An Interview with Carol Jenkins

It’s no secret that the media is dominated by men. The sexist treatment of Clinton and Palin in the election coverage is only one example of how women are viewed as less seriously as men, and certainly as less important in what we consider news. And while the treatment of women in news coverage is abominable, the story behind the scenes in news rooms isn’t much better.

Carol Jenkins, the founding president of the Women’s Media Center, knows all about it, and is working hard to combat it. The Women’s Media Center is a nonprofit advocacy organization that was founded in 2004 to make women more powerful in the media. She is also an Emmy award winning former television anchor and correspondent.

Ms. Jenkins talked with The FBomb about feminism, her career in and opinions about the media, and the Women’s Media Center.

How has your past affected your identity as a feminist? Were there any defining instances in your life that led you to identify as a feminist?

Well actually I come from a very feminist family. Our roots are in Alabama and I come from a farming family. My mother was one of 15 children, 9 girls and 6 boys. All 9 girls went to college and all 6 boys were expected to stay home and farm. All 9 girls became very successful in their careers, and all boys, once farming was done, because they were not as well educated as the girls, had to go into the factories. So you can imagine that there’s still some bitterness in the family. But I think that that the perception that education would be passed along through the women and the fact that they are the ones who should be educated was really, truly feminist and far sighted of my grandparents back in the 1940’s. So I think that that defined our feminism, and I define feminism by equality. If you believe that women should have the equal options and access as men then you’re a feminist, that’s the way I define it. It has nothing to do with male bashing or with axe grinding, it has only to do with equality. I grew up in a feminist family and all of the girls and women always worked. We had the family business; I started working when I was 8. It was a printing business and I could barely see over the top of the table but I was folding: that was my job. So I grew up in an environment of equality, of feminism, so that there never was the defining moment of “Oh, I’m a feminist.” It really was a way of being raised and the way our family – and most of the families- operated at the time. Mother worked side by side with Father to create a business. And every relative I know, male or female, has worked hard to create a life here in this country.

Who have been the most influential women in your life, professionally and/or personally?

Well in my family certainly my mother and my aunt, who is the matriarch, and who were both such hard workers and really effected so many lives. So I have those two tremendous examples of what it took to create a life and to create one that was useful. Of course Gloria Steinem is a friend of mine and Marilyn French is a very good friend of mine, and Esther Bromo we were part of what we called a coven we met 4 times a year – unfortunately Marilyn died this year. But that was very sustaining to me, to be rooted, to have a feminist congregation, to count on having a feminist conversation at least 4 times a year and the support and the thinking. I encourage other women to do that; it’s important to not be alone and to share your information and to support each other. That’s part of the progressive women’s voices – they get as much out of their relationships with each other as they do from the training we provide because they know they’re not alone out there in their work. So Gloria and Marilyn and Esther and coven mates as well as my mother and my aunt: all sort of defining forces.

Were there any clearly sexist instances in your career that put you on this path?

Well certainly in the early days when you were counting the women who were reporters and who were anchors on one hand. And then it got to be two hands: it increased. So I think that my experience – having to fight through those early days first political stories I got were major accomplishments – and I think that watching the two creepiest attempts in broadcast news to seat a women anchor, Barbara Walters and Connie Chung, those were 20 years apart, but essentially the same thing happened – they were rejected. And the way network executives could justify moving them was that the public had rejected them, that the ratings were bad and that people were not ready to hear news from a woman. And then to see Katie Couric just recently do that and almost have the same thing happen to her, what I say is that as a country we really don’t know what women look and sound like. We’re completely unprepared to have them deliver the most important information to us. I think Katie Couric and Hilary Clinton’s race have changed that, so that as a nation for the very first time, which is extraordinary to think about, we have looked at powerful women who have the possibility of changing our lives.

Especially as a former political reporter, how do you feel about the way the media has targeted women in politics recently (Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Sonia Sotomayor)? How do you think this has affected them as candidates?

I remain extremely concerned about this because you mention a lot of strong political women candidates, but when you look at the figures in our congress, we only have 17% women who have won seats and are sitting there. That’s really shocking. And I think the media is to blame for a lot of it. And I think that watching what happened to Clinton and even Sarah Palin was demonstrative of the kind of viciousness and really life unraveling that takes place when you put yourself out there and say you’re going to run for political office. So I do think we need to watch ourselves very carefully and insist that the media does not search and destroy. They do it with male candidates too, but certainly not to the extent that women are torn apart for their looks, their hair, their clothes, their family, can they have a family and serve politically? It’s all absurd. I’ve talked with women who would like to run for political office but are frightened. They don’t want to be destroyed the way they’ve seen other candidates destroyed. So what’s going to happen? We’re going to continue with less than 20% of the important decisions of our lives made by women. It’s an untenable situation and I hold media to blame for a lot of it.

Do you feel that now that the news industry is changing, women have unique opportunities?

