Wednesday, March 16, 2005


The Columbia Journalism Review has a thoughtful critique of Robert Boynton’s book, The New New Journalism. I filed my blog entry on his Cody’s appearance before I started reading the book, and the author of the CJR article points out something I did not notice until later: Only 3 of the 19 reporters Boynton interviews are women.

Which brings us to one final, important matter: Why is it that just three of the nineteen writers in this book — LeBlanc, Susan Orlean, and Jane Kramer — are women? It can be argued that Boynton’s choices merely reflect the predominance of male voices in the prestigious U.S. magazines that publish both narrative and opinion journalism. The New Yorker has recently been criticized for this tendency. The New Republic, The Washington Monthly, and The American Prospect have long been led and dominated by men. And the much-praised Atlantic is no exception. Excluding poetry, the January/February issue has thirty-two bylines by men, including the prolific Langewiesche, and just five by women, a ratio that is typical for the magazine.
But why? Is the culprit rank sexism? Male editors hiring their male buddies? Or else the magazine’s preference for subjects such as war and politics that draw more male writers? Do women writers, facing rejection, discourage more easily? (I’ve heard that thesis proposed.) Or, as devoted mothers and daughters and wives, are they simply unavailable to devote the months and years of zealous, almost superhuman effort required by immersion journalism? There is surely no single, and no easy, answer. But it would have been nice if Boynton, in this otherwise probing book, had thought to raise the question.

I definitely have my thoughts on this point. I had been a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News for two years when I had my first child. I cut back to four days a week, and then to three when baby #2 came along. Despite my short week, I hustled like crazy on my work days and produced more copy – and more Page One stories – than many full-time reporters. Regardless, I will never forget when the managing editor looked me in the eye and told me I was less valuable to the paper than other reporters who worked five days a week.

This world is not set up for professionals with families.

In other Mercury News-related news, the Los Angeles Times ran a story today on the suicide of Gary Webb, the Merc’s investigative reporter who wrote about a CIA link between drug dealers and the Contras in Nicaragua. When the story came out, the Mercury News was proud and convinced it had joined the big leagues, but the top editors quickly pulled their support when papers like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times criticized Webb. In short, Webb left the paper, never regained his footing in journalism, and committed suicide. I always felt the Merc folded under pressure, but I never spoke out about it. I still regret my silence.

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