Our Girl Friday: Everyone's a gossip columnist these days ...

Posted at 10:37 AM Aug 14, 2009

By Geoff George

Let's give Hillary Clinton a hand, hmm?  This trip to Africa really means something.  I can feel it.  Fresh of the heels of Obama's visit, Clinton's 11-day trip to Africa will extend a hand to seven different countries, some of them key global players.  Will she talk to South Africa's President Zuma about helping turn things around in Zimbabwe?  Will she talk oil in Angola?  We know in Congo she'll discuss the fractured country's human rights issues, specifically the rape and sexual assault of displaced women.  These are serious subjects in need of discussion at the international level ...

Except, what? Did she just say, "My husband is not secretary of state, I am," to a guy during the press conference?  Awww, shiiiiiiiiiiit.  Time for a thousand media organizations to forget all about the issues and print headlines that read "Oh, SNAP!" before speculating on end about how the incident might indicate marital tension.  Even "liberal" MSNBC's coverage includes an entire section devoted to gee whiz, how "complicated" the Clintons are as a couple. 

But, really, just one section MSNBC?  Why speculate a little when you can speculate a lot?  The Daily Beast's Tina Brown offers an entire catty column on the incident that basically likens Hillary to a pouty 16-year-old at a birthday party gone bad.

"Madam Secretary was doing so well at grabbing back the spotlight ... In Congo she was particularly stressed. She had spent a day touring a refugee camp, hearing harrowing stories of rape, persecution, and female subjugation, issues she has long made hers. I suspect she'd just about had it with having to tiptoe around so many big-dog male egos--Obama, Bill, Africa's Messrs. Kibaki, Zuma, and Kabila. And p.s., was it necessary for Bill to be yukking it up on his birthday with the old adoring pals at such a fancy, high-priced restaurant as Craftsteak?

"And not only that, but (and I say this in solidarity, not belittlement) the African humidity had wreaked havoc on her hair. It had gone all flat and straight, which puts any woman in a bad humor."
Yes, because her hair and her ego and her husband's shenanigans were the reason she gave a curt reply, and not, oh, say, the fact that someone asked her a question that seemed to have nothing to do with the topic at hand.

And now that topic's lost to the general public, because the media they watch behaves like that one friend who always loves to gossip but who also likes to forget the details.

Here's an article from The New York Times that is painful to read, but it sticks to the issues Hillary Clinton was actually trying to address in Congo.  Please read it instead.

Our Girl Friday: Why John Bolton's an idiot

Posted at 9:10 AM Aug 07, 2009

By Geoff George

So, on Tuesday Bill Clinton went to North Korea and visited with Kim Jong-il and must've said something right, because he ended up coming back with Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the two Current TV journalists who were arrested and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor on grounds of entering North Korea illegally (though I'm sure being Americans with video cameras in hand didn't help).

Even as we all pop the champagne and pin up the "Welcome Back" signs, though, there's this weird faction of party crashers concerned with how the negotiation is going to look in certain international circles. One of the more outspoken voices of this concern is John R. Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the UN during the Bush administration (you know, the administration that had SO much success dealing with Kim Jong-il) who wrote an op-ed piece for The Washington Post suggesting that Clinton's visit was a "significant propaganda victory for North Korea." He writes further:

"In Pyongyang's view, the two reporters are pawns in the larger game of enhancing the regime's legitimacy and gaining direct access to important U.S. figures."

Basically, because North Korea was able to get a former president to come and have a sit-down, the country has scored a victory of sorts in terms of being taken seriously, and now other countries such as Iran might see this and start holding on to prisoners in the hopes of getting their own sit-down.

Thing is, though, how many people are looking at Clinton's visit as an open meeting between equals? It seemed to me more like a meeting between a cool-headed individual and a gun-waving lunatic who at least sort of knows he's only being listened to because he's waving the gun around. Plus, I've never understood the argument that even attempting negotiation and dialogue is detrimental, especially if the only demand is that an ex-president come and sit while the media pops a few flashbulbs. Roberts writes:

"The point to be made on the Clinton visit is that the knee-jerk impulse for negotiations above all inevitably brings more costs than its advocates foresee."

