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Open letter to Slate: Jack Shafer insults women, wonders why women are insulted (more on the Forbes flap)

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

August 24th, 2006

In response to the Forbes “Financially dependent wives will keep your house clean and complain less when you cheat on them” piece that was the subject of such debate yesterday (see my last post for a link round-up of women’s rapid responses to the piece and the story’s URL), Slate’s Jack Shafer wrote a priggish “Press Box” post wondering why we gals were getting our panties in a twist:

“I’ve yet to read a blog item or a protesting e-mail from a reader that convinces me that the article—as opposed to the deliberately provocative headline—really insults women, career or otherwise. ”

Reading Shafer’s piece, I got a distinct vision of the writer’s brow furrowing, clearly torn, thinking, “Hmmm… Forbes ran a piece that says a whole bunch of crap that pisses off those ornery feminists, which I like, but the piece itself is stupid and misrepresentative, which is kind of lame - what to do… what to do… I know, let’s bait feminists by saying they have nothing to be so angry about, even while I explain why the piece is somewhat angering.” And that’s just what he did.

Despite acknowledging that Noer sometimes plays “fast and loose with the facts” and detailing various inaccuracies and mirepresentations in the piece, Shafer goes on to deride women who consider the article an example of “backlash journalism,” asserting that Noer’s piece isn’t “feminist baiting” the way that Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s book Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children is. Conveniently, Shafer ignores the fact that Noer relies on sloppy, widely-debunked social science work — including the work of Sylvia Ann Hewlett — to present his hostile commentary as if it were news reporting, rather than opinion.

(Note: The “Don’t Marry Career Women” piece originally ran as news, along with an incredibly insulting and factually misrepresentative and inaccurate slideshow — by the day’s end, Forbes threw up a last-minute, bare-bones essay from one of their female contributors responding to Noer, and repackaged the piece as a point/counterpoint and have taken down the slideshow — more on the mag’s no-comment shift from news to commentary in a later post.)

Ironically enough, even as he offers some useful factual rebuttal to Noer’s neandrathal mutterings, Shafer’s entire dismissive post seems designed to accomplish the very feminist-bating he claims is missing from the Forbes article:

“Before my female readers break their nails pounding out angry e-mails to me, they should consider the piece’s fundamental weakness. Forbes’ definition of a career woman is extraordinarily broad, including any woman who has a college education, works 35 hours a week, and makes more than $30,000. So, if you define non-career women as all the ‘undereducated’ who work part-time and make less than $30K, it becomes painfully obvious why female careerists are more likely to divorce than non-careerists: They can better afford to get out of an unhappy marriage than their sisters.

“Don’t ask me to get upset about slide six—’Your house will be dirty’ if you get married to a woman who makes more than $30,000. The same goes for slide nine—’You are more likely to fall ill’ if your wife works. What upsets you about the piece? Bore me with your fury at slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)”

So, let’s see if I have this straight:

  • Shafer using his blog to note the “fundamental weakness” of factual inaccuracies and ideological, political and economic problems throughout the Forbes’ piece = valid media critique.
  • Dozens of female journalists, bloggers and pundits doing the same thing in online magazines, in their blogs, on the radio and (heaven forbid!) in “angry emails” to editors = “boring fury.”

Nice.

So, what’s a media critic to do? On the one hand, it’s infuriating to know that any letter sent to Slate will be instantly dismissed as the predictable whining of easily-baited feminists, and will fuel Shafer’s monumental ego. On the other, my job is to correct these sorts of media products, and to demand accountability where I can.

In the end — despite the fact that Shafer is likely giggling like a testosterone-filled frat boy every time he gets an annoyed missive from a female reader — I opted to send this open letter to Slate, which I hope you’ll circulate to anyone you think would be interested. Enjoy.

***
Open Letter to Slate’s Jack Shafer, re. “Forbes’ Female Trouble

To: slate.pressbox@gmail.com
Aug. 24, 2006

Dear Mr. Shafer:

If you’ve not heard anything yet to explain what insults women about the Forbes piece, perhaps you might bother yourself to listen to any of the dozens of women (from Rebecca Traister at Salon to Roz Barnett on Uprising Radio this morning to the many women bloggers to whom I’ve linked at http://www.wimnonline.org/WIMNsVoicesBlog/?p=239) who have critiqued Noer’s sloppy journalism. Besides, isn’t a bit disingenuous to wonder why women are insulted, when you go out of your way to insult them yourself, dismissing their potential objections with a tossed-off “bore me with your fury?”

But, if you would prefer not to read the prolific examples of rapid-response from female journalists, bloggers and pundits, perhaps you might be persuaded by this letter to Romenesko from Stacy Cowley, who ties her journalistic objections to Forbes’ marketing strategy:
http://poynter.org/forum/view_post.asp?id=11758

As for me, my beef is (among other things) with Noer’s shoddy, selective reporting and his packaging of the piece as news analysis, not opinion - complete with retrograde Maxim magazine-meets-Father Knows Best slideshow. Oh, yes, the mag ended up repackaging the piece as a point/counterpoint by throwing up a bare-bones, anecdote-heavy, last-minute response from one of Forbes’ female contributors, but that counterpoint does nothing to address my primary concern as a media critic: misrepresentation of facts and a frame that falsely positions “science” against “feminism,” as if the former is inherently factual and the latter is simply emotional, untestable drivel.

In reality, Noer marshaled dubious pseudo-science and he relied primarily on studies, statistics and claims that have in many cases been widely debunked — such as Sylvia Ann Hewlitt’s much-contested work on women and marriage (which you yourself note as an example of backlash fare, even as you dismiss those of us who criticized Noer for churning out backlash fare that relies on works by ideologues such as Hewlitt); W. Bradford Wilcox, who uses Christianity as a framework for his analysis; and Linda J. Waite, whose attempts at social science are motivated by conservative ideology, as witness her coauthoring “The Case for Marriage” with Maggie Gallagher, one of the most virulently anti-feminist commentators in the U.S.

This was sloppy, hostile journalism aimed at attacking independent women through the creative misuse of “facts” that are anything but. That it got top billing in Forbes - from an editor who has previously written pieces for Forbes equating wives and prostitutes, and women as economic goods to be exploited and traded as such - that is what is insulting to women.

Incidentally, you offer some useful and accurate interpretations of the way Noer plays “fast and loose with the facts” — I find it curious that you so roundly dismiss women journalists’ and bloggers’ similar objections. Would I be wrong to interpret your post as follows:

* Jack Shafer using his blog to note the “fundamental weakness” of factual inaccuracies and ideological, political and economic problems implicit in Noer’s arguments = valid media critique.

* Dozens of female journalists, bloggers and pundits doing the same thing in online magazines, in their blogs, on the radio and (heaven forbid!) in “angry emails” to editors = “boring fury.”

Are we clear now? Or are you still “bored” by my desire for well-researched journalism?

Jennifer L. Pozner
Executive Director
Women In Media & News (WIMN), the women’s media analysis, education and advocacy group.
www.WIMNonline.org
www.WIMNonline.org/WIMNsVoicesBlog

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