NEW YORK — Earlier this year, commenting on a survey that criticized the New York Times for its Page 1 coverage of women, Executive Editor Max Frankel put his foot in his mouth when he made a flippant comment about women in the news.
He angered female reporters, including those in his newsroom, when he likened stories involving women to coverage of tea parties.
On Tuesday, after apologizing for those comments, Frankel raised eyebrows once again. During a symposium on women and the media at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, he said it is easier for him to fire women than blacks, because there are more women in the newsroom these days.
"We've reached a critical mass with women. I know that when a woman screws up it is not a political act for me to go fire them," Frankel said at the meeting. "I cannot (easily) say that with some of our blacks. They're still precious, they're still hothouse in management, and if they are less than good, I would probably stay my hand at removing them too quickly. It's still a political act and it would hurt the organization in a larger sense, so you tolerate a little more in the short term."
Frankel's comments drew an angry response from two black woman reporters, who called the comments patronizing, confusing and, in one case, racist.
Tuesday's meeting was sponsored by the Women, Men and Media Project. The group is based in the School of Journalism at USC, under the direction of Betty Friedan, a leading feminist thinker and writer.
In a report issued Tuesday, the group charted the number of stories filed by women reporters on American television news, including the three major networks, PBS and CNN. Based on a one-month survey, the study found that female correspondents participated in only 15% of the news stories, down from 16% in 1989.
Last April, the organization produced a study on the number of female bylines and sources appearing on the front pages of 10 major American newspapers. When told that the New York Times ranked last in sources, Frankel was angered, calling the report "unfair and bizarre."
Noting that different newspapers have different missions, he added: "By that I mean, if you are covering local teas, you've got more women (on the front page) than if you're the Wall Street Journal."
Although he still believes he was right, Frankel on Tuesday conceded that his comments about tea parties were "defensive" and "stupid." However, his statements on race and gender got him in hot water again, this time with two black woman reporters sitting with him on a panel.
If the newspaper treats blacks differently than females, asked Long Island cable television news anchor Melba Tolliver, "what do you do when a black female screws up? You have a policy about how to treat women. Is that white women, all women . . . and then do you have another policy on how you treat white or black people? I mean, it's puzzling."
Carole Simpson, an ABC News senior correspondent, was said: "I'm very disturbed when I hear a news organization say, 'we will let black people slide.' I think that feeds into the whole stereotype of you're not as good. . . . "
Frankel seemed surprised by the reaction, saying he had been misunderstood. The New York Times demands excellence from all its reporters, he said, adding that it cares "passionately" about affirmative action. "Other things being equal and the quality being there, yes, we give the nod to a woman, a black, and put them on the fast track."