OTI Online
Summer 1992

How The Media Slants The Message
And Other Reportorial Sins
by Laura Sydell

Women would love to see Thelma and Louise use their pistols on the management of the New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC and a host of other mainstream media outlets. Although women may have come a long way since the days of hoop skirts and foot binding, this doesn't seem to be reflected in the kind of press coverage they're getting.

There is a pattern, particularly among the Washington press corp, of letting the people in power set the agenda and spin the story

According to a study by the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) that looked at the front page photos of three major dailies, the New York Times, USA Today and the Washington Post, women don't seem to be very important. In the Post, only 13 percent of front page photo subjects were women; in the Times it was 11 percent. The Times really showed its reluctance to put a photo of a woman on the front page when it illustrated an article on women's tennis with a photo of Boris Becker.

Surprisingly, the more conservative USA Today placed more photos of women on the front page (30 percent). But while 55 percent of white men on the cover were government or business officials, this wasn't true of women: In all the papers FAIR studied, most of the women who were not sports or entertainment figures were wives, daughters or mothers of prominent men.

What effect does the media's disregard of women have on the public's perception of an issue? Let's look at a few examples. Take one of the 1991's big media events, the coverage of the Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's nomination hearings. According to the polls, the public found Thomas more credible than Anita Hill, whose accusations of sexual harassment were made public only after several media outlets got hold of her FBI testimony. However, there were stories about Thomas circulating among reporters that were never made public, stories that might have made a difference in the perception of the nominee's credibility. Let's look at a couple of these stories. Remember Angela Wright? She was the other woman who accused Thomas of sexual harassment when she was on his staff. During the early morning hours on the last night of the hearings, after we'd heard John Doggett proclaim his irresistibility to women, especially Hill, the Senate Judiciary Chair Joseph Biden announced that we would not hear Wright testify. However, transcripts of testimony previously given to the Judiciary Committee and later released to the press contained evidence that would have been truly damning to Thomas. According to Wright, Thomas repeatedly made comments to her, much like those he made to Hill. He asked her about the size of her breasts and commented on her legs and other parts of her body. Although no one overheard Thomas' remarks, Wright did complain at the time to her colleague Rose Jordain, who confirmed this in testimony to the committee.

Although Wright never testified, Thomas was given an opportunity to discredit her during the hearings. According to Thomas, he fired Wright because she called a colleague "faggot." This left the public with the impression that Wright wasn't credible anyway because she had an ax to grind against Thomas.

But in the untelevised interview given to Committee aides, Wright told a different story. She claimed her dismissal was somewhat mysterious. According to her, Thomas told her he wasn't satisfied with her job performance. However, some years later he gave her a glowing recommendation - a fact, confirmed by her current employer, the Charlotte Observer, and reported by Lyle Denniston of the Baltimore Sun. However, this fact didn't seem important to the rest of the media.

The Sun was one of the few newspapers to publicize Wright's statements. Denniston, in defense of the general media's failure to publish the details of the Judiciary Committee's conversation with Wright, points out that the press was handed the transcript at 11:00 on the last night of the hearings. But why didn't the mass media publicize this information on the following day?

On The Issues Magazine - Six out of seven male reporters were pro-Thomas while two out of three female reporters supported Hill

Wright's testimony has even greater impact when the affidavit of Sukari Hardnett is added to the picture. Although she made it clear she was not charging Thomas with sexual harassment, Hardnett, a former special assistant to Thomas, provided the Senate with a sworn affidavit in which she charged that Thomas' treatment of women on his staff was more than that of "a mentor to protegees." In her affidavit Hardnett said, "If you were young, Black, female, reasonably attractive and worked directly for Clarence Thomas, you knew full well you were being inspected and auditioned as a female." Hardnett, who worked for Thomas between 1985 and 1986, said she didn't like Thomas' attention and sought a transfer. Wright's testimony, along with Hardnett's, would have been important factors in establishing the pattern of behavior which is typical of harassers - a pattern which some senators and Thomas supporters, whose opinions were widely reported, claimed was missing. Taken together, the testimony of these three women is powerful evidence. Yet, the media neglected to give the public enough information to put the pieces together. Although Hardnett's affidavit was widely reported, only New York Newsday considered her statements important enough to put in a headline and lead paragraph. Major national papers such as the Washington Post and USA Today buried Hardnett's statement in the middle and end of articles. And, as anyone knows who followed the Hill/ Thomas affair, the media continued to say the disagreement was between two "credible" people without mention of the other two charges against Thomas.