You ask me, though, choosing to not even try to negotiate, to just let the journalists remain imprisoned for the sake of larger politics, is treating the journalists just as much as pawns as the North Koreans did. I think most of us would rather try to see them as people.

On that note, let's watch the happy return footage again! Get your tissues handy.

Visit msnbc.com for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

Our Girl Friday: Lookin' for that non-sexist, singular pronoun

Posted at 11:00 AM Jul 31, 2009

By Geoff George

If you hated English class, be warned 'cuz we're 'bout to get all linguistic up in here. I'm a bit too self-conscious (and forgetful) to be a grammar snob, but as an aspiring editor, I do enjoy a good debate over the acceptability of dangling participles, the use of serial commas, the use of "since" as a word indicating either chronology or causality, and other lexical and grammatical tiffs that many people would rather chew slowly through their own wrist than engage in.

Another such debate involves proper noun/pronoun/verb agreement. And this week, Patricia T. O'Connor and Stewart Kellerman with New York Times magazine highlight a specific subset of the discussion: the quest for a universal, non-sexist personal pronoun. Apparently folks on Twitter are all abuzz about it, but this is the first I've heard.

The need for a unisex pronoun might not seem necessary. Often, you can get away with making the subject of a sentence plural, or (like this sentence) switching over to second person. Certain phrases, though, such as "To each his own," can't really be said without either a masculine bias or the clunky use of "his or her." "His" could be replaced with "one's," I suppose, but only if you want to sound like a Brit. So, people say, "screw it," and use "they" as a singular pronoun.

The writers of the NYT piece trace the use of "he" for both sexes to one of the first books on English grammar, written in 1745, by Anne Fisher, a woman no less. What's interesting is that Fisher seemed, by all accounts, to be a pretty empowered lady. She ran her own school, printing press, and newspaper. Maybe using "he" never bothered her. Maybe she thought it sounded better. O'Connor and Keller write:

"But alas, in swapping he for they, Fisher replaced a number problem with a gender problem."
Even though, as the writers point out, lots of authors ("Byron, Austen, Thackeray, Eliot, Dickens, Trollope ... ") have always used "they" as a singular. Personally, I'm torn on this issue, mostly because I've spent my adult life removing "they" as my go-to singular, sexless pronoun, but at the same time using his/her or s/he calls a hell of a lot of attention to the gendered pronoun issue I'm trying to evade.

So, what do you think, dolls? Yay to "they" in the singular, or nay?

Our Girl Friday: Newscaster Voyeurism

Posted at 9:00 AM Jul 24, 2009

Thumbnail image for EAndrews.jpg
By Geoff George

So, we've got some asshole d-bag creep who decides to film ESPN sideline sportscaster Erin Andrews undressing in her hotel room, and then (awesome!) we've got a bunch of news outlets reporting on it, complete with (sweet!) screenshots of the footage or even (totally!) blurred replays of the actual tape, and ... wait, why, again, does the media keep showing the video?

A couple theories. Viv Bernstein, a sports writer for True/Slant, sees it as an issue of Andrews being "punished for being pretty."  Basically, first, working in TV puts Andrews in a terrible double-bind.  Either she's pretty (or more like a certain kind of "pretty" that ratings-happy TV producers look for because "that pretty" equals  ratings) and people assume she didn't get the job because of her skills, or she's not so pretty and therefore gets booted from the small screen.

Because of this, Bernstein writes, others say Andrews should have expected scrutiny of the tape because she was already "putting herself out there."  Anna North with Jezebel takes this further, suggesting the sheer extent of the searches online for the tape might in fact be due to Andrew's efforts to remain professional and be taken seriously by doing crazy/weird things not befitting a lady journalist, like not stepping into a bikini and posing for FHM/Maxim.

" ... the implication is still there: she was too good. She was a Princess. Seeing her naked was different than seeing other sportscasters naked because she didn't have a 'sex object' image."

Most uncomfortable, says North, is the suggestion that people are more interested in the video of Andrews specifically because there's an "unwillingness factor" to the whole thing.  Andrews didn't want to be seen naked, and therefore, sadly, more people wanna see her naked.

