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Rule No. 1 for Getting Media to Call You: Be a Man

5 years ago
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Say you're a glowing 45-year-old bombshell, coasting off your first Oscar win, when suddenly, you're walloped by a piece of terrible news. Your grease-monkey husband, a tabloid darling, has been found cheating with a Swastika-bedecked pinup girl.

Most of the Western world -- even those now weary of the seemingly endless parade of errant husbands and their sexting buddies -- is consumed with sympathy. (C'mon! Oscar! Swastika!) Nonetheless, it will only take a few weeks for professional sermonizer-columnist David Brooks to parry your story into a neat marital parable, on the august pages of The New York Times, no less. Dear Ms. Bullock: Not only would that Oscar have never made you happy. Apparently, you made a "trade" between that and your marriage -- and you chose wrong.

Now, say you're Alicia Shepard, ombudswoman for one of the leading independent news providers in the nation, National Public Radio. In your role as official watchperson and caller-outer of your employer, you make a startling and disturbing discovery: NPR chooses men over women both as on-air commentators and sources by a ratio of nearly 3 to 1.

While a battery of outside media experts support your view, the response of "Morning Edition" host Steve Inskeep is at once dubious, accusatory and irritable: "You yourself acknowledge that if more men appear, it may reflect 'societal' factors, like the preponderance of men in certain fields . . . So I just find this study really unsatisfying, and wish you'd take it back for further refinement."

As Deb Garrison put it so well in her 1998 book of poems of the same name, a working girl can't win. Because while from the outside, these two stories seem to share little apart from the letter "O" -- Oscar, Ombudswoman -- they're simply two sides of the same coin. In both instances, working women have been done wrong. And in both cases, the response has been to look elsewhere.

As dutiful People and Us readers know (yes, David, real political pundits read Us), Brooks' work-versus-family dichotomy is not only false but poorly researched. Sandra Bullock was famously adored by ex-wives and stepchildren, and routinely attended James' monster truck rallies with trucker hat firmly in place. Not to mention James' cheating -- you don't say! -- predated her Oscar win by years. Brooks' clumsy, kick-'em-when-they're-down column seems of a piece with his equally sympathetic suggestion that Haitians take a break from burying the dead to also acknowledge responsibility for their moral failings.

But it's Inskeep's response to Shepard's study that's more disturbing -- especially since, as Shepard notes, "NPR is often regarded -- and certainly regards itself -- as a leader in the diversity of voices and opinions it puts on air."

Nearly two decades in the scrupulously liberal worlds of book publishing, journalism and academia have convinced me that there's nothing more insidious than anyone under the impression they're free of bias. When you don't acknowledge your default preferences, they have a certain nasty little habit of becoming Universal Truths. Witness Inskeep lay out a list of entirely self-generated obstacles for why men are overrepresented on his show: " . . . There are some obvious go-to guys on NPR, many of whom tend to be guys. Speaking only for myself, sometimes it's hard work to make sure that my stories include a wide range of people, including women. I think I do better than I used to, but not well enough."

There you are -- it's not that Inskeep himself is biased in favor of men. It's that men just are the go-to guys, and finding anyone else who can match up to their inherent go-to-itude is hard going. In the pursuit of general uplift, however, he will continue to bravely soldier on.

My dear friend, the journalist Laura Lippmann, who worked for more than 20 years as a reporter at The Baltimore Sun, is fond of joking that, to white male reporters, a newsroom built on a meritocracy looks like a group of white male reporters -- and any concession to other sexes, ages, colors and sizes is merely a brave exercise in Affirmative Action. (The sentiment is sprinkled even in the comments of Shepard's post, in which Pete from Utah kindly affirms, "It may be a good thing to have more affirmative action for women sources. Such efforts always have a cost . . .")

But it's much pleasanter to believe one is inherently more go-to-able than one's peers, drat those peskily politically incorrect stats, than acknowledging one is simply the beneficiary of the positive side of bias. (It's like being told you got the job because of your terrific rack, without even getting to have a terrific rack.)

