The Wall Street Journal and Commentary’s condescending remarks about the first female editor of the New York Times reveal an underlying sexism.
By **Sam Kerbel**
When Jill Abramson was promoted from managing editor to executive editor of the New York Times last week, two kinds of reactions, both ultimately about gender, dominated the press coverage. About the first, Ken Auletta wrote in The New Yorker, “Much of the press that will accompany her appointment will note that she is the first female editor of the Times.”
Rightly so. Gender inequality in print media has been controversial for decades. But over the last year, amidst criticism that print editors publish more reviews by men (about books by men) than women, it has become a meme. In The New Republic this past February, Ruth Franklin noted the staggering gap between featured male and female writers, as calculated by the women’s literary organization VIDA:
“At Harper’s, there were 27 male book reviewers and six female; about 69 percent of the books reviewed were by male authors. At the London Review of Books, men wrote 78 percent of the reviews and 74 percent of the books reviewed. Men made up 84 percent of the reviewers for The New York Review of Books and authored 83 percent of the books reviewed. TNR, I’m sorry to say, did not compare well: Of the 62 writers who wrote about books for us last year, only 13 (or 21 percent) were women.”
Franklin goes on to show the percentage of books by women that are published annually is proportionate to the number of reviews covering books by women—so the problem actually originates with book publishers, not with print media as much (and VIDA basically had taken aim at the wrong target). Franklin concludes that while editors should not necessarily pick an equal amount of male and female writers, we are “still held in the grip of unconscious biases, no less damaging for their visibility.”
From this standpoint, Abramson’s newfound position in an undeniably male-dominated industry deserves recognition, and recognition came. Ed Pilkington wrote in the Guardian, “For 160 years the New York Times has been setting the standards of newspaper journalism in America, with one significant exception—gender equality. Now the paradoxically nicknamed Gray Lady has finally redressed the balance with the appointment of its first female editor.”
[Peter] Wehner appears to be picking at straws, finding any way to misrepresent Abramson’s words and make her look unfit, intellectually and emotionally
Similarly, former Times reporter Linda Greenhouse, quoted in Bloomberg News, commented that Abramson’s appointment is “the culmination of decades of evolution leading to considering women as fully equal and able participants in the field of journalism.”
But some media outlets directed their attention away from gender politics—or pretended to, anyway—by focusing on a second topic: Abramson’s own reaction to the promotion. In the Times’s original coverage of the announcement, Abramson mentions that this opportunity is like “ascending to Valhalla.” “In my house growing up, the Times substituted for religion,” she said. “If The Times said it, it was the absolute truth.” (These comments were later omitted by the Times in their updated version of the announcement.)
A woman—or any person for that matter—being promoted to head perhaps the most famous newspaper in the world is indeed a milestone, and many of the commentators took Abramson’s “Valhalla” remark as an expression of apposite emotion given that milestone (weren’t we emotional after the election of the United States’s first Black president?). For others, though, Abramson’s words indicate something far more sinister, namely “cultism.” In a blog piece entitled “When Journalism Substitutes for Religion,” Commentary writer Peter Wehner remarks, “For a person to have viewed (and presumably to still view, at least to some degree) a newspaper with religious reverence and its stories as sacred text is slightly weird and quite revealing. Devotion to a journalistic enterprise is one thing; cultism is quite another.”
Wehner is no stranger to favoring rhetorical embellishment over reason (he writes in another piece that Obama’s presidency “has been marred by a sick economy and a stunningly weak recovery,” implying throughout that Obama was the one who singlehandedly caused our current economic mess). But these comments are particularly absurd. Wehner appears to be picking at straws, finding any way to misrepresent Abramson’s words and make her look unfit, intellectually and emotionally, for the executive editor position.
The opinion page of the Wall Street Journal, a former employer of Abramson, manages to one-up Commentary by using her statement to disparage the entire newspaper, claiming, “The Times has of late acted a great deal like a corrupt religious institution.” It cites three examples in support of this argument—none of them, by the way, having to do with Abramson specifically—but like Commentary it falls back completely on buzzwords. For instance, it describes the Times’s coverage of the Arizona massacre as a “witch hunt” against Republicans and their supporters, arguing that “the Times propagated the blood libel that conservative media figures were behind the murders in Tucson.”
Leaving aside the offensive (and, at this point, hackneyed) usage of the “blood libel” epithet (which places the Journal right up there with Sarah Palin), both Commentary and the Journal can be construed, in their condescending depiction of Abramson’s words, as sexist. By distorting Abramson’s emotional response and belittling her achievements, Commentary and the Journal have proven that they do not wish to take her seriously.
Perhaps these publications would have made similar remarks about a male editor as well. Indeed, the right-wing media will seize any opportunity to deliberately alter what a left-leaning figure says. But in the context of the current gender politics debate, these comments are rather odious in that they confirm the latent attitudes that Franklin has detected in the publishing industry. Hopefully, Commentary and the Journal are exceptions in this case, but if the VIDA figures are any indication, their opinions may be more pervasive than we choose to think.
Copyright 2011 Sam Kerbel
Sam Kerbel is an editorial assistant at Guernica.