There's a lot of complication here, but here's something I am confident of: This story would be virtually (or completely) non-existent in the media if it involved a male sports anchor.  You think anybody's waiting to get their eager little hands on Bob Costas' hotel footage?  Terry Bradshaw?  John Madden?  Tapes of men only come out if there's a humiliating act involved, like the Berlusconi tapes I mentioned yesterday, which, yeah, are also an invasion of privacy, but rather different since he gets to face the tapes' recorder.

Tapes of women, however, seem to come out just because it's what the women wouldn't want.  So, how's about we stop putting the footage up and maybe concentrate our journalistic efforts instead on figuring out whodunit?

Our Girl Friday: Vicky Cruz brings good news

Posted at 8:00 AM Jul 17, 2009

By Geoff George

Uh, oh. What sort of bad news am I gonna have for you this week, right? Another TV anchor slighted? Another foreign journalist threatened? Can't possibly be good news. With layoffs at newspapers, news stations, radio stations, and other media outlets, it's probably gonna be something on the economy, right? Maybe a story about plagiarism? Wrong! Double wrong. This week, I'm tipping my hat to a little feel-good story from the Bronx borough.

So, a few weeks back you might have heard about a lesbian couple at a New York City public high school getting voted as "best couple" by their peers? Turns out, one of the girls, Vicky Cruz, composed a radio essay about herself and her girlfriend, Deoine Scott, for WNYC. You can listen to it below, and even though it's only about five minutes long, it'll take you right back to locker-side conversations and slow dances at the prom, albeit from (at least if you're me) a completely new perspective.


Best background line: "Oh my god, them heels is killin' me, but they are killer."

The piece comes from WNYC's "Radio Rookies" program, a project started to get teenagers in high school to tell their stories. One wonders if Vicky's grandmother still doesn't know she's a lesbian, especially after the WNYC piece, another piece Vicky wrote for The Huffington Post, an article in The Advocate, and finally a mention in Newsday. Hardest of all to explain away might be the $500 she's won from The Sidney Hillman Foundation, which is starting a monthly prize for "socially-conscious journalism" and has named Ms. Cruz its first winner. Maybe her grandmother's still none the wiser, though, in which case let's all hide those yearbooks and whistle inconspicuously.

It's a well-done radio piece. I'm also a little jealous that I never had access to the no-doubt amazing equipment given to her by the radio station. I hope more kids get this kind of opportunity, but it's good to find someone as talented and honest as Ms. Cruz among those who have. Between the WNYC and HuffPo pieces, I wouldn't be surprised if more storytelling winds up in her future.

[Note, if you happen to be a teen in the NYC area and you want to check out one of the WNYC "Radio Rookies" workshops, check here to find the one closest to you.]

Our Girl Friday: "We are NOT too old for this shit"

Posted at 8:00 AM Jul 10, 2009

By Geoff George

Sarah French
Shelly Shindland
Near as I can tell from my classes, news in a capitalistic society works a little bit like this.

1. News is brought to the people.
2. The people take no notice.
3. News checks its hair in the men's room, or make-up in the lady's room.
4. Still nothing from the people.
5. News tries to make itself interesting, maybe tries to flirt from across the bar. 6. The people wave back, but continue with their own conversations.
7. By this point, news is moving across the bar, and its behavior starts to get a little gross, maybe even kinda handsy.
8. And, well, now the people are paying attention at least.

The news in the U.S. is fundamentally an extension of the pocketbook, and the more you want to fill that thing with money the less shame you're gonna have. I don't know if Fox 61 in Connecticut has reached step 7 yet, but if allegations are true, then they're certainly getting there.

Shelly Shindland, a reporter whose been with the station for fourteen years, is filing a discrimination complaint against her employers, citing numerous incidents of favoritism and borderline harassment against the older women of the newsroom. The bare facts seem to match up with Shindland's claims (which can be read in full here) at several points. 23-year-old Sarah French replaced 38-year-old Laurie Perez on the station's weekend desk, then French replaced 34-year-old Rebecca Stewart on the weekday desk, and then 42-year-old Susan Christensen was maybe, possibly asked to leave.

There are some juicier anecdotes in Shindland's actual complaint, including one about former station general manager Richard Graziano saying, "Hey, whatever works," in regards to possible ratings increases thanks to "tighter shirts" on female anchors. There's also mention of a promotion the station planned called "Naked News," in which female anchors were asked to appear as if they were wearing nothing. Probably not the best call if you're trying to avoid harassment suits.