Inskeep makes a brave stab at establishing why the 3-to-1 male-to-female ratio in the study may be misleading. He'd like us to consider that study authors may have given equal weight to interviews with Tina Brown and President Obama, while in fact, the interview with Brown was eight minutes long, while Obama's was only eight seconds.

If Shepard refined the study, as Inskeep suggests, "Probably you'd still find men getting more attention than women," Inskeep allows. But Shepard is talking about air time, not attention -- and women can't get attention without airtime.
"Maybe you'd even identify specific areas where (male commentators) fall short.," Inskeep continued. Because if men are falling short, it's OK that they get more than their fair share airtime?

But the greater question remains: Why is a prominent journalist in a field whose ruling tenet is to remain bias-free so resistant to correcting a glaring example of it?

I am particularly sensitive to the practice of male sources being privileged over female ones at NPR because I myself once most unjustly fell victim to it. Last summer, I published "Shelf Discovery," a paean to the great teen classics I read as a girl. Most of the books discussed have girl protagonists, and most are written by women. When it was published, I was frankly bemused to find this "mostly women" thing irked a number of male reviewers, who seemed to take it as a personal affront that I hadn't divvied up my attentions equally by gender -- even though the point of the book was that many of the works had been ignored because they were by and for women.

By the time NPR's "Talk of the Nation" very generously had me on to discuss the book, I was used to the "What about the boys?" question. (And I'd adequately refined my answer to politely indicate that someone interested in that might choose to write a book about it, someday.) But I found it curious when, in Neal Conan's weekly recap of the shows, NPR featured listener Chip Warden rhapsodizing about his own childhood reads, the very male, sci-fi writers Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, plus a litany of their XY contemporaries.

It was a very sweet and thoughtful response -- "Your discussion has given me a new appreciation of this genre and fond memories of my own shelf discoveries" -- but, no offense to Mr. Warden, the last time I checked, Isaac Asimov's books were still thriving, as is the entire field of sci-fi. My book was about a lost genre in which girls and female writers reigned supreme, and whose books are now mostly out of print. Nonetheless, NPR (which frequently, it needs be said, lets me use Web and airtime to discuss girl things both goofy and profound) still wanted to make sure the men didn't get forgotten. Even though they had nothing to do with the book or the story at all.

It's enough to make you wonder if women are really underrepresented -- or if this campaign for equal time by and on the behalf of menfolk (You know! Go-to guys!) has simply resulted in a massive overrepresentation.

An experiment of sorts I conducted this year indicates this might be the case. In November, I wrote about the disturbing trend of men winning way more book prizes than they obviously deserved, and how disgusted I'd been when, last year, a literary contest which I helped judge gave the entire slate of prizes to male writers.

This year, I began my campaign early. I joked: "Remember how we gave the prizes to all men last year? I'll shut off the Web site if that happens again, ha ha ha!" I cajoled: "Remember how we gave the prizes to all men last year? Let's try to think carefully as we judge this year." I bullied: "OK, so last year . . .?" I vigorously campaigned on the behalf of my authors, lining up votes behind the scenes, and I defended them vociferously -- nay, grandly -- against petty naysayers. At one point, a friend told me, "I think you might be overdoing it." "Oh, good!" I responded. "That's the whole point!"

I don't think I can take, um, all the credit, but this year, six out of eight winners were female. Watching them take the stage to accept awards for their valuable work, instead of being overlooked, was a marvelous feeling, even if I'd had to take one for the team and be the most annoying person in the world to do my part (whatever that was) to make it happen.

I'm glad to see that NPR has tasked a staff member, Carol Klinger, with scouting for more diverse voices, but I'm not sure if one person can effect real change across an organization. Women everywhere need to get used to lobbying for ladies as energetically as men lobby for their own. After all, as the men who make a career of wheel-squeaking could tell you, there are worse things than annoying everyone else with your own opinion. You could never be asked your opinion at all.
Filed Under: Woman Up

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