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A Powerful Media Can Stop a War

January 16, 2007

I want to share a story.  I wonder how many know the name, Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi.  How many know who she was? Abeer was a 14-old-girl, living with her family about 50 miles south of Baghdad, trying to grow up as best she could in a country ravaged by violence and war. Until March 12, 2006, when her life was cruelly cut short. On that night, five American soldiers, dressed all in black, allegedly burst into the home where Abeer lived with her family. After spending the evening drinking whiskey mixed with energy drinks and playing cards, the soldiers must have decided to execute the crime they allegedly had been planning for weeks.  According to the charges, the men took turns raping 14-year-old Abeer before shooting her. In the next room, her mother, her father, and her five-year-old sister were executed. When the men were done, they drenched the bodies in kerosene and set them on fire. Then, the prosecutors say, they went back to base and grilled up some chicken wings for dinner. It was months before this crime came to light. The cold-blooded murder of Abeer and her family is a tragedy. But it’s almost as great a tragedy when her story, and all the other stories that are difficult to hear and difficult to accept, are buried in the back of the news pages—quickly shuffled off the nightly news by politicians and their handlers desperate to change the subject. Or never told at all. Like so many Americans, I have felt frustrated and betrayed by the state of the mainstream media in this country— media whose priorities seem out of step with their responsibilities. Media must be the defenders of democracy. We need a media that strengthens democracy, not a media that strengthens the government. We need a media that enriches public discourse, not one that enriches corporations. There’s a big difference. When we talk about reforming the media, what we’re really talking about is creating a media that is powerful, not a media that serves the interests of the powerful; a media that is so powerful that it can speak for the powerless, bear witness for those who are invisible in our world, and memorialize those who would be forgotten. A truly powerful media is one that can stop a war, not start one. As Bill Moyers said at this very conference last year, “the quality of democracy and the quality of journalism are deeply entwined.” But when the media does not reflect the vibrant diversity of the people on this planet, both the quality of journalism and the quality of our democracy suffer. At this National Conference on Media Reform, our shared goal of creating a truly progressive, democratic media—vital, fair, investigative, and truth-telling—is ultimately unreachable if we do not address the persistent, pervasive inequalities that exist in media. These inequalities exist even outside of mainstream media, even in the alternative and independent press. The existence of independent media has been severely threatened. We’ve seen a new concentration of media ownership in conservative hands, and the erosion and elimination of federal regulations that promoted a diversity of viewpoints. This has weakened our country—morally, physically, and spiritually. The Free Press has done a great deal to show how people of color have increasingly been marginalized as media monopolies grow.  It’s shown how ownership of television and radio stations by people of color is at its lowest levels since the government began keeping track; how a scant 13 percent of newspapers in this nation employ people of color in the same percentage as their readership; and how issues affecting diverse communities have been underreported and ignored. But the media environment that is overwhelmingly white is also overwhelmingly male. And a media that leaves women out is fundamentally, crucially flawed. Why?  Simply because you can’t tell the whole story when you leave out half the population. Health care.  Social Security.  Bankruptcy laws.  Education.  Minimum Wage. The War.  All these things, and many more, affect women differently than they do men. All issues are “women’s issues.” Yet the absence of women in the media is glaring. From the reporter’s desk to the executive suite, women are missing. Just one-third of news items—this includes print, broadcast, and Internet news—cite a female source. During the coverage of the 2004 election, journalists were more than twice as likely to turn to a male source than to a woman. When you switch on the political talk shows on Sunday morning, only one in nine guests is a woman—and women are more likely to be relegated to the back half of shows, when fewer people are watching. Women’s viewpoints are regarded as supplemental, not essential, to the story. The op-ed pages are notoriously barren of female voices.  