So, don't get mad at French for coming in as the new anchor. Get mad at the money grubbers, the people after the green. It's their fault news gets drunk and creepy and starts shoving out the old in favor of the new and eventually loses sight of its principal mission altogether, which is to concentrate on the events and not just whether anybody's watching.

Our Girl Friday: Female Confessional Journalism

Posted at 10:30 AM Jul 03, 2009

By Geoff George

Thumbnail image for 200px-ProzacNationBook.jpg

Trying to read Prozac Nation in college, I remember my attempt dragging about three-quarters of the way through. It was too much. Not too much emotion, but too much confession, the same feelings repeated over and over, a pattern of "I was doing fine, and then the bottom fell out, and then I was feeling okay, and then the bottom really fell out, and then I was holding on by a thread, and then the bottom truly fell out." It's a sad story, yes, but at the same time there's something about the book that feels a little exhibitionist, and therefore sad in another way altogether.

Hadley Freeman of The Guardian wrote an article this week on an emerging media genre that she calls "female confessional journalism," and she provided a description a lot of people can probably recognize:

"Here's how it goes: a female journalist describes her obsession with her weight/breasts/ageing face/food or alcohol problems/inability to have a happy relationship. The article is illustrated by the journalist looking as miserable as possible. There are tales of daily woe. It concludes with the writer still sufficiently unhappy to be commissionable for another very similar piece."

She mentions a few particularly bummer-inducing reads, one by Christa D'Souza detailing the pain and grief she went through while undergoing three separate breast implant surgeries, and another by Liz Jones, a confessed anorexic who underwent a three-week period of eating "normally." Freeman argues these narratives do more harm than good, to both writer and reader, perpetuating an image of women as self-loathing and image-obsessed in passages like this from the Jones article:  

"Being this way made me not just socially awkward, but unlovable: I've always hated being touched, hugged, naked, half-dressed on holiday, in case I'm found wanting, in case someone felt or saw an extra ounce of flesh. Being this thin meant I never got pregnant; I have menstruated perhaps half-a-dozen times in my life."

Most mind-boggling and saddest of all is the way these stories are packaged, with taglines at the top of the screen such as "Fatten me up! What happened when former anorexic Liz Jones had to eat normally for three weeks," and pictures of the writers first-and-foremost at the top of the article, baring the offending portions of their bodies. Which means that some photographer and editor sifted through dozens of pictures to figure out how best to put the writers on display, very possibly while only pretending to care.

Amanda Fortini weighs in from Salon.com, saying that confessional writing's been around for a long time, written by both women and men, and that it's a perfectly acceptable, valuable form.  She's not wrong, and maybe Prozac Nation's worth revisiting, but these new stories seem different.  With the kooky taglines and poses before a camera, they seem more like products.  "Step right up and observe some female hardship," they say.  On a level, it encourages placing the writers under a microscope rather than empathizing with their pain, which in turn encourages further examination of ourselves under the microscope, and we all know how much fun that can be.

Freeman suggests editors pump out these pieces because they attract attention, which is probably true. Good or bad, a reaction's a reaction in a business that relies on readership for revenue. Yay, capitalism.  But people would still read newspapers and news sites that stick to stories with relevance, right?  I doubt people would be clamoring for random, emotionally cheapened reports of personal woe if they suddenly went away.  That's all I'm sayin' ...

[via Jezebel]

Our Girl Friday: Another pointless HuffPo poll

Posted at 11:00 AM Jun 26, 2009

By Geoff George

I mean, it's not like I put a lot of stock in The Huffington Post to begin with. I've never considered the site a pillar of journalistic integrity, but this past week, when it presented a poll and slideshow pitting the female anchors of Fox Business and CNBC against each other in a battle of looks, well, it certainly left me heaving another sigh. Let's have a look at some sample phrasing, shall we?

"There's Jenna Lee, whose a favorite for her all-American look."

" ... Tracy Byrnes, whose got a following for her fantastic legs."

Even the few times they opt to mention an anchor's actual accomplishments, they can't seem to help cutting them down at the same time. Observe.

