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Tomorrow's Journalism

Amelia Bloomers temperance and suffrange newspaper gained a national readership in the 19th century, but still was dismissed by the mainstream press.

As the world recognizes International Women’s Day, essayist Mary Kay Blakely assesses the contribution of women’s media, not the least of which may well be charting a path to a healthy journalism that serves the public good.

Everyone I know is alarmed by the disappearance of city newspapers and the retreat of the “watchdog press” as media conglomerates collapse from coast to coast. “Journalism is a public good that is no longer commercially viable,” Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols write in The Death and Life of American Journalism—The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again. Longtime collaborators and cofounders of Free Press—a national nonprofit dedicated to media reform—they are “neither old-media stalwarts nor new-media fabulists.” They want to not only rescue journalism from its near death condition but also restore it to full health. No sentient being could argue with their assertion that, decades ago, a corporate media abandoned the public good for greater profits. (The authors describe today’s media firms as “capitalism on steroids”). Nor could anyone deny that the Internet and new digital technology hastened the collapse of journalism as we knew it. But it was already terminal before bloggers and citizen reporters became ubiquitous. If the primary obligation of a free press is “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” as 19th century Chicago humorist Finley Peter Dunne so memorably said, it hasn’t been operative in America for some time.

The book’s title promises immediate Life after journalism’s Death, and I want to believe it. The authors ardently hope some of those bloggers and citizens replacing reporters will revolutionize the Fourth Estate, even if that means the watchdog press may have to function more like a mosquito press during the transition years. Fortunately, an enduring women’s press has labored under precisely those conditions for 150 years, ever since Amelia Bloomer published The Lily in 1849, a temperance newspaper that eventually gained a national readership by covering issues and ideas of the suffrage movement with wit and intelligence. Despite its prominence, the mainstream press still regarded The Lily as insignificant and annoying, a stereotype that held sway until recently among old media stalwarts. At one prestigious Midwestern journalism school, women’s national monthlies were collectively referred to as “chiffon journalism.” Some of the academic Good Ole Boys never saw a revolution coming.

Now the watchdog press, “once muscular enough to start wars and make presidents shudder” write McChesney and Nichols, is placing foreign bureaus on furlough, laying off expensive staff, and shrinking space for book reviews and science coverage. Without an original, vibrant, independent press, both government and commerce are vulnerable to periodic outbreaks of deception, greed and sheer stupidity. Another revolution is coming, and it can’t happen soon enough.

Although periods of transition are invariably rocky—the next ten years will be especially challenging for journalists starting out—I can’t despair the collapse of “old media,” what with its muscular power to start wars and make leaders shudder. Every chiffon journalist knows the difference between “hard news” (big stuff, the banner headlines) and “soft news” (domestic stuff, the nitty-gritty of everyday life). In his preface to Intimate Journalism, editor Walt Harrington identifies soft news as “The Job of Remembering the Tribe,” when writers reveal the deep feelings and moving people behind the headlines. The distance and detachment of reported news leave most readers lost on the banks, numb and uncertain about where they fit into the stream of current events.

The watchdog is starving in part because hard news is so expensive to produce. With corporate profit the goal, McChesney and Nichols report, health care, education, social security and foreign affairs “were not so much reported but calculated for different audiences.” Costly as they are, investigative reporting and hard news are necessary for a functioning democracy. Media critics anticipate that in the coming digital revolution, a grassroots movement will provide “power to the people,” predicting that the republic would greatly benefit from hearing more voices and having more feelings embedded in the news. That kind of coverage comes now as a gift—such as Anne Garrels reporting from Baghdad and the Middle East for NPR. She interviewed military leaders but also talked to foot soldiers and school kids and farmers and shopkeepers, providing memorable human stories to understand the politics and strategies and body counts of faraway wars.

The Myth of Neutrality

The women’s press, frequently criticized for being less objective than the mainstream press, is in fact more highly evolved than old practices of “neutrality.” After September 11, 2001, McChesney warned audiences that whenever Congress voted unanimously, everyone was in trouble. “Hang onto your wallet,” he said after every U.S. senator and representative except California Congresswoman Barbara Lee voted to fund the War on Terror. As the lone earnest dissenter, Lee should have been a national headliner, but a purely objective journalist can cover a minority opinion only once. If other publications don’t start reporting the same dissent, the story is over. It’s believed to have “lost its legs.” Any muckraker who stays on an expired story raises suspicions of “pushing an agenda.” Unless that agenda is compatible with that of a corporate-owned media.

