Guts is not the problem, but training is the solution


I have guts. A lot of guts. Guts is not the issue.

Recently Poynter.org’s Mallory Jean Tenore wrote that Minnesota Public Radio’s Eric Ringham claimed women and all others who felt left out of the public discourse in opinion pages of mainstream media needed to “summon up some guts to dive in.”

Women journalists have more guts than most anybody I know. For the Journalism & Women Symposium annual camp held in Texas last year, the t-shirt read, “Don’t Mess With a Woman Journalist.” We are not generally a timid bunch.

Many, many men and women journalists have been protesting for years about the inequity of gender –and color– refelcted in bylines and guest shots on opinion pages, broadcasts  and Internet sites for years. For YEARS. I did a chapter on it in my 2008 book, Everyman News: “Diversity of Thought Changes Content.”

Every once in a while, a gender-balanced or predominatly female byline count of a opinion or home page will feel fresh and victorious. And then it’s back to the same old same old.

Which is why founder and director of The Op-Ed Project Katie Orenstein is bringing the show to Chicago June 11 for a day-long core seminar with journalist, author and broadcaster Katherine Lanpher as workshop leader.

In bringing the Op/Ed Project to Chicago, partnering with Women of the World and Northwestern University’s Medill School, where I am an assistant journalsim professor, the goal is for thought leaders in the area to feel compelled to show up and spend a day learning how to be seen and heard. Diversify the conversation.

Because it isn’t about guts and it isn’t about surveys, updates and byline counts. It’s about having your voice listened to amid the noise. It’s about making a difference. Being the change. And not just screaming at the wind.

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No More Front Page Pineapple Boy!

Chicago Tribune front page ad May 14, 2011

 Last Sunday’s Chicago Tribune made me crazy. OK, it was before I had coffee, but after I retrieved it from my doorstep the old-fashioned way, instead of my from my laptop, I looked forward to reading the feature about a local kid who had a pineapple growing out of his head. Nooooooooooooooo. This was not a feature photo. This was an ad.

     Inside was the real front page. With an enormous girl on the left with an orange in her mouth. Ick. Another ad.

   First reaction: I was so glad I had written the book in 2008 about the changing front pages of American newspapers. Because then, I seriously had no idea that the next step past anecdotal leads, citizen journalism and non-news (the point of the book, Everyman News) was a big ol’ ad of a kid with a pineapple growing out of his noggin on the front page. Honestly, it upset me all week.  

Really, I am teaching students at the Medill School of Journalism to strive to be on the front page, the home page, the mobile screen with their excellent journalism. Do I have to say, well, maybe your hard work and enterprising journalism will now take a back seat to Pineapple Boy?    

    Today I trepidatiously approached the rolled Chicago Tribune on my doorstep. Phew. Two feature stories, a huge photo of Derrick Rose, a banner with an Oprah Winfrey photo and a vertical column teasing into four stories inside. All of it defensible for newsworthiness.

 Oh, yes, and a little sticker from Brown’s Chicken giving me six free corn fritters and a teeny ad (compared to Pineapple Boy) on the bottom from Target announcing sales on Doritos, corn, Pepsi and ground beef. I guess the editors are back from vacation and the ad department backed down.  

   I know the Trib is in bankruptcy proceedings. But really. If you don’t want to give me hard news, (and we know print is not about that anymore, just go and read the book, ok?) then give me fluff. Give me enterprise stories, give me photos, give me illustrations, weather or analysis.

Just, please dear God, never, ever, ever again give me Pineapple Boy.

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Oprah, don’t let the liar get you down

 

Oprah, please don’t apologize. Please don’t talk about the liar ever again. You are better than this.

It is beneath you to spend so much time on someone who could not disclose that his complicated story was not a cautionary tale,  but a fairy tale altogether. And fretting over his insincerity causes me a million little anxiety attacks. 

I don’t watch Oprah in the mornings not because I don’t want to watch Oprah  in the mornings. When she airs in my market at 9 a.m. , I am either in the car on the way to work at Northwestern University’s Medill School where I teach journalism students to write the truth, or I am already standing in front of an auditorium full of students, talking about reporting,writing and telling the truth in multimedia platforms.

So I watch at 11 p.m. for many reasons, and not the least is because I am a big fan. A big grateful fan.

