Alumna Editor Discusses Women in Journalism

Posted: February 5, 2007

Speaking at a January 29 reception for alumnae in journalism and communications in New York City, Time magazine deputy managing editor Priscilla Painton '80 discussed the current status of women in American journalism, as well as her recent experience teaching a class--Can You Trust a Journalist?--at Mount Holyoke this fall. The reception was held at the apartment of Alumnae Association president Mary Graham Davis '65.

I have been lucky enough to be a journalist for the past 24 years, and in the last 18 years to be attached to one of journalism's best institutions, Time magazine. But my business is living through an earthquake right now, primarily because of the fact that the women of the age of my class at Mount Holyoke this fall don't consume news the way many of us did. Today, I want to talk to you today about why that earthquake, while terrifying to a woman like me in her late 40s, is actually good for women and my profession. And then, I would like to talk briefly about what I learned from the extraordinary women I was privileged to teach at our alma mater this fall.

First let me say that since I started off as reporter at the age of 21 at the Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, journalism was still a sexist swamp. There were no women running big metropolitan newspapers, no women heading up major networks or anchoring the evening newscasts, and, most importantly, very few leading the coverage of subjects considered the most serious: politics, intelligence, foreign policy. Since then, the Chicago Tribune and the Philadelphia Inquirer have been run by women. Women may not run the big networks, but they reached statistical parity at the anchor desk around the country in the early 1990s. The number of female anchors nationwide reached a record high in 2005, and it has been climbing since. They now account for more than half of TV reporters. As you know, CBS just landed its first female anchor. And on the testosterone subjects usually associated with men, the news for women is not bad at all: it was a woman at the Washington Post who broke the story on the existence of secret prisons for terrorism suspects around the world; it was a woman at 60 Minutes who broke the Abu Ghraib story. Women at the New York Times have brought you some of the most wrenching coverage from Baghdad, most especially Sabrina Tavernise. And it was women from the Washington Post who have brought you the biggest scoops from inside the State Department. Women photographers are now all over the world's war zones: Samantha Appleton in Iraq, Lynsey Addario in Darfur and Chad, and Stephanie Sinclair and Kate Brooks in Afghanistan, just to name a few. Women photo editors now run not just Time, but also the New York Times.

I can even say that women have gotten far enough on this traditional male terrain that they are now, for better or for worse, examples of the profession's biggest failures: Judith Miller, after all, was the woman who led the New York Times pre-war coverage about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and who ended up becoming a symbol of just how badly reporters got it wrong heading into the war. It looks like we've come so far, we're now even part of the problem.

But here is what worries me: you have to wonder if women are now moving into these hallowed places because news has lost value, not gained it. In other words, it has become a commodity. Is Katie Couric in the anchor's chair because it's actually Jon Stewart whom everybody watches? Is Martha Raddatz at the Pentagon and the White House because it's Stephen Colbert's faux political coverage that's taken seriously these days? Is the ascent of Gail Collins as the first woman editor of the New York Times editorial page the result of the fact that no one reads those pages anymore; they blog or read blogs instead?

I think there might be some cause for alarm. There is a history of women reaching the top of professions only after it has turned into a pink ghetto. But I also think the Web has shown itself to be a generally hospitable place for women. Yes, the alpha males rule the Web world of political commentary. If you look at prominent polibloggers, they are more male than not: Glenn Reynolds, Powerline, Kos, Atrios, Kausfiles, and so on. Most of the prominent female polibloggers--Michelle Malkin, Arianna Huffington, even to an extent Ana Marie Cox at Time--have done their blogs as brand extensions of already-extant careers as offline pundits. Men do take to being pugilistic and pontificators, and no feminist revolution is going to change that.

But blogging in the larger sense is probably at least friendlier to women than other areas of print journalism. Elizabeth Spiers was the first writer of Gawker; Meg Hourihan wrote one of the first blogs ever and cofounded the company Blogger; in the arts and social commentary there are lots of widely read female bloggers like Maud Newton or Lindsay of Lindsayism; there are whole genres of widely read personal blogs, like Dooce, who writes about her family, and kids, and life--that's not political commentary, but that's like saying Anne Lamott isn't a real writer because she's not Maureen Dowd.

In the larger sense, if anything, women should probably be more socialized to blog than men. And as long as we're generalizing, girls are raised with better community-building skills. For those and many other reasons, I see a bright future ahead for smart, funny, and charming powerhouses from Mount Holyoke, who may think journalism is for them.

And I saw a lot of those powerhouses this fall. The women in my class were sophisticated about how the media works, how to dissect a news story on the page, and how to raise the broader questions of whether journalists are fulfilling their roles in our democracy. For the most part, they wrote well because they had been trained to think well, and that's a great credit to our college. There were two things that struck me about them, versus the women in my generation: two positive, and one negative. The one negative is that they are grade obsessed in a way that I found a bit terrifying. I handed out four bad grades, and two of those were low Bs. Three out of the four students mounted a huge revolt, and some of the emails got surprisingly personal. But the positives were this: the campus was astoundingly diverse, and it was a pleasure to walk around it with kids from all over the globe forming connections that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. The other positive is that my students saw themselves as global citizens: it never occurred to them that their feet were not planted in a world that is flat, and interesting, and to which they have a direct, automatic connection. That was thrilling to see up close. By the time they had reached me, they had worked in Africa in AIDS clinics and at Chinese newspapers. And when they left me, they were on their way back out there with their fierce intelligence, and a deep sense of belonging to that world. It was a privilege to know them.

Related Links:

MHC Alumna Offers Journalism Course

Time Magazine