On the flip side, the practice of “quoting both sides” may begin as a reach for greater objectivity but defies that goal when there are six million people on one side of an issue and only six on the other. As Gloria Steinem remarked during the decade-long ERA debate, if Phyllis Schlafly didn’t exist the media would have invented her.

I’ve suggested to my writing students that objectivity is like virginity: Once it’s gone, it’s gone. They didn’t have to worry so much about “pushing an agenda”—since more than half of my young journalists are female, just getting their point-of-view into the national press requires major effort. Geneva Overholser, director of USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism, conducted an informal study immediately after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. She counted altogether 88 signed op-ed pieces in the New York Times, Washington Post and LA Times. Only five were by women.

“Aren’t women citizens?” she asked in an NPR commentary that September, paraphrasing Sojourner Truth. While the vocal half of Americans imploded with “a purple American fury” (Lance Morrow) and had the urge to “Shock and Awe” (Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld), some felt the world mourning with us and recognized “A Teaching Moment” (Bill Moyers), while the rest of us thought… what? Does it matter that women’s voices were virtually silent? Hugely.

Instead of faking objectivity, wouldn’t it be more honest if journalists acknowledged their point-of-view and addressed opponents with fairness and respect? Every thinking person emerges from deep investigations with strong opinions. Wouldn’t every reader benefit from knowing what those opinions were, and how reporters reached them? A principled fairness wouldn’t necessarily achieve consensus—President Obama’s unfailing patience with Republican opponents has alienated some of his own constituents, and unyielding ideologues can exhaust all comers. (An exasperated Molly Ivins often quoted her irreverent Texas colleague: “You don’t even want to argue with these boys—you just want to slap them”). The Dixie Chicks went on record with “Not Ready to Make Nice” and neither, quite frankly, are the rest of us. It’s nevertheless possible to have a firm point-of-view and still achieve genuine civility and respect.

Toward an Authentic Voice

The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, however often he insists that he’s a comedian pretending to be a journalist, has arguably earned more credibility than most television professionals. Why? He doesn’t fake respect for dumb remarks from people in high places because he needs further access to them. He rolls his eyes, raises a brow, cracks a half grin, makes a wiseacre remark. He does what most people on couches with remote controls in their hands are doing, from dormitories at Brigham Young University to communes of environmental activists all over the country. Stewart asks what we’d ask. Or should be asking. He teaches critical thinking better than any course in logic, and makes his audience recognize we have more in common than not. Stewart urged Lou Dobbs, Bill O’Reilly, Fox News and talk show pundits to practice the same truth in labeling. Call your “news” exactly what it IS: bullish entertainment, a night at the fights.

Why does “voice” matter so much? It’s critical to telling the truth. Voice resonates. It has staying power. So much of the numbness surrounding the news occurs when old media stalwarts iron out voice, stripping all feeling from reported events. Voice has always been critical in the women’s press for relaying difficult truths. Some readers might violently disagree with the conclusion Sallie Tisdale draws at the end of her classic essay, “We Do Abortions Here,” about working in a California women’s clinic. But no reader could doubt the veracity and integrity of her story because her voice rings true.

Voice could become as important as substance in tomorrow’s journalism. While an adequately funded watchdog press investigates corruption and exposes political secrecy and deceit, a mosquito press begins in obscurity and has to raise consciousness that there’s even a problem. A slow and arduous process, it takes a lot longer to change behavior by changing minds than to change behavior by brute force. In nearly unnoticed, incremental ways, the women’s press unquestionably did that. The American journalism of the future can borrow a lot from the American women’s press history, from The Lily to Ms., WomensEnews, the Women’s Media Center, Feministing, Mother Jones, Hip Mama, and many other famous and fleeting publications. McChesney and Nichols are exactly right to insist that a vibrant independent press is essential for the public good. As long as women are part of the “public.”

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