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Reporting What They Are, Being What They Report : A PLACE IN THE NEWS From the Women's Pages to the Front Page by Kay Mills (Dodd, Mead: $17.95; 355 pp.)

July 10, 1988|Martin Linsky | Linsky, a former journalist, teaches about the press, politics and political leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. and

Kay Mills, an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times, has written a helpful and wonderfully subversive little book.

Under the guise of tracing the historic and continuing struggle of women in American newsrooms, she has exposed some very sore places for the press and for women. In a literal but superficial sense, her book is about the current state of women's aspirations for power and responsibility in daily newspapers. But what she describes is also true for racial and ethnic minorities as well as for women. And it mirrors the state of affairs throughout contemporary society, in law, politics, academics, and medicine, for example, as women and minorities seek their rightful place in arenas that must relate to a world that is increasingly diverse, but until now has been dominated by white men and, more important, by white male values.

"A Place in the News" is written as a series of 19 relatively short, discrete chapters, each nibbling on a different slice of the pie. Some of the pieces are interesting although expected: a short history of women reporters over the last 100 years, and a recounting of the relatively recent transformation of women's pages with the implications for female journalists and female issues. Some are necessary reporting: the drama of the efforts of Washington-based women in the media to have equal access to the mostly male newsmakers in the nation's capital, and stories of the background and consequences of various lawsuits brought by women in news organizations. Some are provocative: the canonization of Al Neuharth, the Gannett organization and USA Today for their role in advancing the careers of women in journalism and for proving that women can do the job and will do it differently; and the next-to-last chapter in which she thoughtfully raises questions about whether all of this struggle is worth the price.

Mills' data is her own experience, quotes and anecdotes from her 150 interviews with journalists from around the country, almost exclusively women, and some re-reporting of recent academic and professional studies. As a result, the book reads more like a collection of magazine articles than a coherent argument or world view. In addition, it is about newspapers and not television, thus leaving out a whole world of women journalists who are desperately seeking legitimacy and respect. And she dutifully devotes a few pages to being particularly harsh on her own newspaper, as if otherwise we wouldn't believe the other stuff. That's the bad news. The good news is that the issues are important and the book is easy to read, which might mean that it will actually be read. It should be read because there is something there for everyone.

For people concerned about the role of the press in American affairs, this book strips away the veneer of the myth of objectivity behind which journalists too often hide in making excuses for why they do not do better than they do in telling us what is really going on. Mills argues, with anecdotal support as well as testimony, that women bring special qualities such as better capacities for listening and compassion, that they have some special resources as reporters, such as being less threatening, and that they see the world differently and thus ask different questions, understand issues in a different way, and hear different nuances in a quotation or a news event.

The implications of this idea are very significant. If women do bring special competences and insights to the definitions and forms of news, then we can explain some of the conventions that bother us the most. For example, the "horse race" coverage of elections is not the inevitable result of the way news must be done, but only the inevitable result of the way news will be done if it continues to be dominated by the values embodied by men. Mills helps us understand why sports metaphors dominate the news pages. We gain some insight about why conventional images of leadership involve lonely men out in front of society rather than nurturing women engaging the relevant communities in facing up to hard problems. In short, we begin to be aware that what ought to distinguish a good reporter and a good news organization from inferior ones is not that they try to neuter themselves by eradicating their special perspective, but that they acknowledge it, use it, and provide room for other, even radically challenging, points of view.

American journalism has wrapped itself in a flag of objectivity, which Mills helps unravel. Objectivity is a surrogate for a set of values that tend to preserve those in power and open the way only to like-minded successors.

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