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.

When she succeeds Arthur Brisbane as public editor in September, Sullivan will write a print column and is expected to have a more active role online than her four predecessors.

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)

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=749911534 Anonymous

    On the other hand, she might prove a genius in the new slot. She was a newspaper editor in Buffalo, one of only an estimated 30 newspaper editors in the city’s entire history!
    “One of them was Mark Twain, and one of them was me!” she once told a reporter. “It’s a great legacy.”

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    I like your comment because it shows how silly the quest for diversity can be.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=749911534 Anonymous

    can i say one thing? Ms Sullivan won’t last a year. Watch. She won’t be fired, She will resign under pressure. Watch. this is a short term app

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=749911534 Anonymous

    in a way, What’s the difference betweem rich WHITE MEn and RICh white women? not much. they represent the same interests.. THE NYT will reallty get with it when they hire a black man or a black woman to be the OMBUDSMAN……see what i mean? white is white, no matter the gender. PLEASE!

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    The part about Poynter is correct. All one has to do is go back through past articles similar to this one.

    There are a couple of ways to go about achieving diversity. There is the lazy way, supported by this article, which is simply to call for a hire based on race and/or gender. There is the better way, which is to ensure all qualified people are getting a chance.

    Again, when every article is the same shallow, stereotypical point, there is nothing to add and no new ground to cover. Elsewhere at the site, there is a call to hire young journalists, basically for their age. Something is very wrong with this picture.

  • http://www.facebook.com/teverbach Tracy Everbach

    Wrong.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

     Hi Jim,

    Thanks for taking the time to read my piece and respond. I agree that the next public editor does not “need” to be a woman. Part of the reason why it’s important that the Times chose a woman is because the position has been filled by white man for the last nine years. That role was in need of someone who would bring a diverse perspective to the job — be it a woman, or a person of a different racial/ethnic background.

    We all bring our experiences and perspectives to the workplace. Margaret Sullivan wrote about the experiences she brings to the job in a blog post earlier today: “We bring everything we are to the jobs we do.  I was raised a Roman
    Catholic; I grew up in a steel town;  I am the daughter of a lawyer and a
    fashion buyer; I went to college in Washington, D.C.  and Chicago.  So I
    carry all of this with me. I also bring my experiences as a woman. …” You can read her full post here: http://bit.ly/LyjmXR

    ~Mallary

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    The solution is not to make a bunch of assumptions about what people might mean, then go off and running with those assumptions.

    The only argument you and Poynter have to offer in this area is to hire based on race and gender, regardless of qualifications. That’s what is tired.

  • http://www.facebook.com/teverbach Tracy Everbach

    So, what is your solution? To keep newsrooms the way they are: two-thirds male and 87 percent white? Is it not true that people write and report from their own backgrounds and perspectives? So, should most news be written for men and from the male perspective, for whites and from the white perspective? My guess is that you would say yes, because that serves your needs and your interests. But what about others besides you? How is that serving the public interest and supporting democracy? These are not “tired” arguments or results. That is your attempt to try to silence others who will not be quiet until we achieve equity.

  • http://www.facebook.com/moviemeister.smith Moviemeister Smith

    Yes. Please mansplain to me more about how we just need to “quit talking about” inequity. Nice use of a famous black actor as an appeal to some kind of authority, too. Well, Morgan Freeman said it, so it must be true. I am totally convinced.

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    “This is simply because people with different backgrounds who have lived through different types of conditions have different perspectives.” Of course, you write this sentence right after telling someone he doesn’t get it. That speaks volumes. “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.” The last sentence speaks volumes. In other words, anyone of a specific gender would have handled this differently, even if it seems to be out of the realm of what a public editor’s job is. Sounds like stereotyping to me.
    But these kinds of articles are the usual Poynter fare, whether it’s Thomas Huang or this writer. They never say anything new. They always stereotype, generalize, and take the easiest shortcut to the same, tired result.
     

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    “This is simply because people with different backgrounds who have lived through different types of conditions have different perspectives.” Of course, you write this sentence right after telling someone he doesn’t get it. That speaks volumes. “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.” The last sentence speaks volumes. In other words, anyone of a specific gender would have handled this differently, even if it seems to be out of the realm of what a public editor’s job is. Sounds like stereotyping to me.
    But these kinds of articles are the usual Poynter fare, whether it’s Thomas Huang or this writer. They never say anything new. They always stereotype, generalize, and take the easiest shortcut to the same, tired result.
     

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    “This is simply because people with different backgrounds who have lived through different types of conditions have different perspectives.” Of course, you write this sentence right after telling someone he doesn’t get it. That speaks volumes.
     
    “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.” 
     
    The last sentence speaks volumes. In other words, anyone of a specific gender would have handled this differently, even if it seems to be out of the realm of what a public editor’s job is. Sounds like stereotyping to me.

    But these kinds of articles are the usual Poynter fare, whether it’s Thomas Huang or this writer. They never say anything new. They always stereotype, generalize, and take the easiest shortcut to the same, tired result.

  • http://www.facebook.com/teverbach Tracy Everbach

    Dear Jim, my opinion is that you don’t “get” it. Of course it is important if someone is male or female, black or white, straight or gay, rich or poor. This is simply because people with different backgrounds who have lived through different types of conditions have different perspectives. I am sorry if you don’t like it and you want it to go away, but it’s not going to. Ignoring gender, race and sexual orientation does not make everyone equal, no matter what you want to believe. Four white heterosexual middle-aged males representing the readers of The New York Times is simply not representative. Yes, middle-aged white males can be sensitive to the issues of others different from themselves, but without the benefit of living through the experience, they are missing a great deal. I, for example, am a middle-aged white woman but would never try to represent the viewpoint of a young, black male because I have never lived with the experience of people being afraid of me just because of my appearance. So try to understand, there are many other perspectives outside your own world. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1633660625 Jim Carroll

    OK, i’ll betray my liberal credentials and say that the female sensitivity is not inherent in all those who happen to be of that gender. i have met women who lacked any apparent sensitivity in any area, and men who were amazingly sensitive, including those areas which are typically sterotyped as being “feminine”; nurturing, healing, pick your favorite here.

    at the risk of being called,well, something – i will say that i grow weary of the use of these lazy labels when discussing race, gender, orientation, socio-economic strata and all the rest. the new york times’ next public editor does not “need” to be female any more than he (forgive me) needs to be chinese-american, gay, from the inner city or over 6 feet tall. the sensitivity that is lacking in the examples provided is not feminine. it is human.

    morgan freeman says the next step in improving “race relations” is to quit talking about it. you are not my black friend or my gay friend or my female friend. by accentuating these adjectives, you merely prove that they still come first in your mind. it’s interesting that my parents would employ them regularly. i have, i admit with some embarrassment, used them inside my head, but they no longer come out of my mouth. my children never use them, because i don’t think they exist inside their heads. we’ve “come a long way, baby”.

    could we please keep moving?