Why are the women in The Newsroom the characters who are the most likely to erupt in emotional outbursts and do all the idiotic things – unable to walk through doors, screaming out their  deepest feelings to passengers on  tour buses, mistakenly sending intimate emails to unsuspecting strangers, getting visibly drunk at parties?    The women journalists I know don’t behave that way.  And contrasted even with the male journalists in your fictional newsroom, who are far from being paragons of professional rectitude, these women come across as flighty, undisciplined and just plain ditzy.

An ex-girlfriend now claims that you modeled the series’ gossip columnist after an “evil” version of her, one that she finds in some ways very accurate.   Since she recalls that she indeed was working on a ‘takedown’ of someone the gossip columns had built up when she dated you, it’s hard to see that the evil and good versions are that much different. So is that your real problem, your real-world taste in women? Certainly, it doesn’t seem like you’ve had much to do with women journalists.

I hate to say this Aaron, but Billie Newman, the soft-hearted but very competent young print reporter in Lou Grant was a way more professional role model.  For that matter, Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) presented a more credible and respectful image in the 1970s when she was a producer at a fictional station in Minneapolis. But let’s go back to 1940. Even Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson in the film classic His Girl Friday was far better. (Granted that character had been a male in the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur stage play on which it was based, but director Howard Hawks had the good sense not to muck things up in the film adaptation, and make his Hildy a needy dithering idiot.)

This is serious, Aaron.  Women’s place in journalism is not secure enough for them to be demeaned this way, even in the world’s least realistic depiction of reporting.  I don’t know what women you’ve encountered in your lifetime, but surely there must have been some who didn’t weep, get hysterical, or take the equivalent of prat falls in the office.  If that’s not been the case, do us all a favor, and find some real women journalists to talk to.  Heck, even talking to real women would be a start.


Celia Viggo Wexler

Author, Out of the News: Former Journalists Discuss a Profession in Crisis

(McFarland: 2012).

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  1. Good for you, Celia! I agree totally with your assessment.

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