Too often, there is an unspoken quota of one. If there is one woman op-ed writer, one Maureen Dowd or one Anne Applebaum, or if there is one person of color on staff reporting on issues important to minority communities, then the quota is filled. One reason for this is that women usually aren’t the ones calling the shots. Women news directors manage only a quarter of TV newsrooms and account for fewer than 10 percent of board members of the major media and communications companies. And, astonishingly, women only hold 3 percent of so-called “clout” titles—positions with the power to determine budgets and make decisions. These numbers have hardly changed since 1999. In the past eight years, there has been almost no increase in women in the newsroom, in both print and television news. And the sad fact is, most people don’t realize there’s a problem. After decades of activism, I’ve come to see how deeply our lives, our politics, and the choices we are allowed to make are dictated by gender. The media didn’t create gender stereotypes, but it reinforces and perpetuates them. And I believe the absence of an understanding of the role gender plays in everything allows inequality to continue on in silence. Gender inequality is so deeply ingrained in our culture that we tend to consider it a fact of life, as something that can be explained away by bogus biology or deterministic arguments. This is the real danger of conservatism—not so much its resistance to change, but its denial of even the possibility of change. Not just another voice, but a megaphone . . . After the 2004 election, Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, and I decided that it was high time to challenge the status quo. Joining with other media activists, scholars, and professionals, we created the Women’s Media Center (WMC) to make change happen. The WMC has two missions.  The first is to make women visible: to ensure that the concerns and opinions of the female half of the world are seen and heard in all media.  The second is to make women powerful: to support and assist women media professionals as they advance to the highest levels of their fields—in print and on the radio, on TV and in the film industry, in advertising, in public relations, in publishing, and on the Internet. There are many media enterprises produced by women for women—cable’s Oxygen network, To The Contrary on PBS, magazines like Bust and Ms., organizations like Women in Media and News, web sites like Feminist.com and Women’s eNews, and countless others, too many to name. There is no shortage of terrific writers, editors, journalists, and scholars who report women’s experiences fairly, accurately, and passionately. When we created the Women’s Media Center, our goal was not to add another voice to the chorus.  What we want to be is a megaphone. We want to be the infrastructure that can monitor, coordinate, facilitate, and amplify women’s role in the media. The first thing we did was build a website.  Womensmediacenter.com links to daily headlines and breaking news. We also offer our own exclusives and original content. Last spring, we broke the story of the attempt to ban abortion in South Dakota.  Womensmediacenter.com knits together the universe of women’s media: linking to female columnists and bloggers, women’s media organizations, and other news sources.  And we’re expanding Greenstone Media, a women’s radio network that will broadcast from coast to coast. As Gloria Steinem put it, “If we don’t learn to use the media, mainstream and alternate, global and local—and by ‘use’ I mean monitor, infiltrate, replace, protest, teach with, create our own, whatever the situation demands—we will not only be invisible in the present, but absent from history’s first draft.” This goes not only for feminists, but also for all true progressives. Have you heard of the Leadership Institute?  That’s the right-wing think-tank and boot camp in Virginia that has coached countless spokespeople and so-called experts on how to stick to the party line. Eighty percent of expert guests on TV news shows come from far-right think tanks like the Leadership Institute.  Knowing this, is it any surprise that it’s been so hard for us to frame the issues and set the terms of the debate? As progressives, one of our tactics must be to forge alliances that challenge the disproportionate influence of these far-right groups in the media. And so at the Women’s Media Center, collaboration is our weapon of choice. In August of 2005, we worked with Mother Jones magazine to help them create a special issue on violence against women. And, as the chronicle of Hurricane Katrina and the levee failure in New Orleans continues to be written, we're working with the Journalism and Women Symposium, the Ms. Foundation, and Common Ground to make sure that women's experiences aren't left out of history's first draft. The Ms. Foundation has commissioned a reporter to gather women's stories of living through the storms and their long aftermath—the disaster conditions that so many women still face more than a year later. These stories will appear on our site as well as the Ms. Foundation site, and we’ll continue to report on this until these women have recovered from the devastation. Because a good pitch can mean the difference between a front page story and one that never sees print, in partnership with other organizations, we’re creating a rapid response