OTI Online
Summer 1997

THE MEDIA MIRROR HAS NO FACE
Book Reviews by Louise Armstrong


Women victims of violence are represented in the news as potentially to blame for their victimization.

REAL MAJORITY, MEDIA MINORITY: The Cost of Sidelining Women in Reporting

by Laura Flanders
(Common Courage Press, $16.95)

SLICK SPINS AND FRACTURED FACTS: How Cultural Myths Distort the News

by Caryl Rivers
(Columbia Univ. Press, $24.95)

NEWS COVERAGE OF VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN: Engendering Blame

by Marian Meyers
(SAGE Publications, $38.95; $18.95, paper)



It's an old boys' put-down that women can't pass a mirror without looking into it. Well, for me, that's true. The boys say it's vanity. I say bull -- I am simply checking, desperate to make sure I really exist. For sheer wear and tear on feminists' spirit, nothing beats living with the absence of any reflection or acknowledgment of our reality, our research, our voices, in the mainstream media. I've had my personal watershed moments on this one. In 1988, two books by male journalists were published on the subject of the developing war on incest/child abuse -- to intense media adulation. Not only did neither one mention women's role in raising this issue, or allude to feminist analysis, but "feminist" does not appear in either book's index. And "women" appears only once, in one: "Women, as child abusers." (You can bet I spent whole days, then, seeking out mirrors.)

If, in books, we are written out of history, in the daily news media we are constantly being written out of the "rough draft of history." It is no wonder that we often feel crazy. It is no wonder that, as a movement, we sometimes seem to self-abuse. Trust the fellows, though. They've got a perfectly reasonable-sounding explanation for this. We are biased. They know this because they are objective, and objectivity is (they have declared) the cardinal virtue of reality's gatekeepers (journalists). Award-winning journalist Caryl Rivers, author of Slick Spins and Fractured Facts, characterizes this ideal of objectivity as the "reporter as android." She quotes Stanford journalism professor, Theodore L. Glasser: "Objectivity is biased in favor of the status quo; it is inherently conservative to the extent that it encourages reporters to rely on what sociologist Alvin Gouldner describes as 'the managers of the status quo' -- the prominent and the elite."

What this means is that those wielding the 'objectivity' ax presume that the bias of their own norm is so -- well, normal -- that it constitutes no bias at all. Rivers tells us that when maleness and whiteness being the social norm, people who are other or who hold different attitudes "are nearly always seen as being biased or as being 'advocates.'"

This, then, explains how it is that feminist voices, opinions, attitudes, data, are nowhere to be found in stories about issues feminists have researched, analyzed, studied, for twenty years -- on which they are the experts.

Even male ignorance is not an impediment to authority. Rivers writes, "Once I was doing an article for a newspaper in which I used as my major sources a black academician and a female professor. But an editor asked me to add another source, a white male professor who had no history of research in the area. Clearly, the editor simply did not have confidence in the 'facts' offered by the woman and the black, believing -- probably subconsciously -- that they were somehow suspect. When my source was a white male, I have never been asked to go and find a woman or a black to bolster the credibility of the information, but the reverse has often been true."(Emphasis mine)

Reading Rivers' book in full, the unconsciousness/subconsciousness attribution seems overly generous. Combined with the study done by Marian Myers, News Coverage of Violence Against Women, and with Laura Flanders powerful compendium of her writings in Extra! (The publication of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) and interviews on her nationally syndicated radio show Counterspin, the evidence alone points more to flaming bigotry, dressed up as neutrality and parading about as lofty-minded scientism. What women suffer then, is more insidious than invisibility. It is deliberate erasure.

In 1994, on Counterspin, Flanders interviewed filmmaker Margaret Lazarus about her Academy-Award-winning documentary on domestic violence, "Defending Our Lives." PBS had refused to air the documentary because they alleged, it was co-produced by a group -- Battered Women Fighting Back -- that had a vested interest in its subject matter, even though the film was made and paid for by Cambridge Documentary Film. To my knowledge, no television outlet has ever had a similar attack of scrupulousness when the issue has been, say, a study alarming us about some new mental disorder in women (the study funded by a pharmaceutical company, perhaps, which has just the pill for the problem). As Flanders points out, documentaries that aired on PBS include one on The New York Times pundit James Reston, funded in association with the Times; an eight-part multimillion dollar series on oil, funded by Paine Webber (which has investments in oil exploitation and production); and a program, funded by Chevron, making the point that "we have to stop pointing the finger at industry for every environmental hazard."