So I squirmed through her interview last night with James Frey, the author of the made-up A Million Little Pieces, who purports not to care much for the truth. In his Oprah interview, he sounded all Midwestern English adjunct professorish with his interpretation of reality and his Tropic Of Cancer accolades, talking about how he was really like Picasso who didn’t really look like his distorted self-portrait and that he only agreed to say it was a memoir so he could get an advance from the publisher.

What a bunch of baloney.

In spite of his writerliness, Frey tells a million little lies in the book that apparently caused Oprah her biggest headache in 25 years. And he does not look or sound like a man filled with remorse. 

I have read and heard this morning about how tricky it is to tell and vet the truth in a memoir. Just ask Greg Mortenson about Three Cups of Tea.

But the truth is telling the truth is not hard at all.

My first book, a memoir, came out in 1999. It took me three years to write the painful story of my experience with my husband who was violent.

Having been a journalist for 20 years by that time, I was excruciatingly mindful of the need to perfectly articulate the truth, as a journalist, with the details, the facts and indisputable realities bolstering my story. The publisher had lawyers. I had a lawyer. I had documents for every claim.

And my ex-husband was a litigating attorney. So I had to be sure to get it right.

Every description was accurate, every moment recalled was double-checked with another source. The idea of telling a story that was not truthful would ruin my career as a journalist, professor of journalism and slay my integrity and credibility.

It is not that I  dared not. It never occurred to me to even try.  

I was extremely lucky to be a guest on Oprah’s show in June 2002 discussing that book and my writing book as well. The path to Harpo Studios was lined with dutiful and diligent producers and lawyers. I took tough questions in scores of interviews over the weeks, months and years from 1999 to 2002 to earn the chance to have Oprah ask me questions about my books before an audience of millions. 

I cannot fathom getting to that point on the tails of a big fat lie. But that is me. Some authors and journalists apparently consider misrepresentation a marketing plan.

In my classes I tell my students about the dangers of fabrication and plagiarism, about how each journalist needs to fiercely protect the brand that is his or her own byline. I tell my students to be proud of every word that goes beneath their names and to be able to defend it vigorously. Because your words live forever.

Be genuine in your writing, I tell them, whether telling the story of a fire or telling your own story. 

I also give writing workshops, mostly on memoir, and have one slated for this summer through Northwestern. And I tell those writers eager to publish their stories that they own their own history.

So here is what I know. About writing, as a journalist. As a memoirist: You own your truth. You own the right to tell it, so you do not have to be intimidated by anyone who attempts to thwart your storytelling. Because as I wrote in my second book, writing can save your life.    

But no one can save you if you lie. You don’t have any rights to lie just so you can get a contract.

It is not tricky at all. It is a simple truth. So go ahead. Tell it.

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Clinton Needs Claritin and Clarity

    The first time I saw this photo I was not surprised that one of only two women in the situation room was aghast. I understood the emotion she revealed watching Osama bin Laden’s execution on a live feed from the helmet of a U.S. Navy  SEAL. For me, it appeared to be “shock and awe,” to borrow a Bush phrase, and also some raw humanistic despair. For what led to this. And what will ultimately follow. 

   But now, we learn from Ms. Clinton, that no, no, no, she was not appearing emotional like some WOMAN, but rather, she was allergic.  That’s according to Forbes and a number of other blogs who report she claims she was covering her mouth while coughing. Too mcuh ragweed in the situation room apparently.  

   I found her humanistic reaction to the shooting in the eye of Public Enemy No. 1 to be understandable and not weak or girly, as I gather we are supposed to believe. It was not a sign of weakness, but a sign of her grasp on the severity of the situation and the possible fallout. After all, she has to deal with all the U.S. haters in her line of work. She does, after all, work outside the home, even if she is a woman.

   I didn’t see her gesture as an aw-she’s-a-woman so she can’t stand a well-deserved hit live and on screen reaction. I kind of liked that she was able to see here was a person, with a gazillion wives and scores of children, some close in age to each other, that the U.S. was taking out. Instead I saw her gesture as an instinctive reaction from a person who thinks ahead. Perhaps she was playing the clock forward and imagining the anti-American sentiments erupting in the Muslim world, the retaliations, the bloodshed we may see on our soil again as a result.

