Why it matters that The New York Times’ next public editor is a woman
For the last nine years, white men have filled The New York Times public editor position. That will change in September when Margaret Sullivan becomes the Times’ first female public editor. Sullivan was also the first woman to be named editor and vice president of The Buffalo News, where she has worked for 32 years.
One of the unanswered questions is how Sullivan’s role as a woman could affect her coverage of the Times’ journalism. Sullivan, who has signed on for four years, touched upon this in an interview with my colleague Bill Mitchell:
“I think we all bring all of who we are to our roles. The fact that I’m a woman, a mother of college age children, all of those things that are specific to my gender, certainly my role as first woman editor of this newspaper, the first corporate officer — all of those things, along with my admiration for pioneering women who came before me, will figure in. I don’t come to the role with a gender-driven agenda. I bring myself to it, and that’s part of who I am.”
Sullivan told The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone, however, that she doesn’t think being a woman will significantly affect what she writes about the Times: “My being a woman has certainly informed and affected all of my roles as a journalist. It’s part of what I bring to this new role.” But, she added, “I don’t expect the subject matter to be obviously reflecting that in any way.”
I’m not so convinced, though, considering previous public editors have written about the Times’ coverage of women. Last year, Brisbane critiqued a Times story about an 11-year-old who was gang raped in Cleveland, Texas. He said the story, which was widely criticized, “lacked balance.” He reiterated readers’ arguments that the piece heavily quoted sources who blamed the victim, and said the quotes “led many readers to interpret the subtext of the story to be: she had it coming.”
But Brisbane never took a firm stance on why this type of blame is wrong, and didn’t use his critique as an opportunity to talk about how prevalent sexual abuse is among young women. I can’t help but think that a woman would have shared a different and perhaps deeper perspective on the issue.
This isn’t to say that women make better public editors than men; it’s to suggest that women bring a different sensibility to the job.
Advocates for newsroom diversity have argued for years that people with diverse backgrounds bring different perspectives and experiences to the workplace, and Sullivan’s role as public editor is no exception.
Biological anthropologist Helen Fischer, who’s an expert on gender in the workplace, wrote about the value of a woman’s perspective in “The Edge of Change: Women in the 21st Century Press”:
Indeed, women’s power is likely to escalate, because many of our business environments need the skills of women: their verbal skills, their collaborative and nurturing leadership styles, their mental flexibility, and, increasingly, their tolerance for ambiguity.
Additionally, studies have shown why newsrooms need women. The 2011 Global Media Monitoring Report on Women, for instance, found that stories by female reporters are more likely to challenge stereotypes and contain more female sources than stories by men.
Sullivan’s remark about her gender not having a significant impact on her coverage of the Times is similar to what Jill Abramson has said. Shortly after being named the Times’ first executive editor last year, Abramson said in an interview with Brisbane: “The idea that women journalists bring a different taste in stories or sensibility isn’t true.”
Her remark sparked reaction from female journalists who disagreed. Women do bring a different taste and sensibility to stories, they said, not because they can write only about subjects that are of interest to women, but because they can draw from experiences they've had as women in ways that men can't.
It will be interesting to see if Sullivan writes columns about the Times’ coverage of women, and how she approaches them. Based on essays she’s written, it’s clear that she’s given serious thought to issues affecting women — particularly when it comes to balancing work and family.
A few years after becoming editor of The Buffalo News in 1999, Sullivan wrote about balance in an essay for the American Press Institute’s “Survival Guide for Women Editors”:
When I got the big job, I had a phone call from a favorite uncle, an accomplished physician and an excellent father and grandfather. He was a man of few but well-chosen words. After he’d said congratulations, he left me with a two-word piece of advice: “Family first.” I’m not sure I’ve followed it perfectly, but it sure has stuck with me.
In a 2009 essay for “The Edge of Change,” Sullivan looked back on her accomplishments and the challenges she has faced as a woman:
I didn’t really “have it all,” although it might have looked that way for a while. (And frankly, I liked giving that impression. My bio, for years, listed my professional accomplishments and ended with a sentence about my long-term marriage and two children.) …. I was in a stable marriage for more than twenty years, but, now separated with a divorce pending, I can acknowledge that the strains of my job had at least some role in its outcome, although that’s a complicated subject. (A voice from the sensible feminist in my head demands to be heard now, so let’s allow her to speak to these points: Why apply the standards of the sexist 1950s to the twenty-first century? It’s a different world, a better one for women, so let’s not wax nostalgic for the bad old days. As for your marriage and your career, what successful man has ever blamed his job promotion for his marital problems?)
No doubt, Sullivan’s personal experiences have affected her outlook on her profession and issues concerning women. And I hope, from time to time, they’re reflected in her role as The New York Times’ next public editor.
Related: "Instead of 'All the news that's fit to print' the Public Editor's motto is 'I bite the hand that feeds me.' " (Dave Winer/Scripting News) | Sullivan: "Newspapers must be truth vigilantes" (Joe Strupp/Media Matters)