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Thugs in the Newroom

Jul
8
2008

A few weeks ago, I said that it was time that women in various professions – politics and journalism – start pointing out sexist behavior and demanding that it stop. Well, Jessica DaSilva, a young woman in Tampa, Florida, and Clark Hoyt, a man in New York City, have given me an excuse to do just that. If you want to know why there are few women writing solid opinion journalism a look at DaSilva and Hoyt is a pretty good snapshot.

A post on DaSilva’s personal blog detailing a recent staff meeting at the Tampa Tribune announcing – again – lay-offs was the talk of the web this slow news weekend mostly because of the reactions DaSilva got from her colleagues. They offer an insightful look at how the mostly male news establishment goes about silencing enthusiasm and optimism.

“Wow, you really are young and naive, aren’t you?” “Jamie” writes on DaSilva’s site. “Someone sent me the link to your blog, and I almost had to laugh, it was so ridiculous. I’m truly amazed that in one of your other posts, you can tell reporters to stop whining and do something about their situation. What, praytell, young lady, would you like them to do? Let’s say you were at the Trib for 10 years and had a family to support; what would you do if you were laid off? (By the way, it’s laid off, not layed off. If you can read this, thank a copy editor.)” Jamie – who doesn’t submit his last name – finishes with a flourish: “Unfortunately, I would say that if most of the Trib staff (or any other newspaper’s staff, for that matter) reads some of your posts, you will make some serious enemies. That’s something you don’t want to do in this business; it’s WAY too small, and with the climate as it is now, you don’t want people against you. Give that some serious thought.”

And this post wasn’t a one-time event. Jamie repeats his threats in another comment. He – or perhaps “Jamie” is a she, the charge of sexism still stands – has a fellow-traveler in “Michael”: “I’m an editor at a medium-sized paper and I’m sending your name around to everyone I know in the business to make sure that you are never hired anywhere.”

Why is this an example of sexism? There’s the use of the “praytell young lady” for starters. Then, there’s the assumption that DaSilva doesn’t have – and won’t expect to have – a family to support. It would be nice if DaSilva’s case were isolated. But every woman in every newsroom knows it’s not; this is just a case of the threat made overt. And it’s why there’s precious little opinion writing by women.

Which brings us to one of the few doing the job, Maureen Dowd, and comments made by New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt. Hoyt’s since retracted any sort of intention that he meant to tell Dowd to “tone it down.” But that’s exactly what he was doing. But he then fell for one of the oldest dodges on the planet practiced by a woman well-versed in the sort of nonsense that came DaSilva’s way.

When she started covered politics there was a lot of “how dare she?” around Dowd’s writing and what was described by the male political press corps as her “feminine” style of reporting. These days, she placates that crowd, indulging in cheap shots that meld pop culture and paperback psychology in columns that read like nonsense to you and me by play well with the working political press corps who are in on all the inside jokes.

And she gets away with it. Why? Because, as Hoyt notes somewhat ruefully as he fell for her line, Dowd’s got a good defense: she’s a girl she can’t – as someone suggested in regard to “Jamie” be sexist. She – or perhaps they – can say these things the boys can only think. And no one can lay a hand on them – they’re girls talking about girls. It’s a particularly cynical ploy on Dowd’s part but it’s masterfully executed.

But it’s hollow. When Dowd uses female gender images to talk about male candidates – as she does with Obama and did with Al Gore – she’s associating them with weakness. And just because no one’s complained – as she told Hoyt – doesn’t mean it’s not sexist. It is. That’s not playing with gender stereotyping, as Dowd maintains, it’s playing into gender stereotyping. Hoyt’s failure to think through his critique – from all sides – does as well. He treats Dowd with kid gloves and fails to examine one of her great failings as a columnist.

So you can see why it’s hard to know what will become of Jessica DaSilva, a young and clearly ambitious women. Perhaps, in 10 years or so, we’ll be able to read her observations about Chelsea Clinton’s presidential campaign and we’ll get insight, not cringe-inducing snipes about Daddy’s girlfriends and Mommy’s ambition that parade as the “woman’s” voice on politics. Maybe.

But maybe DaSilva will, instead, end up working for Michael and Jaime’s associates and this is the last we’ll hear of her clear, smart voice. Maybe she’ll figure if she has to spend half her time placating the boys on the bus just to have a little peace in the newsroom, she’ll quit or – despite her inclinations – content herself with soft features, not breaking news and strong opinion.

So next time you wonder why there aren’t any women writing opinion journalism or op-eds, consider Dowd and DaSilva and the obstructions – self-made and otherwise – that lie in front of both.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 7:18 AM | Permalink

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