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University of Wisconsin–Madison

PERSONAL ESSAY: Does the Press Still Care About Women’s Rights?

In a provocative essay, Sue Steinberg, an experienced network executive and producer who helped found MTV, questions whether the media today is still committed to advancing women’s rights and questioning stereotypes. She asks: Does the press not have an ethical responsibility to depict young women with respect? Shouldn’t the press focus on the political qualifications of women in public life – not their physical features?

In the early 1970s I came to Madison, Wisconsin where sexual politics were taken as seriously as ending the war in Vietnam. It was a tumultuous time in thinking, writing and acting.  Those times and issues rocked our world.

During this wave of feminism, writers and heroes – like Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan (author of The Feminist Mystique) and New York senator Bella Abzug – were moving forward in the quest for equality of the sexes both at home and in the workplace. The key element was raising consciousness. The girls on campus, with whom I studied, played and spent four very special years, believed whole-heartedly that we would become fully realized women. Whether we wanted to be wives, mothers, or professionals, the choice was ours to make.

How much of this decades-long quest, and its results, still matters today for our press?  Is it the press’s responsibility to both report the facts and to break harmful stereotypes of women that encourage them to accept submissive and/or dangerous roles? Should the press perpetuate the myth of the “perfect woman,” a myth that still colors the self-esteem of women, young and old?

Some journalists do a fair job of representing the real world of the modern American female.  They report, and their opinion and editorial sections are clearly delineated.  However, these balanced media outlets are unfortunately few and far between.  And, they have their own agendas as well.

It is not the responsibility of the “celebrity press” to politicize the portrayal of women. While much has been written and broadcast about the unconscionable messages sent to women and young girls regarding the standards of beauty and popularity, there remains a larger issue of moral and social responsibility.  I believe that our media does a good job of presenting both sides in editorializing and publishing studies and articles written by authorities.  However, I seriously doubt that the findings really make their way into mainstream journalism in a meaningful way.

Unrealistic standards

In viewing the popular fashion magazines currently on the stands, it is painfully obvious that young women are held to unrealistic standards as perpetuated by both advertising and the media. The gold standard is for girls to be very thin and extraordinarily beautiful. Add to that, the praise heaped on girls who are both athletic and academically relentless in their pursuit of approval and praise. I recently listened to a report on a study including interviews with adolescent girls who admitted that they had sex because they saw a lot of sexual content and/or innuendo on TV shows such as “Gossip Girl” and “Melrose Place.”

There is a great deal of money to be made in hawking the wares of fashion, relationships, the comings and goings of celebrities, and of course consumerism.  Teenage spending power contributes a lot to the bottom line of clothing manufacturers, cosmetic companies, and hawkers of health products, including pharmaceuticals. Both print and electronic media follow the money.  So where does ethics fit in?

Perhaps the big question is, as it relates to young women, how much of a “village” does it take?  Is it right to represent our children with respect and yet practice freedom of speech?  I think that there could be a case made for both sides of the coin, but when the scales tip, are we outraged enough to “call out” the media for poor reporting or poor judgment?  With respect to middle-aged or elderly women, what again is the obligation of the press to represent women factually and fairly?

These are all rhetorical questions that give us pause and food for thought. Doesn’t every society have some ethical obligation to protect its youngest members?

Covering Clinton

Let’s look at recent history for a different age group: the middle-aged.  When you think about Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, what comes to mind? Is it acceptable to portray one very intelligent, well-informed, and talented middle-aged woman as unfit to be our president because she wears pantsuits?  Is it cause enough to portray the other as a fit candidate because she is attractive and wears her skirts and high leather boots with such aplomb? And, most importantly, why does the media allow itself to make such an issue of each woman’s physical assets and liabilities?

I’m not sure that this is ethical or even fair practice.

When Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s “Hardball” tells us that Hillary cried, and demeans her for her personal behavior (which had no foreseeable impact on real politics), viewers voiced their dismay.  In fact, Matthews apologized to Clinton on the air.  This apology feels like responsible journalism to me and was the ethical thing to do, and Matthews’ audience was quick to let him know.  After all, by some opinions, Clinton’s actions helped her win the New Hampshire Democratic primary in 2008.  And in reporting on the polls, her supporters included a majority of women “of a certain age.” Is it possible, and therefore ethical, to simply report the facts and not attribute this voting group as “the sisterhood of the traveling pantsuit”?