Other stories known by many reporters didn't see the light of day - among them, Thomas' attempts to undermine the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) sexual harassment regulations, his failure while a federal judge to excuse himself from a case in which his close friend and mentor Senator John Danforth had a $7.5 million interest, his denial of knowledge that his close friend Jay Parker had ties to the apartheid government in South Africa. Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio, one of the reporters who broke the Hill story, and Howell Raines, the New York Times national desk editor in Washington, both said that the most significant reason for their failure to report other Thomas stories was the Democratic senators. Although the Times had a team of six investigative reporters working on the Thomas affair, Raines says they didn't bring out a lot of information because of the "timid nature of the Democratic questions. They didn't ask the questions that would have elicited the kind of investigative reporting we wanted to do." Why didn't the press do their own investigation? The Baltimore Sun's Denniston defended his colleagues' failure to bring out information that the Senators didn't mention.

"There is a point beyond which the press won't do the Senators' job for them," Denniston said. He criticized the Judiciary Committee for "massaging" the press with information and then failing to follow through during the hearings. But Tiffany Devitt of FAIR put it another way: "There is basically a pattern, particularly among the Washington press corp, of letting the people in power set the agenda and spin the story." Devitt believes the press should be more aggressive and go beyond those sources and do some real digging.

On The Issues Magazine - Anita Hill
Anita Hill

Jim Naurekas, also with FAIR, criticizes the limits that the press places on itself. "If that's their version of the press, then why do we have a free press? It's not up to the government to decide what's news, it's up to the press to decide." Naurekas says if it's up to the Democrats and the Republicans to dictate the stories, then why not just let them write their own newspapers?

Larry Bensky, a reporter for the progressive Pacifica national radio network who covered the Iran/Contra and the Thomas hearings, points out the reportorial differences in the mainstream media handling of the two events. In the Iran/Contra affair, journalists were willing to look beyond information given out by the major parties. Bensky attributes this rigor to the fact that it involved a potentially impeachable offense by the President. However, he also thinks sexism played a role in their failure to fully investigate the sexual harassment charges against Thomas.

Susan Faludi, whose best-selling book Backlash looks at media coverage of women, noted a lack of interest among the press corps "in truly getting to the bottom of the Anita Hill story." She attributes this in part to the media still primarily being run by men - a fact which takes on increased significance in light of a study published in the Washington Post that found six out of seven male reporters were pro -Thomas while two out of three female reporters supported Hill. Faludi believes men in the Senate and the press may have been on the defensive because they felt women were "ganging up on them." She notes the appearance of subtle biases. For example, the day following Hill's testimony, the media headlined Thomas' rebuttal and effectively "silenced Hill."

Coverage of the abortion issue also reflects many of the same biases found in coverage of the Thomas/Hill affair. Rarely does the media look at how women will be affected by restrictions on abortion. Instead the focus seems to be on Washington and the men in power. Tiffany Devitt of FAIR notes, "Though Governor Bob Martinez of Florida will never have an abortion, a Washington Post headline declared: 'Governor at Risk on Abortion Issue.' While it is individual women, not political parties, who confront the choice to terminate a pregnancy, a Wall Street Journal headline announced: 'Abortion Debate Proves Painful for Republicans.'"

One of the few times that women became the focus of abortion coverage was during the fall of many of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. When it comes to coverage of a country that the U.S. views as hostile, there don't seem to be limits on the ways the media can vilify them. Newsweek published an article titled, "When Abortion is Denied: What of the Unwanted'?" which discussed the consequences of Czechoslovakia's ban on abortions. The Washington Post and the New York Times ran articles depicting the horrors women in Romania faced under the antiabortion policies of the Ceausescu regime. But when women are harmed because of restrictive U.S. policies, it's rarely front page news. Each year over 200,000 women die worldwide from botched illegal abortions. Many of those deaths could be avoided if it weren't for U.S. pressure; in 1984 the Reagan administration announced that it would not fund any international or foreign family planning organizations that provided or counseled on abortion. According to Sharon Camp of the Population Crisis Committee, hospitals in Bangladesh are even refusing to give women hemorrhaging from botched abortions medical care for fear of losing U.S. dollars. Camp also says there are countries in Africa where illegal abortion "is an epidemic. Everyone has a family member who has died of a botched illegal abortion." Camp explains that much of this suffering could be alleviated if the United States, the major funder of family planning services worldwide, would change its policies. But the plight of these women doesn't seem to be front page news here. Nor was the story of Rosie Jiminez, a poor Hispanic woman who lived in Texas near the Mexican border. In 1977, just after passage of the Hyde Amendment took away Medicaid funding for abortions, Jiminez, who already had two children, slipped across the border for a cheap abortion, a choice which ultimately killed her.