       I’m a little angry she made it about the need for Claritin. It was perfectly clear to me that she reacted as a clear-thinking, clear-headed, intelligent person, with a heart and soul. For that, she needs not apologize.

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Editors Try This: 100 Story Ideas in 100 minutes

  We’re not doing a great job as journalists covering issues of gender and family. I gave a presentation to the Associated Press Managing Editors and Suburban Newspapers of America editors at the Chicago Sun-Times last week and dared the editors to come up with 100 story ideas after my 100-minute talk about stories at the intersection of the economy and gender. 

 Before we broke for lunch, half the room said they did. We’ll see how many of those stories get reported, written and published.

But today The Wall Street Journal defies logic, facts, stats and anecdotal realities from thousands of sources and declared there is no wage gap. Really? On Equal Pay Day? It’s making me crazy. As a journalist, as a woman, as a journalism educator, as a parent of sons, as a thinking human being.

It’s the same old story of viewing the news through a lens of denial. 

I wrote about it in “Everyman News,” in the chapter, “Diversity of Thought Shifts Content.” If we cannot achieve parity of gender and race in newsrooms, and according to ASNE, (The American Society of Newspaper Editors) we can’t, then we can for sure make a point in our coverage of trying to be inclusive in our sourcing and expansive in our brainstorming. OR we can keep saying what is real is not really there.     

     The recent White House Council on Women & Girls’ report, “Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being,” contained the seeds for hundreds of story ideas and in particular broke down the wage gap. Compared to all workers:

•Black women earned 71 percent

•Hispanic women earned 62 percent
•White women earned 82 percent of what all men earned
•Asian women earned 95 percent
•White women to white men: 79 percent
•Black women to Black men: 94 percent
•Hispanic Women to Hispanic men: 90 percent
•Asian women to Asian men: 82 percent

     Read the rest of the report.  Absorb and dissect its contents. Among some of the stats are that women experience the highest poverty rates.It’s just that simple. If realities are denied, then the realities of the gender make-up of sources for the journalism is also denied.

•In 2011, only 27 percent of sources were female: The Gender Project
•In 2010, only 24 percent of the people heard or read about in print, radio and television news are female. In contrast, 76% – more than 3 out of 4 – of the people in the news are male: Global Media Monitoring Project
 
More from “Who Makes the News” on news  subjects:
-24 percent of the people heard or read on traditional platforms like newspapers, television and radio were female in the sample.
-23 percent of the news subjects on the 84 websites monitored were women.
•Story focus:
-13 percent of the news items in traditional media focus specifically on women.
-11 percent of the online news stories were centered around women.
•Authorship:
-41 percent of stories reported on traditional platforms were by female reporters in the same countries as the Internet pilot. Overall, 37 percent of stories in the whole sample were reported by women.
-36 percent of the news stories in the online samples were reported by women.
•Stereotypes:
-46 percent of the stories monitored in traditional media reinforced gender stereotypes, while only 6 percent challenged these stereotypes.
-42 percent of the online news stories were found to reinforce gender stereotypes and only 4 percent challenged them.

      OK, so it is quantified, and we are sick of reading the same old stories from the same bylines (PMS or pale, male and stale as my friends call it). Aren’t we sick of assigning and writing those stories too? 

I challenged the editors to go beyond the usual suspects and the same old thinking.  Come up with 100 story ideas today. Now.

Imagine a practice of journalism that involved consistently discovering news and stories by seeking new types of sources through academic, government, non-profit and grassroots organizations. Seek out stories that are hyperlocal, local, domestic or international with local ramifications. Beat the bushes to find story ideas that are citizen-driven and interactive. Learn from think tanks, centers on specific issues and trends. And for goodness sake, pay attention to what is happening out there in social media. And train every one of your staffers to be keenly observant.

It’s what I tell my students at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University very quarter, whether in the Reporting & Writing or Multimedia Storytelling classes. I just talked about this yesterday in lab.

Stories looking at gender, family and marriage issues intersect with the economy in a myriad of ways. All you have to do is cast the net for news. Story ideas will swim in. You have to know what you’re looking for, not stop looking at what is there and not throw back a big fish when you can definitely use it in the future in a new way.
  