Hillary Clinton was shown to be a vulnerable woman. Was it fair reporting or ethical oversight to make vulnerability such a crucial measure of political competence? Was Clinton being mocked  for her display of emotion?  If this is much of what you remember, then the answer would be yes. The stories of Clinton’s tears were simply editorial comments dressed in factual clothes.  I vividly recall specific newscasters, print journalists, and pundits all but punishing her for her seemingly authentic reactions to the events at hand.

And again, Matthews of MSNBC’s “Hardball” came under fire when he said: “Let’s not forget, and I’ll be brutal here, the reason she’s a US senator, the reason she’s a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner, is that her husband messed around.” Matthews was not alone in making such comments.

The response to his statement was almost as loud as the campaign itself.  Women’s groups, both national and local, drew attention to Matthew’s comments and he apologized on air. He was clearly responsible for sexist remarks and tried to make it right, but perhaps the greater issue of ethical conduct is that the network itself did not alter its editorial policies.

“Good legs and hair”

Does the press aid us in fairly evaluating intelligent, knowledgeable, skilled and savvy negotiators in public affairs? Or does the press unfairly represent each woman based on qualities that have little to do with these capabilities, or with being the leader of the United States?

It seems to me that the press spends too much time on pantsuits, good legs and hair. How much do those physical qualities really matter?  How much does the press owe us in reporting the facts, and how ethical is it to place such importance on superfluous measures? What does the press owe us in terms of presenting facts without editorializing?

Much of the above may seem basic. To some, it may sound like a song on a “golden oldies” radio station. Yet I think that it is incumbent upon the press to raise the ethics bar for commentary or punditry.

I was struck by a media comment several weeks ago when Secretary of State Clinton was visiting a Muslim country and dressed appropriately for a Muslim funeral. I heard Matthew’s comment on a photograph of her looking “beautiful and respectful.”  Indeed she did, dressed in blue with matching hair cover, with a solemn and respectful expression on her face.  Why should I be struck by that? Yes, it was Matthews’ opinion. But it was also refreshing and, to my personal way of thinking, factual.

Equally important, Clinton is rarely referred to as beautiful. She is criticized for being dowdy and old when, in truth, she might also be described as brilliant, fully capable, and experienced in the ways of government.  She has withstood public and private humiliation with a good measure of grace.  She has raised an intelligent, beautiful and successful child.  Is that not enough to make one beautiful?

Mixed report card

I think that the press gets a mixed report card on the ethics of writing about and the representation of women and girls.

Women and girls are able to do much more and reach much higher than they have been in our history.  I am struck by how much more acceptable and easier it is for this generation of women to succeed in business and to require more equality in personal relationships.  Many of us are seeing an upward spiral in the treatment and respect due to women of all ages.  We are finally teaching our girls not to tolerate abuse at the hands of men in relationships as well as in the office (wherever that “office” may be).

We are “calling out” journalists and publications for unethical approaches to women’s issues, which is as much about the equality of men.

To quote CBS anchor Katie Couric on the subject of coverage of Hillary Clinton’s campaign: “Like her or not, one of the great lessons of that campaign is the continued, and accepted, role of sexism in American life, particularly in the media.”

As we thoughtfully consider the ethics of journalism, let’s keep “calling out” those who would seek to undermine our society.

Sue Steinberg is an experienced television Network Executive and Producer and has worked in the television and marketing businesses for 25 years.  She is a co-founder of MTV, the biggest and most highly successful entertainment brands ever created.  She also served its Executive Producer for all original programming.

Prior to that, she spearheaded the growth of NICKOLODEON through the addition of acquired programming which allowed the network to cablecast an extended programming day.

Later, having relocated to Los Angeles, she joined the production company Guber-Peter Productions, which was responsible for producing many award winning films such as “Batman”, “Rainman”, “Gorilla’s In The Mist” among others.  The company was later acquired by Sony where she became Vice President, Television Movies and Miniseries.  
During her tenure at Sony Television, she was responsible for developing and producing over 14 hours of TV programming.

Steinberg later developed and executive produced a primetime program for Fox Network called “The Ultimate Challenge” in addition to creating other pilots for the network.  

Having moved back to New York, she is working on the production of “Olenna”, the award winning play written by the celebrated playwright David Mamet.

She is a foundation member of the esteemed art museum Dia and contributes to a variety of cultural institutions and programs.

Sue Steinberg began her career at Seventeen Magazine as the ‘dear abby’ of the monthly under the pseudonym “Abigail Wood”.  There, at the seasoned age of 24, she dispensed advice to teenagers.  A long-term study on effect of those words has yet to be conducted.  She is always happy to regale friends and acquaintances with choice vignettes of those days. Names are always withheld to protect the innocent.

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