Friday, March 25, 2005

Rain, Rain, Go Away

The Los Angeles Times Op-Ed page has been embroiled in controversy the past few weeks. Susan Estrich, the USC law professor who once coordinated Michael Dukakis’ campaign for president, lambasted the editorial page editor, Michael Kinsey, for not running more pieces by women. At one point, the debate got ugly with Estrich suggesting that Kinsley’s Parkinson’s disease had started to affect his judgment. The fight’s reverberations spread across the country. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote about it, as did Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post.

Here’s Estrich:

Depending on the day or the paper, three or four of the columns you read on the typical opinion page are likely to be written by a man, and if you're lucky, one by a woman. If you add the cartoon, which is almost always by a man, you can get to five or six opinions by men and one by a woman.

Now certainly women aren't a monolith, but to exclude half of the population from a page intended to represent diverse voices in the community seems plainly wrong. This is not a liberal-conservative issue: Ann Coulter told me not long ago that she couldn't get into an American paper large enough to be included in Lexis-Nexis.

This is a longstanding problem, which my students at USC Law School and I have been collecting data about for some years. Alicia Mundy wrote about the underrepresentation of women at The New York Times in Editor & Publisher a decade ago; in February of this year, there were no women at all on the op-ed page of The New York Times on 12 of 28 days, or nearly half the month. Former Washington Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser, one of the most respected women in journalism, pointedly wrote about the issue, as well. For the first nine weeks of 2005, according to The Washington Post's own Howard Kurtz, 90 percent of the articles on the op-ed page of that paper were by men.

Clearly, female representation in the upper reaches of almost anything is still an issue in the United States. And now that I have young daughters, it baffles me even more. Little girls, from the time they are born, are clearly more focused than little boys. In Kindergarten, boys bounce off the walls, disrupt the class, and yearn to run on the playground. They worship guns, battles, and bodily functions. Girls care about reading, their handwriting, and the opinion of the teacher, and this makes them good students.

But at some mysterious point, men start to rule. Motherhood is not to blame, for the transition comes earlier than that. And once on top, men do not let go.

I found myself involved in another controversy concerning the LA Times Op-Ed page. Ralph Shaffer, a Professor Emeritus of History at Cal Poly Pomona, has been writing op-ed pages to the Times for years about the way the paper characterizes the region as a desert. Shaffer has pointed out that a place that gets 15 inches of rain on average has more of a Mediterranean climate than an arid one. Seems like a good point to me, but the Times has rejected Shaffer’s op-ed article numerous times.

The heavens opened up this year and cast almost 40 inches of rain on Los Angeles. But the Times got its statistics wrong again. It said that the wettest winter was the one of 1883-1884, when 38.18 inches of rain fell. Shaffer knew that the winter of 1861 had actually been wetter, and wrote a piece for the op-ed page pointing out that fact. It was rejected in less than five hours.

I knew how he feels. While researching the history of my great-great grandfather, Isaias Hellman, I came across reference to the winter of 1861. I found out that Hellman had been caught in a flash flood and that he had to flee for his life. I wrote an op-ed piece for the LA Times about it, and it got rejected in ……. 22 hours.

Kevin Roderick, of the blog, LA Observed, wrote about “the LA Times rejectees.”

Turns out a second writer had her op-ed piece on the great rains of 1861-62 rejected by the Times. Frances Dinkelspiel, a Berkeley journalist and books blogger at Ghost Word [and daily L.A. Observed reader], learned of the forgotten deluge while researching a biography of her great-great grandfather, Isaias W. Hellman. If you ever sit at the outside tables at Pete's Bar downtown at 4th Street and Main, look across at the stately and solid relic facing you. It's the Farmers and Merchants Bank (photo from 1923, larger at LAPL), which Hellman founded. Its presence gave Tom Gilmore the idea to call his loft conversions the Old Bank District. Hellman, incidentally, also ran Wells Fargo, donated part of the land for USC, was Henry Huntington's partner in the Pacific Electric Red Cars and president of downtown's Congregation B'nai B'rith, which moved west to build the Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Well, that notice brought a flurry of new visitors to Ghost Word, which was great.

And now the Jewish Journal, a weekly magazine in the Los Angeles area, is going to print my piece on Hellman and the 1861 rains.

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