    According to the White House report, 18 percent of women 40-44 never had a child; 46 percent of women 25-29 never had a child. For me this is the reason Eat Pray Love sold a gazillion copies.   More older women are divorced or widowed. For me this is the reason Betty White and Helen Mirren are hot and hundreds of thousands of women nationwide are into Roller Derby, the latest fitness craze for “women  old enough to know better.”
       
This country has more single mothers and the highest poverty rates are women as heads of households. There is no end to the stories that can come from that sentence. Tell the single and married working mothers paying for childcare there is no wage gap and it is not impacting women and their children across the country.
 
Still, in all of this, I urged the editors in the conference room last weeek also not to just look for stereotypical woe-is-me, half-empty stories bemoaning the economy. I urged them to find inspirational,  multidimensional stories, and to write about the individuals and communities making a solid difference.  And tell the truth. See and report what is really there.
 
We’ll see what happens.

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Profs Gone Wild! Sex Toys! Stolen Idols! Fake Names!

 

Mostly college professors seem as exciting and controversial as toll booth collectors or museum curators. Save the occasional outrageous act of Holocaust denial or live sex acts in the classroom, my colleagues at Northwestern University (where I am an assistant professor in journalism at the Medill School) are not people anyone would call a ribald or morally repulsive bunch.

They are on the whole intelligent, creative, respectful, mature professionals who behave with integrity. We write books and research archives for giggles. Discuss documentaries for a good time.  

But this week we are all lumped together as deviants, at least you would think so by reading the press. All because a full tenured professor in the psychology department, John Michael Bailey, decided that after his Human Sexuality class ended last week, the extra credit hour would be filled with the bonus of two women and one man performing a battery-enhanced act of sexual pleasure. I am not making this up.  

He defended his choice pretty much as academic freedom. It is, after all, his area of expertise. So I took a few minutes from my three-hour journalism class in Multimedia Storytelling yesterday– one that I prepared several hours for– to discuss it with my students, who were talking about the campus media stories and the fact that this is how and when our university is in the news.  

This is what I said: I believe this degrades all of the faculty. Never mind it degraded the woman who opted to be held down by another woman and to have an appliance inserted inside her unclothed body by a man, all on a stage in front of strangers.

I don’t know, but isn’t this performing a sex act in public? When is that not public indecency?  If you can get arrested for urinating in public, isn’t this just a tad more obscene? I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, I do after all, get grossed out by people who pick their noses in cars.

Still, I think the academic freedom defense is thin.  I feel this was disrespectful to students, faculty, Northwestern community, and also to the parents who are spending and/or borrowing significant money for their children to attend this great institution, my alma mater. 

 As a parent paying tuition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and also Ohio State University for two sons, I would be mad as hell if this happened in Madison or Columbus. 

Thank goodness during the NU demo we didn’t have any campus tours of high school juniors and seniors stopping in hoping to catch a glimpse of a college class.

Today NU President Morton Schapiro went on the record to pretty much agree it was a dumb thing to do: 

I  have recently learned of the after-class activity associated with Prof. Michael Bailey’s Human Sexuality class, and I am troubled and disappointed by what occurred.

Although the incident took place in an after-class session that students were not required to attend and students were advised in advance, several times, of the explicit nature of the activity, I feel it represented extremely poor judgment on the part of our faculty member. I simply do not believe this was appropriate, necessary or in keeping with Northwestern University’s academic mission.

Northwestern faculty members engage in teaching and research on a wide variety of topics, some of them controversial. That is the nature of a university. However, in this instance, I have directed that we investigate fully the specifics of this incident, and also clarify what constitutes appropriate pedagogy, both in this instance and in the future.

Many members of the Northwestern community are disturbed by what took place on our campus. So am I.

Amen. Finally, some common sense. Someone defending a code of conduct that most all of us adhere to. We are not all deviants and idiots. We internalize the notion of responsibility to the students and are hardworking role models. I feel when I stand up to lecture, the students in my class are not just looking to me for the content that will be on the quiz or the assignment. They are looking to me to see how I behave.

Which brings me to the other news of a local Bad Boy Prof; this one at Loyola University Chicago. It seems Daniel Amick pleaded guilty last week to stealing archaleogical artifacts. Gee whiz.