Myers' book, a more academic study of reporting on violence against women in Atlanta, Georgia, makes the power of the bias painfully clear, demonstrating "how the news draws on traditional notions of appropriate gender roles in the representation of violence against women. Those notions are rooted in patriarchy, which is the systemic institutionalization of women's inequality within social, political, economic, and cultural structures." Myers' study found that "all women who are the victims of violence -- regardless of race or class -- are represented within the news as potentially to blame for causing their own victimization. The burden of guilt lies with the victim, and only when cultural norms and values concerning children, the elderly, torture and mass murderers conflict with accepted myths and assumptions about women and violence can female victims be considered innocent."

As guys with press passes stuck in their hatbands have given way to middle-class journalism-school graduates, their social distance from oppressed minorities has become a chasm. It is not surprising, then, that they tend to wonder what is wrong with those "others." Myers writes, "By presenting stories of violence against women as separate, discrete incidents, the news also reinforces that idea that this violence is a matter of isolated pathology or deviance, related only to the particular circumstances of those involved and unconnected to the larger structure of patriarchy, domination and control. This mirage of individual pathology denies the social roots of violence against women and relieves the larger society of any obligation to end it." To make this connection would "be to bias the news" because "advocates for battered and raped women are unreliable news source because they are not neutral."

Perhaps this explains how weird the resulting coverage is (apart from horrible). Have you ever noticed how bewildered most mainstream journalists seem when covering male crimes against women and children? Like so many Candide clones, when confronted with atrocities against females, they turn from one doctor (Pangloss) to another, seeking explanation for what, time after time, seem to them unfathomable events. To these mainly male, mainly white, "scientific" experts, they time and again pose such questions as -- but why would a woman let herself be battered? And no matter how many such stories they cover, no matter how many times they learn and report "social scientists agree that..." -- nonetheless when the very same kind of horror comes into their reportorial purview again, they are as tabulae rasae, required to once more turn to experts for even those flimsy answers they cannot seem to retain. The pieces that make up Flanders' collection testify eloquently to male bias as well (an interview with me is included, so I am sure of this). The more radical of the books, with a tone of greater urgency, her work assumes the chauvinism, assumes the credentialism, and is driven by concern about the media's mean joke of 'giving voice to women' by elevating such as Mona Charin and Camille Paglia.

"My purpose in pulling together this collection," she writes, "is to draw attention to an emergency. Counting beans, be they female or queer or multi-racial is not enough. When the right got savvy to the media's 'gender gap,' they groomed well-connected women to fit the previously male-only pundits' chairs. Mainstream media obediently filled that gaping 'women's space' with the anti- feminists who were driven to their doors. Now women's rights advocates are fueling their own media machines to churn out daily press releases and editorials, or they're hiring good public relations firms to do it with them. And that's imperative. A serious effort to match the Right's media assault with comparable vigor is crucial, if only to respond to those newspaper editors and TV anchors who claim they don't hear from feminists as they do from their opponents."

She is correct, of course. And there is enough vigor in this book to convince and motivate you -- whether the topic is the media's take on welfare, homophobia, women in prison, rape or the menopause "industry." Her work is further impassioned by the currently escalating conglomeration. "If current merger plans go ahead, two out of three of the world's richest television networks would be controlled by nuclear power companies, both of which have the U.S. military as their most important client."And by the fact that the purpose of the profit-makers who determine the 'news' in the 1990s is profit-making.

About the last -- well...Reading these three books left me with some skepticism about Pure Market Force Theory as the dominant motivator. No group of people who flatly declare their own bias objective is, in my opinion operating out of perfect and controlled rationality. If you could ever disentangle male self-interest from corporate self-interest, I suspect the male stuff would win hands down. I think good-for-business ideas do not necessarily triumph if they make men in power uncomfortable. They simply declare that good-for-business ideas things are not really good-for-business things, eliminate them -- creating a vacuum, and thus a loop.

After a spate of successful feminist books had been published in the late 1970s, during the early 1980s it suddenly became axiomatic that "feminist books don't sell" -- around the time when The New York Times began doing its annual obituaries of feminism (the "news" apparently being that feminism was still dead).

For the most part, mainstream, mass-market publishers stopped buying feminist books. Occasionally, one got through (like Susan Faludi's Backlash) and became a best seller. But those best sellers stopped no one from continuing to say that feminist books don't sell -- and since they don't if they aren't published, voila! The wisdom of Pure Market Forces.

Which leads me to suggest that you pick up one or two, or all three of these exceptional books. Rivers' book is a lively, witty insider's view, invaluable as anthropology among the Mainstream Media Peoples. Myers' book is an exceptional resource, a unique validation of all that those who work on violence against women have long suspected. And Flanders' collection of her work is extraordinary -- informed by passion, thoroughly infused with documentation and reason: radical in the most responsible sense.

You choose.

You'll see your concerns, your existence, reflected.

Better any day than a mirror.


LOUISE ARMSTRONG, social critic and author of five books, lives in London.


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