The evidence has been building for weeks – no, for months – but in the past few days it has struck me with a thrilling clarity: The New York Times is giving us news – good and bad, soft and hard — about a richly representative array of Americans. That hoary presumption that all the news that’s fit to print is male (and white) seems at long last to be under serious challenge.
Last Friday’s Weekend Arts II section, and yesterday’s Sunday Business section ( I read the paper online AND in print, and I sense that this shift may be more evident in print) provided delicious examples. Arts (April 20, 2018) had a lead story on the artist Adrian Piper and her new show at the Museum of Modern Art. Also on the cover was a conversation with the U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith and Jacqueline Woodson, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Inside, the riches continued: a wonderful gathering of faces (and topics) from all over the American spectrum.
Women in (and out of) journalism have been ardently (and mostly fruitlessly) seeking this change for years.
I remember well, back in 1990, when Max Frankel (then executive editor of The New York Times, a former boss of mine and a man I like and respect) was frustrated by a survey that showed that his paper had even fewer front-page stories about women than other prominent papers. He told the Washington Post: “If you are covering local teas, you’ve got more women [on the front page] than the Wall Street Journal.”
The next day, the vast majority of Timeswomen came to work with teabags pinned to their lapels, and Max lamented his choice of wording. Yet there was truth in his words, however maladroit. If women weren’t allowed to DO things, they couldn’t be portrayed in the paper as having done them.
But the issue was much larger, as shown indelibly by the Times’ recent work bringing to light prominent women who never got their own obituaries. One mind-boggling discovery: The paper made no mention of Charlotte Bronte’s death, but gave her husband an obit.
Gloria Steinem, who long led the charge to make news inclusive, put it this way: “It’s hard to think of anything except air, food and water that is more important than the media. Literally, I’ve spent most of my life working in the media. That has made me hyper aware of how it creates for us the idea of normal, whether or not the normal is accurate. Especially for groups that have been on the periphery for whatever reason: If we can’t see it, we can’t be it.”
Well, now we can see it, at least in the Times: Women in all their glory and all their quirks, their talent and their shortcomings – women as full human beings, playing multiple roles, making countless contributions.
Why now? Part of the change of course affirms Max’s point, however distasteful it seemed. Women ARE now in more of the positions that journalists have deemed newsworthy. They couldn’t have done a piece on Marissa Mayer post-Yahoo if she hadn’t led Yahoo in the first place. Another part of it is the evolving enlightenment of people in other positions of power: If the artist Adrian Piper hadn’t been seen as worthy by MoMA, she’d wouldn’t have been seen in the Times, either.
Surely, too, this increased and more varied visibility has been given a head of steam by women’s activism in the past year: the women’s march and related events, and the #MeToo movement specifically.
Finally, we can’t ignore the internal workings of the Times. The paper’s culture has changed so substantially over recent decades that I can’t help believing it stems back to (now former publisher) Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., who from early in his leadership called diversity and inclusion the “single most important” issue at the paper. And surely the man at the top of the news operation, Executive Editor Dean Baquet, has led the transformation, from the hiring decisions that build in their impact over time to the choices about where to place resources. Just look at photos of the Times’ recent Pulitzer winners for affirmation.
Now the effects are evidenced throughout the paper, and I expect they’re here to stay. Inclusion of women and of people of color (equally essential, and another arena in which I think the progress at the Times has been impressive, though I’ll leave that to keener eyes to assess) will be self-sustaining because it forms a virtuous circle. The Times is a better paper because it is bringing us a much more interesting report – a report both more complicated and more promising because it more accurately reflects the world around it.
It’s worth noting that all of this is happening even as the Times does some of its most important, digging, substantive investigative and entrepreneurial work. This is to be expected. Excellence and inclusion are natural partners, however obstinately the blindfolded have cast them as mutually exclusive.
Including more viewpoints and bringing in a broader array of talents were always going to make for better journalism. It just took a (very long) while to figure that out.