And then in the news is another Columbia College journalism prof, Dan Sinker, who is all over the place for his fake Rahm Emanuel profanity-laced Twitter account.

OK, what did I miss? When is it OK for  a journalism professor to fabricate content pretending to be a prminent news source, hiding his identity and promoting a scam? I followed the fake Emanuel twitter feed for about two days, then stopped. I knew it was junk. I just had no idea it was a journalism prof.  

The really amazing thing is this Profs Gone Wild trend is not limited to Chicago area male colleagues. Huffington Post a month ago posted a slideshow of everything from incest to phone sex in 11 recent professor scandals. Now they need an update.

One thing is certain Bailey will not be asked to fill any vacant faculty slots at Brigham Young University, where news hit today that student and star basketball player Brandon Davies was suspended for admitting to having premarital sex, a violation of the BYU honor code.

Back to campus, where the news trucks are circling.

I spent the rest of my day creating a lecture I will deliver next week in a lecture hall on campus, thankfully not the same stage as the sex demo. Like hundreds of my colleagues, the most exciting apparatus we offer our students is  original insight, fresh useful information and concrete instruction.

And if we are really daring? Perhaps a short video clip inserted in the Power Point.

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Hollywood’s Saintly Moms and Demon Dads

As I watched the Oscars Sunday, I thought aloud that the most unofficial nominations and kudos of the evening went to moms. There was mother praise all around, from the Mominations video pre-awards (when all I wanted to do was see pretty and not pretty dresses) to the campy bit with Ann Hathaway’s mother and James Franco’s grandma.  

  It seemed everyone acknowledged his or her mom. And that was good. Refreshing. The guy with the crazy hair and the short documentary. Then Natalie Portman thanked her mother and said she was grateful for her upcoming biggest role ever– motherhood– and she looked so dewy and pretty I was near tears.

As a mother of three who has not had acknowledgment in a public acceptance speech– to date– I was feeling pretty satsified with all the warm, fuzzy, sincere applause for the jobs mothers do.  One good mother praising leads to another. I was getting ready for a possible close-up. Someday. Or maybe just a call from college from one or both of the older two not asking for something I can do for them. Sure, they say thanks. They do text “Love u.” So maybe I am being a little demanding.  

And along came Charlie.

Does anybody not know who this is?

 I have to say I couldn’t help myself but watch the train wreck Tuesday night in what was possibly The Most Restraint Ever Practiced by A Journalist in an Interview on ABC  by Andrea Canning.  As the porn star and the model goddess snuggled up his twin toddlers in Broll, Sheen chain smoked and drank Orange Crush (right) and made one narcissistic outrageous statement after another. So much so that I prayed, really prayed that in the middle of it all, children and family services would pound down the door and take the kids away.

Lo and behold they pretty much did.  Phew.

Which brings me to the Hollywood mothers who have been scorned for outrageous acts and occasional rebellions, like Octomom, whose crime of having too many kids is really a lack of sense and self. The mother of all bad or mad mommies was Joan Crawford, whose Portrayal by Faye Dunaway in “Mommie Dearest” still occasionally flashes before my eyes, especially when I clean out a closet.  There have been some bad Hollywood Moms, in between, OK Brittany,  but mostly not so many really, really take the kids away in the middle of the night for their own sake moms .

Because here is the thing. It is new to call mothers who work saints. The Working Mom Vs. Stay-at-Home Mom battle has been ongoing since before I had my first son in 1988. Moms did not have to chain smoke, do crack, drink for three days or wreck a hotel room to be called a monster. All she had to do was get up and go to the office. She was selfish, she was about all about herself. She worked.

I have never heard someone call a father selfish because he has a job. You gotta be pretty awful to get labelled a Demon Dad.

As a mother raising three sons, I know how hard it is to be a parent. I know it is harder than it looks, even on “Parenthood” or “Modern Family.” And I think it is great that mothers are getting their due (I was trying to be funny, anyway.) Thank the moms in the speeches. Blow her a kiss in the crowd. Send her a thank-you note.

And for the Saintly Dads out there, sharing in the childcare duties, papying their child support and driving to practices, paying for college?  You deserve your own round of applause. And I won’t blame you at all for believing Charlie Sheen gives cool, goo dads a bad name. Just please do not follow him on Twitter.

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