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An Equal Say

Postcard from Washington, D.C.

By Anat Maytal

WASHINGTON, D.C.—“Thank god there is another woman in here!”

These words were my introduction to my summer internship at The Hill, a congressional newspaper. I had just walked into the newsroom and met the only other female intern there. I did not realize it then, but I soon learned that there is a striking absence of estrogen among the nation’s media elite.

At The Hill, I have had the wonderful opportunity to interact with rising journalists, write articles that got published regularly and observe lawmakers at work. The paper has a print circulation of 21,000—the largest on Capitol Hill. But for all its impressive qualities, all of its contributing columnists are male. The paper has covered a wide variety of issues on its op-ed pages, ranging from the debacle of Iraq and the weak economy to the phenomenon of Howard Dean. But female bylines are scarce—a situation common to newspapers across the nation.

At The New York Times, for example, an online search revealed that of the non-regular columns appearing on the opinion page during June and July of this year, 127 authors were men and only 20 were women. When all opinion pages bylines were counted, of 134 writers, only 21 were women.

That means that while women make up 52 percent of the general population and 44 percent of all news reporters at major U.S. newspapers, women comprise only 24 percent of opinion writers according to the American Journalism Review.

The very absence of female op-ed contributors implies that major newspaper editors—a profession clearly still controlled by men—feel women can report the news but cannot comment on it.

Geneva Overholser, the former Ombudsperson at the Washington Post and a respected editor and journalist, began to recognize this phenomenon on opinion pages after the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001. She wrote in an article last year in the Columbia Journalism Review, “A few days into that awful time, I started to notice a haunting silence amid the views I was finding in America’s newspapers: it was the absence of women’s voices.”

After examining the op-ed pages of the Times, Post, and the Los Angeles Times, Overholser found that in the first week after Sept. 11, they carried 88 signed pieces, only five of which were written by women. While male pundits, professors and politicians were being heard all at once, female voices could not be heard.

This is disconcerting because of the vast authority that editors hold in the newsroom. As the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) explains in its 2000 report, “whoever controls assignments, whoever decides how a story is going to be covered, whoever decides what placement that story gets in a newspaper…is not only shaping content of news, but is deciding what readers…know and how they know it.”

The same applies to opinion pages because editors determine which issues to cover, what position to take in staff editorials and which op-ed contributions should be printed. Editors not only shape newspapers, but potentially public opinion as well.

In fact, studies show that when female journalists gain more control in newsrooms, women in general are taken more seriously. For example, a study on the media coverage of Elizabeth Dole’s short-lived 2000 presidential bid by the White House Project (a national organization dedicated to promoting women political candidates, at which I worked as an intern last summer), found that female journalists were more likely to report on Dole’s political record or stand on the issues while their male counterparts were more likely to focus on her personal characteristics.

Unfortunately, women are not currently in a position to change the status quo on their own. According to a report by Northwestern University’s Media Management Center, the number of women in top editor positions has actually declined from 25 percent in 2000 to 20 percent in 2002. The American Press Institute (API) and the Pew Center for Civic Journalism also report that in 2002 only one in five top female editors expected to stay where they are and one in two expected to leave the news business entirely.

Demanding for half of the voices on op-ed pages to be women’s might seem too much to ask—but there are pages that do just that. One can easily look across the river to the Boston Globe to see the variety of op-ed contributors offered every week.

But regrettably, on many opinion pages across the country readers are lucky if they can find one woman’s voice every week.

In our society, it matters who makes it; and when it comes to print media, who makes it continues to be men. Back at The Hill, where I have immersed myself for the last nine weeks, the editor-in-chief, managing editor, features editor and business editor are all male. But the senior editor is female—and for now I am just thankful that there is at least one woman in power here.

Anat Maytal ’05, a Crimson editor, is a government and women’s studies concentrator in Leverett House. Her brief stay on Capitol Hill is yet another part of her master plan to reach the White House in 2028.

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