It’s easy to blame the book publishing industry for every known crime in the world. Heaven knows I’ve done it for years, but here’s the problem: Once you make an accusation, you better not be guilty of the same crime.
How It Works
Recently The New Republic lashed out against the book industry for being “addicted to the quick Trump fix.” Writer Alex Shephard said that publishers routinely exploit the insane charisma of Our Prez by pumping out White House tell-alls, which then become bestsellers.
Nothing new there, but let’s give editors at The New Republic credit. They’d never stoop so low, right?
Well, let’s take a look at the magazine’s May issue, which crops up in an ad for subscriptions farther down the page. Featured on the cover are four United States senators (Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren) under the headline, “WOMEN ON THE VERGE.”
I’m sure those words are meant to remind us of the 1988 movie, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The story is about a “super-sexy (heroine who) is forever teetering around atop her skyscraper spikes as she obsesses over Iván, the lover who just jilted her over the answering machine!” So begins the description on Vudu.com. Other ditzy gal pals get crazier by the minute.
It’s a comedy, but, you know, dark.
Apparently The New Republic staff thought it humorous to make this “Women on the Verge” connection. The four female senators in the May cover may be serious contenders for president in 2020, but when it comes down to it, guys, they’re still women. Kamala looks a little loudmouthed, Elizabeth a bit totalitarian, Kristen about to get her period and Amy clearly tripping on her microdose.
The lava-lamp look of revolving faces is bad enough, but even worse, that cheap psychedelic coloring stops us from taking these women seriously. So here’s the real meaning of “Women on the Verge”: Give these babes enough votes and they’ll turn hysterical. As the movie shows, that’s what power does to women.
Journalists on the Verge of…Unseen Bias
I bring this up because it’s easier to have fun playing around with a “Women on the Verge” headline than to recognize the deeper problem of journalistic bias.
NPR commentator Sam Sanders made a surprising personal admission about this in a recent live performance of his show, It’s Been a Minute.
Journalists, he said, approach reporting about “new and flashy male candidates by writing a piece all about the positives. But with women, we start out covering all the negatives.”
As an example, he asked the audience to “think about every story you’ve read about Elizabeth Warren in the last three or four months. Even the stories that describe her positive attributes are negative.”
How does that work? Reporters may start to comment favorably on, say, Elizabeth Warren’s impressive proposals for fixing the nation’s problems, but the statement often comes out stigmatized, like this: “Elizabeth Warren focuses on policy … too much.”
“What is that?” asked Sanders, pictured below. “It’s turning a positive into a negative when it comes to women candidates. That’s something we all do. And we don’t even know it.”
Negativity by Omission
Did he say making women inferior to men is something journalists routinely do without realizing they’re doing it? He did, and he said it’s “something we all do,” meaning women, too. We all grow up under an imbalanced system. Even those who fight the status quo are capable of perpetrating propaganda.
And we don’t even know it, he says.
Really? Why not?
Consider another example. Sanders asked the crowd: “Everyone knows Pete Buttigieg speaks Norwegian, but how many of you know that Kristin Gillibrand speaks fluent Mandarin? That’s not discussed, right?”
Right, at the time (a few weeks ago) it wasn’t discussed. But since then, the subject has received some notoriety. During an appearance covered by the New York Times, Buttigieg spoke such limited Norwegian that he clumsily apologized, in Norwegian, for having “forgotten so much Norwegian.”
So: not fluent. He even concluded in English: “Sorry, I just ran out of Norwegian.”
Journalists on the scene who spoke Norwegian quickly forgave Buttigieg because he was so honest and good natured about it, and that’s Sanders’ point:. Buttigieg never said he was fluent in Norwegian. It was the rest of the world, represented by journalists as our filter, that wanted him to be fluent in Norwegian — and in six other languages, just as he single-handedly won the war in Afghanistan and grew up to be the kind of Christian that a gay Jesus might have been.
Gillibrand, meanwhile, is seen speaking Mandarin in videos that by now have been viewed by millions. She learned the language while living in China on a Dartmouth foreign study program and traveling adventurously with her roommate, actor Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights, Nashville). And she continues to show a fluency that Mandarin-speaking translators have found “impressive.”
So that balances things out, right? We see Buttigieg and Gillibrand more as equals? Not going to happen, Sanders says, until “we” — again, journalists of all genders — discipline ourselves into measuring our biases.
“I think newsrooms and journalists have to count up the tally on what kind of profiles they’re writing,” Sanders told the audience, “and whether they’re giving male candidates more positive pieces day after day.”
Right. Just keep a tally. And send magazine covers that collectively ridicule women, like “Women on the Verge,” to the shredder.
Next in Part II: The far more despicable problem with Alex Shephard’s article about Trump-related bestsellers.