I would hope so. I guess the theory is that men made a mess of everything economically so lets see more women, and the question is does it hold for the media as well. What most people don’t understand is that this disparity is so entrenched that it will take I don’t know what to really change it significantly, enough where we can say things are better. In radio – I mean most people think of radio as a medium of the past but many people get their information from it – it’s 85% to 95% a male medium. That’s everybody from ownership to management to people on the air. So there’s a lot of work to be done there to get women to have their own shows and run companies. Women opinion writers -- 75% of the people who are paid to write opinion pieces are men. Major papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post the LA Times have 18 or 20 male writers and 1 or 2 women and think that’s okay. So I think that first of all understanding the depth of the disparity, that’s part of our job, that’s what we keep saying, “Look we’ve got a real problem here.” And most of the executives in all media are still occupied by men so that there’s so much work to be done so that things will change, but I wouldn’t say at all that we’re at the point where we’re relaxing. Here are great opportunities. When we go to networks and say, “Sunday morning is the most segregated time span of media. Where are the women, where are the people of color in hosts as well as guests?” And we’ve had media executives actually suggest to us that these are great guys and we can’t take them off the air. And what we think we hear them say is they’re going to die soon, so when they die or retire then maybe that’s the chance to get a woman or person of color. It’s morally corrupt. There should be an equal playing field for the networks. They should have a deep enough bench of women that they’re training and bringing along so that they will have many options as many women and people of color as men do and who are sitting in the seats so we just have some part of a shift there but they only thing that happened was the white men got younger. But we’re looking for the women and people of color.

How does the Women’s Media Center promote diversity in the media? Other than producing statistics and information about this issue, are there more active steps the organization takes?

We meet with the network executives and we talk with editors of newspapers. We give them our statistics, but most importantly we provide them with options. We have our Progressive Women’s Voices – women we’ve been doing intensive media training with. We have the largest media database of women experts and chief sources. So they can’t really say to us that there aren’t any women, which is what they used to say. Thy used to say, “We’d love to have somebody.” And I’d say “Great, we have a wonderful woman, she could build an atom bomb, but she would just rather talk about not using them.” So I think that we realized when we were creating we had to do more than the advocacy part – to talk about the discrepancy. We had to actually provide women. So we train them and we pitch them every single week and we give them a place to write on our website. It’s a site that was created as a place for women to build portfolios and to begin to craft their opinion pieces so that then the next ones could be in mainstream media. So that’s part of the work that we do.

What are your ultimate goals for the future of the media – how would you ideally like to see the media industry change?

I would see it reflecting the society that it’s supposed to serve and I think the reason that old school media is now failing financially is because they failed in their job to reflect the stories of the people of this country so that women and people of color and immigrants and bisexual people do not find themselves in the stories that are told – they’re not finding themselves. And as Gloria has often said, if you’re not in the media, if your stories aren’t told, then you’ll be absent from history. And that’s exactly what has been happening. So to me it will be not only that 50% will be women and there will be many more people of color engaged in the media, but that the stories that are told will reflect the lives, because that to me is the mandate of the media. It’s one thing to be informed– that’s part of the media, you need to be informed. But also media saves lives. The difference between life and death is often in the information that is passed on through the media, so it’s not only intellectual, it’s a visceral mechanism that has to engage all people in this country and the world. Because when you look at the statistics it’s not just our media that excludes women. If you look at the statistics, 85% of every story that’s told around the world has to do with a man. Even if it’s about a woman, it’s a man telling the story about the woman. The net result is that women and people of color are being left out of history. On the one hand I have thrill of new media and the possibility of telling your story without spending millions of dollars. So it’s the cost effective way of providing information and news and connection and all of that. But I’m also worried about it because what it’s done is fractured our country. We no longer have a public square where people get all information. Some of the stories about Walter Cronkite – he had an audience of 22 million people. The networks don’t have that anymore. It’s niche, it’s siloed – we go to the sites that attract us. So we never come together as a country anymore to get information at one time. That’s what I’m worried about.

How do you see my generation of girls in America today in relation to the media?

Well you give me great hope. You’re an example of the results of all of our hard work. The fact that you understand the media and have a voice and are making waves out there is just fabulous and it just makes my heart full. It’s exciting because when I started in the media back in 1970 it was really difficult. I wasn’t the very first wave, because people like Barbara Walters had been there before, but certainly still early enough that women were the exception rather than the rule. There was very difficult backlash and it was difficult working with film crews. Difficult getting the really good stories, the tough assignments, getting credit, becoming anchors -- all of it was just such a struggle. So I think that I’m very optimistic about young women who understand the media and are using it to get their points across.

Do you have any advice for teenage feminists today?

Do not be discouraged by any adverse reaction to the term feminism because it’s still out there, it’s still vicious, and just keep saying this is a question of equality – are you telling me that women are less than men. And I think that an important thing is to not be afraid, to use that word because you will be attacked for it but I think you need to know in your heart that this is not a dirty word, you are fighting for a human right and a right for women to have the same rights as anybody else. So it’s a valued effort. I would say to embrace the feminist word, to not be afraid of it, but also use any other words that essentially mean the same thing. Understand in your heart that this is what you’re talking about. And also create these universes, don’t stay alone in your feminism – band together, create groups, because the more people you have with you the more power you have, so getting together and if you have a complaint to make as I’m sure you know you’re only 10 people, people could probably ignore you, but if you’re 1,000 if you’re 10,000 and lord how many young women do we have in this country if we ever get a mechanism so that they respond in one voice then girls will not be ignored. I think we have a serious problem with the self-esteem of our young women, the opportunities that they will have. But I think that I’m optimistic about the future. I see such smart young women who make us feel that we can step aside and say, “Job well done.” Because here they come.

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Julie Zeilinger
Founding Editor of The WMC FBomb
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