In Shales review of PBS program, questions about The Post and gender bias

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By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, May 23, 2010

Post TV critic Tom Shales can be cutting, and he didn't spare the knife in his recent review of the new PBS public affairs program "Need to Know." Declaring it a "monstrosity" and a "specious wheeze," he then turned on "semi-competent anchors" Jon Meacham and Alison Stewart for their "fawning, fatuous interview" with former president Bill Clinton. Of Stewart, an award-winning journalist, Shales wrote that "she looked as though she would have been much more comfortable in Clinton's lap."

That crossed the line from criticism to sexism, said readers who contacted the ombudsman. Shales, attacked in the blogosphere and on cable TV, apologized last Tuesday in an online chat. Far from intending it as some "graphic sexual reference," he explained: "I was talking about cozying up, nothing more sinister than that."

Readers often object when they feel The Post has used sexist language or focused gratuitously on a woman's appearance. Referring to a couple as "man and wife" has annoyed those who view it as a throwback to an era when married women were seen as possessions. Many protested a recent column that said Rielle Hunter, the lover of former presidential candidate John Edwards, had spoken "blondely" in a televised interview. Others complained about a story that gave a detailed description of Sarah Palin's apparel, down to her "pumps and black nylons," and said she "sashayed" into a courtroom and smiled "demurely."

References like these don't typically prompt canceled subscriptions. But the consistent negative response to them surely works against efforts to retain or attract a critically important readership group: women.

An internal Post newsroom study issued in March 2008 noted a drop in female readership that "began accelerating in 2003." It cited nationwide research showing that women between the ages of 18 and 34 spent only 15 minutes a day reading the newspaper. (It was slightly higher for men in the same age group.)

The study also said a content analysis of roughly 1,200 Post stories found that women were the focus of only 18 percent of them, although they comprised slightly more than half the area's population. The same analysis found that "men are quoted almost three times as often as women in the paper."

The study recommended The Post produce journalism "that creates an expectation among female readers that the paper is being published with them in mind."

Avoiding irrelevant fixations on female imagery can help. But that can be challenging because "women are judged by appearance more than men," said Georgetown University professor and author Deborah Tannen, who has written extensively on gender differences in communications. More than men, she said, women must make choices about hairstyle or clothing. They face a no-win situation of being seen as "too sexy," or if "dressed in a way that's not sexy at all, being described as schoolmarmish."

Strict gender neutrality isn't the answer. Appearance is germane when writing about beauty pageants or fashion. And it's acceptable to write about it in context. The Post's 2007 story about then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton showing some cleavage on the Senate floor made many wince because it had nothing to do with her abilities. But it sparked pertinent debate over whether she was trying to evoke a different stylistic character for her presidential bid.

It's important to guard against "the kind of puritanical political correctness" that sees sexism "in even the most neutral descriptions," said Roy Peter Clark, an authority on writing at the Poynter Institute on media studies in Florida.

The Post's internal Stylebook says: "References to personal appearance -- blond, diminutive, blue-eyed -- should generally be omitted unless clearly relevant to the story." It cautions to "avoid condescension and stereotypes."

Stewart believes Shales was guilty of both. "This is a man who's paid to communicate through words. Didn't he read it beforehand?" she asked. "Did anybody read that before he pressed 'send,' besides him?"

Tannen has simple advice for journalists dealing with gender-based language or images. "After you've written something,'" she said, "stop and ask yourself: Would I have put it this way for a man? If not, is it going to be damaging?"

That good guidance was echoed by Robin Lakoff, a noted linguistics professor at the University of California at Berkeley. She offered another reason for sensitivity.

"It's the duty of important newspapers like The Post to set an example . . . to be a force for change," she said. "Every choice you make in the area of gender, as in the areas of race and class, makes a difference."

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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