 "Another bit of FOX eye candy comes in the way of Rebecca Diamond. She recently conducted a well-researched interview about commercial real estate, but it was hard to pay attention. She was wearing a turquoise mini-dress with a deep V that nearly reached her belly button."

"Ms. Regan has a hotness that comes from true investigative journalism: her latest work delved into the underground marijuana industry. Now that's a girl we can get into!"

Oh, and there's a slideshow so you can judge each anchor for yourself. There's even a helpful hot/not-hot rating system so that their looks can be officially quantified and ranked. Whatever.

I won't try to get righteously indignant and holier-than-thou here. I too have a portion of the brain that's forever 14. Looks get discussed, by both sexes. In a public forum, though, this is the sort of thing that seems (while, yes, obviously cruel, particularly the rating system) both sad and pointless, an online manifestation of the guys who live in their parents' basements and drink beer and grow old and reclusive and talk about and judge women as if they've slept with thousands when the actual answer's probably zero.

Is it not possible for discussion of American female journalists to center around ... I don't know, the quality of their journalism? Is it a TV anchor thing? Can these women not be taken seriously because they're working in a medium where looks immediately come into play? Male anchors do not incite this sort of discussion, do they? Would HuffPo ever conduct a similar poll rating Anderson Cooper and Jim Cramer?

I spend time on the Internet looking for things to write about here, and there is in fact actual, quality journalism happening out there, a lot of it done by women.

Sudia Musa is a British reporter of Somali origin who returned to her native country and navigated the dangerous waters off of Somalia to film this two-part series on coastal pirates.  You can watch it here and here

Gina Smith is a journalist who got the scoop on Governor Sanford's affair with an Argentinean.  You can read about it here

Their journalism's out there, but maybe we should just forget about it and go find pictures of 'em and talk about those instead.

Our Girl Friday: Tracy Grimshaw

Posted at 8:30 AM Jun 19, 2009

By Geoff George

Ever have a completely innocuous conversation with a minor acquaintance where maybe a few small digs are exchanged, and then a day later the minor acquaintance goes and maybe says something a little harsher behind your back to someone else, and then that someone else brings it back to you, and then other people start coming out of nowhere to put their two cents in about the whole spiraling situation? Tracy Grimshaw, an Australian television journalist and host of A Current Affair, got to experience this on a national level when Hell's Kitchen chef Gordon Ramsay trashed her at a food and wine show on June 6; this after an interview she'd conducted with him the day before.  

Depending on the source you read, Ramsay either called Grimshaw "a lesbian" or didn't, and then went after her looks in a number of ways, including comparing her to a photo you can catch for a split second in this video from the show's second day. 

Needless to say he made remarks of some sort that were ugly and unkind, and watching this video gives a pretty good idea of the sad sort of humor Ramsay likes to run. This is from a food and wine event? What's with the cheap Susan Boyle jokes? Are people positive they didn't pay for a failed Ramsay comedy hour? 

Grimshaw fired back, stating that the chef went after her because she mentioned (briefly, barely) a set of tabloid rumors that he'd had an affair. Here's her seemingly inoffensive original interview with Ramsay plus her response the following week. 

Seems like she's trying a bit hard to channel an Edward R. Murrow address, but her sentiment's still a good one. Don't use "lesbian" as an insult, please, don't make cheap shots behind my back, and don't come on the program if you don't want to be asked questions.

There's a perverse amusement to be found in observing the backtrack of people paid to act like assholes and amp up the attitude (I would put Gordon Ramsay in the same company as Simon Cowell, Judge Judy, Nancy Grace, etc). But, the whole thing got a little ridiculous when (and this might tell you something about the Australian people) the Prime Minister offered his two cents, calling Ramsay "a new form of low life." 

The Hell's Kitchen chef has since apologized, more for the fact that he feels his remarks were exaggerated than because he genuinely feels bad. He also explained that the doctored photo of the quadruple-chested woman with a pig's nose and ears was part of a swine flu gag.  

... right ... funny.