But why, one may ask, don't women's magazines take up some of the slack left by the news media? Gloria Steinem answered that in her article "Sex, Lies and Advertising" that appeared in the premier issue of Ms. magazine as an ad free publication. In her piece Steinem reflects on the times when Ms. took advertising. Her stories of the demands made by advertisers are at once laughable and frightening. She tells how the magazine lost an ad schedule for Revlon products after it featured Robin Morgan's ground-breaking article on women in the Soviet Union producing feminist, underground, self-published books. The story won the prestigious Front Page award. "Nonetheless," writes Steinem, "this journalistic coup undoes years of efforts to get an ad schedule from Revlon. Why? Because the Soviet women on the cover are not wearing makeup." Steinem also cites instances of advertiser s refusing to place their ads unless they are put next to stories that promote their products, and are not put in issues which deal with controversial issues like "gun control, abortion, the occult, cults, or the disparagement of religion." So through the pressure of the corporations that provide most of the money to keep magazines like Glamour or Mademoiselle on the stands, it looks like there isn't going to be anything "controversial" or for that matter terribly feminist coming from those fronts.

But it's important to understand that what is affecting the coverage of women's issues also affects the coverage of everything else. It isn't just women who get shafted - it's disenfranchised people everywhere. Reporters Amy Goodman of Pacifica radio's WBAI in New York City and Alan Nairn of The New Yorker magazine recently visited a country most Americans haven't heard of: East Timor. On November 12, 1991 they saw Indonesian troops fire into a crowd of East Timorese attending a funeral, killing at least 75 to 100 of the mourners. When they tried to stop the massacre, Goodman and Nairn were beaten unmercifully by the troops. Nairn sustained a fractured skull and Goodman says they probably stopped short of killing them because they kept shouting out that they were Americans.

This was not the first, and, so far, it has not been the last massacre in Timor. During the '70s it is estimated that between 100 and 200 thousand East Timorese were murdered by Indonesian troops who took over the country after Portuguese colonists withdrew. Although the U.S. found such behavior by Saddam Hussein worth starting a war over, they've never taken much notice of Indonesia. Goodman says the reason for this is simple: "Iraq is a U.S. enemy and Indonesia is a U.S. ally." The United States has long supplied Indonesia with armaments and has coveted their waterways and oil reserves for "national security" purposes. What Goodman also notes is that the press hasn't taken much notice of East Timor either. The issue here once again seems to be the Washington-centeredness of the media. "If administration officials don't send out press releases and make a big deal of it, the media doesn't really seem to be interested," says Goodman.

Goodman and Nairn's experience did receive some coverage. Among those that picked up their story were the New York Times, the Washington Post and National Public Radio. But, Goodman says, "They probably wouldn't have noticed the massacre if there hadn't been two U.S. journalists injured." Goodman also notes that she and Nairn have had to fight tooth and nail to get most of the coverage they got. She says the two editorials in the New York Times condemning the massacre were largely a result of prodding by Nairn and herself. Both Nairn and Goodman are hopeful that more attention may now be drawn to East Timor because since the fall of the Soviet Union Indonesia is no longer as strategically important to the U.S.

Meanwhile, people of color in this country don't fare much better. According to another FAIR study, 30 percent of all men of color in front page articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post and USA Today were athletes, another 14 percent were criminals, and all the women of color pictured in the Washington Post front page were victims of fire, poverty or homes destroyed by drugs.

So even if women and minorities have made some headway in the past 20 years, it looks as if the media is still in the Stone Age. To bring a little reality into their lives - and news stories - you might try sending letters to your local newspapers, not to mention the New York Times.

But then again, maybe Thelma and Louise had the right idea.

Laura Sydell has reported for National Public Radio. Her documentaries have won several awards, including the Clarion Award For Women in Communications.

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