mechanism to pitch women’s stories with women as sources. And we’re also working alongside Women’s eNews to promote op-ed pieces. The Women’s Media Center really is a center—a place for media professionals and consumers to come together in New York City. We’ve brought top producers and bookers in the television industry together to talk about increasing women’s presence in the news. We host a luncheon series. And we provide a workspace for journalists and reporters. A media scrambling to tell “both” sides of a story often leaves out the women’s side. We must be aware of the inequity that is so invisible precisely because it is so much in plain sight—double standards that are so pervasive and so engrained that we mistake them for the truth. It’s a funny kind of irony that a media establishment that prides itself on “balance” forgets that the world is not only divided between right and left, liberals and conservatives, red states and blue; it’s also divided by race and by gender. It is divided between men and women. And there is more than two sides to every story.  I don’t want to leave the impression that there’s an official feminist spin, or that if news is reported by a woman or written by a woman that somehow makes things equal. I won’t name names, but there are women out there who serve as ventriloquists for patriarchy.  Not coincidentally in our current media landscape, these women are likely to be asked to comment on issues affecting other women. When I talk about women’s stories, I’m talking about a plurality of perspectives—authentic voices that express women’s real concerns, the truths of our experiences, the obstacles we face. These stories are often edited or pushed to the margins in a 24-hour news cycle that shines its spotlight on celebrity pregnancies but not on challenges to reproductive rights; that lavishes attention on Condoleeza Rice’s exercise routine, but buries in the back of the morning paper stories on women’s increasingly difficult lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. A few examples will sketch a picture of what the world might look like if the female half of the world had an equal share in the media. This past summer, in separate incidents, two young women were raped and murdered in Manhattan. The mainstream media harped on the dangerous and irresponsible actions of the young women—because they went out, at night, to a bar—stopping just short of saying that they got what was coming to them. If the female half of the world were visible and powerful, those articles would not have scolded women’s so-called misbehavior. They would have focused on the real issue: male violence against women. Last month, in the Washington Post, there was a heart-breaking article by Nancy Trejos about the women’s lives in Iraq. The headline was, “Women Lose Ground in the New Iraq. Once They Were Encouraged to Study and Work; Now Life Is 'Just Like Being in Jail.'”  The article was on page A12. If the female half of the world were visible and powerful, that article would have been the lead story, on the front page and above the fold. And to return to the Abeer Al-Janabi’s tragic story. The U.S. Army wants us to believe that what happened to Abeer was just another tale of a few bad apples. One of the soldiers allegedly responsible—the purported ringleader, private Steven Green, of Midland, Texas—had a criminal record, and a history of drug abuse and emotional problems. Once, the army would have rejected him. But in 2005, desperate for recruits, they dismissed his dangerous past by granting him a so-called “moral waiver,” and accepted him into their ranks. The Women’s Media Center is the only source to keep investigating and focusing on the “moral waiver” that allowed Private Green to be trained to kill with submachine guns and rocket launchers. If the female half of the world were visible and powerful, the media would report this as the hypocrisy it is. The media would report that far from being the exception, brutal violence and rape are the wages of war—and always have been; that war may occasionally make heroes, but most often it makes victims.  I’m not saying there won’t be any more young girls who lose their lives before they really have a chance to live, but that with such reporting, we would have the power to transform the conditions that make rape and violence and war so tragically common. This is not just about breaking glass ceilings. This is about revolution. The opposite of patriarchy is not matriarchy, but democracy. And a media that leaves women out of the picture harms everyone, male and female.  No major national or international problem—from the environment to the refugee crisis, from health care to overpopulation, from the economy to violence and crime—can be approached effectively without including the needs, views, and talents of the female half of the population. The only way to build a powerful independent media—a media that can be a force for truth, for change, and for progress—is to build an equitable media. But change cannot happen without change-makers. I know you won’t let me down.

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