Our Girl Friday: Courage in Journalism Winners

Posted at 8:20 AM Jun 12, 2009

By Geoff George

The bad news for female journalists on the international front just seems to abound these days. On top of the two American journalists recentlyimprisoned in North Korea, there were also two separate killings of female reporters last week in Afghanistan. One of the reporters, Zakia Zaki, who headed an Afghani radio station, was killed in such a terrible and purposeful way it's hard not to see it as some sort of message:

"The murder was particularly gruesome as she was shot several times in her head and chest as she slept in the same room with her eight-month and three-year-old sons."

Just reading about violence that cold and premeditated is awful and disheartening enough, but I still can't truly imagine how soul-killing and morale-reducing it must be to live with it. Indeed, a lot of women are finding it hard to take. A recent Reporters Without Borders report cited by the Epoch Times revealed that in recent years the proportion of female journalism students in Herat, Afghanistan dropped from 70 to 30 percent.

It's hard, a beyond-my-comprehension sort of hard, to not only live with such violence, but to continue reporting in its midst, particularly as a woman, and the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF) recognized this a few weeks ago by naming their 2009 Courage in Journalism award-winners: Iryna Khalip of Novaya Gazeta in Belarus; Agnes Taile of Canal 2 International in Cameroon; and Jila Baniyaghoob of the website Kanoon Zanan Irani in Iran. It's astonishing to consider that all three of these women have experienced violence first-hand and yet continued with their work, but it's even worse to know they often can't catch breaks within their country's media system either, much as Baniyaghoob couldn't with many of her employers:

"She has been fired from several jobs because she refuses to censor the subject matter of her reporting and several of her media outlets have been closed by the government. ... The topics of her reporting make her a target of the Iranian government. She has been beaten, arrested and imprisoned numerous times."

Here in the U.S., journalists are protected by specific laws and organizations like the IRE, and staring at our computer screens, we almost have to remind ourselves that people in other parts of the world wake up and make a daily choice to make life-threatening sacrifices.

If you want to help, you can go and donate on the websites of both Reporters Without Borders and the IWMF. The two organizations keep close international tabs on potential harm and wrongdoing against journalists, many of whom endure the worst where journalism is needed the most.

Our Girl Friday: Mayor-dater Lu Parker

Posted at 10:45 AM Jun 05, 2009

By Geoff George


Welcome to Our Girl Friday, a new segment highlighting news of women in the ... well, the news.  Sometimes it's the ladies behind the articles and broadcasts who really deserve to be written about, and we at HD are here to recognize.

Today's story comes straight outta LA, a response to a column by James Rainey, who uses the relationship between KTLA news anchor Lu Parker and Mayor Villaraigosa to jump solely on Parker's case for a) complicating her journalistic ethics by dating the mayor at the same time, and b) complicating her journalistic ethics by modeling and acting at the same time. The casual douchebaggery of referring to Ms. Parker as a "pretty young news babe" aside, Rainey's argument reads as the sort of thing it's easy to have an opinion about when you're writing on deadline. 

"Even if Parker didn't cover politics per se, she could still encounter any number of stories -- school reform, the performance of the police department, expansion of the airport -- in which Villaraigosa has a stake."
This would be fair argument if Parker's anchor duties involved more than reading from the teleprompter, a fact that KTLA points out.  Her actual reporting seems to come in the field, with the interviewing of celebrities and the like.

Rainey sees a larger problem, though, which arose when he went to check out Parker's website and found her modeling pictures.  He envisioned "a growing media trend that might be less obvious to the general audience -- the way some journalists aren't content to be just journalists."  Rainey writes further:

"Doesn't it seem odd to anyone else that the same person can furrow her brow in the role of serious newswoman -- chasing fires through the hills, announcing election night tallies and bemoaning gang violence -- and then preen her way through a modeling video?"
A former Miss USA winner still models sometimes when she's not at her regular job ... yeah, that's so totally weird and detrimental.  This realization coming from a state whose governor used his own lines from The Terminator to grab votes. Wait, a minute, though.  Mr. Rainey, are you saying you ARE content to be just a journalist?  Are you saying you ARE the serious news professional? Need I remind you that you just called Parker a "pretty young news babe"?

Incidentally, I checked out Parker's site myself, and along with some photos is a rotating list of films and TV shows she's been in.  Do we really need to begrudge the woman a guest spot on Bones between nightly readings of the news?
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