Nov 1 1995

The China Syndrome

When Women Talk, Media Politicians

The topic was women. The place was China. And mainstream media in the United States still managed to focus on men and politicians in D.C.

Consider any topic, from the global economy to health care, to education and technology–the women in China were discussing it. Looking for a variety of perspectives on those issues? The diversity was there. The Beijing conference was not just the largest gathering of women in history, it was probably the largest gathering of marginalized experts the world has ever seen. But did the press focus on justice, equality and the way that women have moved an international agenda from the bottom up? Not quite.

When the global conference began, the same U.S. media that remained tight-lipped when Ronald Reagan approved sales of police equipment to China’s internal security force, and praised Vice President Bush’s visit to Beijing in 1985, were suddenly concerned about Chinese security operations and the claims of Capitol Hill conservatives that Hillary Rodham Clinton was disrespecting human rights by attending a rights conference.

The London Guardian got it right in an editorial (9/11/95):

Points of conflict with China and the starring role of Hillary Clinton were legitimate news stories, yet the complex issues raised by the conference should not have been reduced to a struggle between our “free speech” and their “secret police.”

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), whose meeting in nearby Huairou began before the main event in Beijing, got trace-coverage in U.S. newspapers, but Chinese officials often got the lead. “Challenging the Censors in Beijing” was the headline of a New York Times editorial (9/1/95) that declared: “There is no place for censorship at an international conference like this.”

But the focus on the difficulties of grassroots in getting heard in China struck many participants as ironic. As one delegation of women from Delhi explained, the obstacles faced in Huairou were minimal in comparison to what they face every day getting taken seriously by the media in their hometown. (Many U.S. women felt the same way.)

Some women were seen, but silenced. The front page of the weekend International Herald Tribune (9/2-3/95) featured a large photograph of two Tibetan women from the NGO Forum who were taking part in a protest. They were gagged–in the picture and in the paper. Looking inside for the follow-up story, readers found no word from either of the two.

When the government delegates discussed homophobia, Long Island Newsday ran a story “Delegates Mull Ban on Bias Against Lesbians” (9/14/95). But the story quoted none of the activists involved, including South African Palesa Beverley Ditsie, a lesbian who made history when she addressed the plenary on behalf of more than 50 non-governmental organizations. Newsday‘s caption-writers described her as “representing a lesbian group” and quoted nothing of what she said.

Given the opportunity to air new viewpoints from women from around the world, the New York Times op-ed page (9/1/95) preferred to publish a familiar tract from professional anti-feminist Camille Paglia. Her column referred to women’s organizations as representatives of “special interests” (a neat way to make half the population sound “elite”) and attacked them for being “strident”–as if she herself hadn’t made a career of sounding just that way.

Although Paglia dismisses such figures, U.N. statistics show that women are 75 percent of refugees, two-thirds of the world’s illiterate and 70 percent of the 1.2 billion people who are poor. Given those sorts of figures, it shouldn’t require the United Nations in order for mainstream media to pay attention to women’s rights advocates.

The women gathered in China have expertise in dealing with the concerns of the majority of people on the planet (the poor, the female, the displaced, the young). They are full of ideas, experience and strategies; what they don’t have (unlike Paglia) is access to mainstream media–or the resources to buy their own.

The gathering in China did provide an occasion for some unusual coverage. CNN‘s special series on the Fourth World Conference gave a taste of what it might be like to have women taken seriously. The network’s daily half-hour report by Judy Woodruff (9/4/95-9/15/95)–when not pre-empted by breaking Bob Packwood or Randy Weaver news–showcased a cast of female experts whom CNN viewers had probably never seen before. The World Conference on Women is a once-in-a-decade occurrence; let’s hope this sort of reporting is not.

Laura Flanders was invited by the NGO Forum to talk about FAIR’s work at a plenary session on Media, Culture and Communication. A 90-minute tape of this speech and other highlights of the conference is available from FAIR for $15.