May 1 1996

How Alternative Is It?

Feminist Media Activists Take Aim at the Progressive Press

Around 300 journalists, activists and critics crowded into a room at the Media & Democracy Congress in San Francisco on March 1 to discuss the coverage of issues related to gender. For once, alternative and progressive media came under as much fire as the commercial mainstream.

Nation columnist Katha Pollitt recalled that in 1995 she had written a column decrying the absence of African-Americans in the progressive press. “I could have written almost the same article about the issue of gender,” she told the Congress. “If you look at the mastheads of most left-wing magazines, they are dominated by men…white men.”

And the problem, Pollitt said, goes beyond who’s on the top of the masthead: “It’s who writes and what do they write.” The space for the “woman columnist” is almost as tightly confined in left media as it is in the mainstream press, she charged: “There’s a certain amount of either sincere or lip-service acknowledgment of the culture feminism.”

But the space that has been opened for feminist themes “never spills over–it’s like a little river that’s concrete on all sides,” she said. “The discourse of feminism totally drops out when the subject isn’t feminism itself.” (On the other hand, if you’re a woman, “you can be asked to talk about anything having to do with women, whether you know anything about it all,” Pollitt remarked.)

If progressive journalists had done a better job of integrating gender-consciousness into their analysis, they might have mounted a more effective response to the right’s assault on traditionally “women’s” or “feminist” issues. Instead, the right’s attack on abortion, divorce and sexual diversity stimulated, at best, ambivalence. When the right vilifies divorce, Pollitt pointed out, the left responds by saying, “‘We’re against breaking up families….’ You don’t hear anyone saying, ‘Hey–divorce, we need it.'” Those voices are seldom heard in mainstream media–and the silence is similar in the “alternatives.”


‘Separate Media, Separate Movements’

Meanwhile, “feminist” publications that do air such views are frequently not on left journalism’s radar. Feminists who gave up fighting to get women’s issues into the pages of the male-dominated progressive media and went off to make media of their own now find themselves in “separate media, separate movements,” commented Helen Zia of Ms. magazine.

The stories they cover are often ignored for years–not just by mainstream editors and writers, but also in the outlets of the left. Stories that appear for the first time in so-called “feminist” or “women’s” outlets just don’t get “buzzed about” as much as comparable stories elsewhere, said John Stoltenberg, managing editor at the women’s quarterly On the Issues.

But especially in the contemporary political climate, “Editors have a responsibility to pay attention to the feminist press and to echo it… It’s not a female ghetto that you can afford to ignore.”

When both mainstream and “progressive” media fail to look beyond the traditional “inside the Beltway” news frame, not only media consumers but also activists pay a price. “We need research that’s useful to our movements,” said Rinku Sen of the San Francisco-based Center for Third World Organizing. “And documentation of the very good organizing that exists…so that other people can see it and do the same thing.” Otherwise, even important victories can be eroded through lack of nurture and attention.

Both Sen and Tara Roberts of Essence made the point that the concerns of young women, poor women and women of color

have been under-reported in mainstream and alternative media alike. Yet those women make up the majority most affected by contemporary social and economic policy. Asking for a shift in focus is not asking for special favors from reporters, but simply calling on them to do their jobs.

“The media gets very enamored of its own reflection,” commented Urvashi Vaid, author of Virtual Reality: The Mainstreaming of Gay & Lesbian Liberation. “And that extends to our own media as well as mainstream media…. If I hear another story in the gay press about [media mogul and gay philanthropist] David Geffen, I’ll vomit,” Vaid declared. “We need a shift in the content…to cover working people’s lives.”

Women Aren’t the Only Gender

The left’s approach to gender itself reveals the narrow frame of much progressive debate. “Within the queer movement we’ve had debates about gender for years,” pointed out Vaid. Yet that analysis–done by people who challenge standard models of “masculinity” and “feminity”–has been overwhelmingly ignored in the left press.

Part of the problem is that in left media, “gender issues” are still interpreted as “women’s issues,” commented Jackson Katz, of the Massachusetts-based group Real Men. “Focusing solely on women when it comes to gender gives men an excuse not to pay attention. Yet men are precisely the ones who have to take on these issues.”

The progressive media is one place we have to discuss these issues, yet it doesn’t often happen, Katz and his colleague, videomaker and educator Byron Hurt, complained. “A lot of men have never had another man challenge them on their sexism or their expression of masculinity,” said Hurt–not in life, and not in media of any kind.

“We can talk for a long time about the challenges of integrating issues of gender and race into mainstream media,” concluded Donna Edwards of the D.C.-based Center for a New Democracy. “But I’d like to talk about the challenge of integrating those issues into the progressive media so that…when there are hot-button issues that come up that then get pitched into the mainstream media, there is a foundation of understanding that has been laid.”

As Edwards put it, the coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial was illustrative. “When it comes to a point that an issue [like domestic violence] is thrust in the mainstream media, not having laid that framework costs us dearly…. I would have liked to have had an opportunity before the last two years to lay out the issues in a way that’s responsible, so that when the mainstream media is ready to pounce on an issue we’re not blindsided.”

Outreach to women in mainstream media might help build connections, suggested Susan Faludi, author of Backlash. “Things have gotten to such a pass that [activists] reign themselves in from even approaching women working in the mainstream, who may be open and at the same time feeling very isolated.”

“The reaching out is critical,” agreed Vaid, along with more factual analysis of how women, people of color, and lesbians and gays are advancing in mainstream and alternative media. “We also need a self-defense mechanism to respond to the right-wing’s attacks on individuals and groups.”

Those interested in FAIR’s ongoing work on all these fronts–stay tuned.