Women in the newsroom

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy (also known as “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and its sequels) features a tough heroine with chutzpah to spare. She makes no apologies for who she is, she never backs down from intimidation, she’s a consummate professional to the very end  and she regularly beats men at their own game.

I’m talking about Erika Berger (you thought it was Lisbeth Salander, didn’t you?).

Berger, with journalist Mikael Blomkvist, helped build Millennium magazine into a gutsy shrine to investigative journalism. Her tenure saw the magazine expose sex trafficking, corporate malfeasance and all manner of government corruption. She left Millennium to take the editor-in-chief job at Sweden’s top newspaper, only to return to Millennium at the end of the series rather than compromise her principles.

I can’t help but think of Berger when I read about Jill Abramson, who last week gained the crown jewel of journalism: leadership of the New York Times. She’s the first woman to ever hold the job; you’ll keep seeing this sentence over and over if you look into it.

If you’re unfamiliar with Abramson, I recommend this succinct but informative profile from the Guardian. What you’ll find is an impressive journalist — a former Washington bureau chief and managing editor with a love of in-depth investigative reporting and eye for the digital age. Her past friction with authority — digging deeper into Ken Starr’s motives during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and butting heads with the Bush administration — makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. Rock-solid credentials.

So why is it a big deal that she’s a woman?

While I know it’s an obvious milestone that can’t help but pop up, I’m leery that putting so much emphasis on Abramson’s sex might subtly be sending some hint of affirmative action or condescension. This is clearly not the case, but it’s troubling that in addition to explaining her background (which would be the case for any new editor, man or woman), Abramson seems compelled to defend her vision of the Times. In perhaps the same way that a female presidential candidate may once have had to prove that she wouldn’t push the Button during menopausal mood swings, Abramson has stated that “soft news” won’t overtake the Times’ front page.

Would a male executive editor have to iterate that?

While the Kansan is obviously not the Times, it is in its own way a microcosm of a broader journalistic culture. My second semester as managing editor, the entire upper echelon of management was female: the editor-in-chief and three managing editors. By May, after dealing with a bomb threat, stabbings, robberies, an alcohol-related death, an accidental death, a bizarre animal cruelty case, a fatal hit-and-run and numerous other crises, I’d have dared anyone to tell us we were “too soft.”

The Kansan (which lately has male and female editors in roughly equal measure) isn’t alone here. Of the 17 winners of the Associated Collegiate Press Newspaper Pacemaker in 2010, 11 papers had female editors or co-editors. Of the 11 large-school winners of the Associated Collegiate Press Online Pacemaker in 2010, six sites had female editors (including the awesome Lauren Cunningham, who managed Kansan.com that semester). So not only are women running college newspapers more often now, but we’re apparently running them very well.

We admire great male journalists simply as “great journalists.” Eventually — and here’s hoping Abramson’s tenure helps — I hope we can also look at great female journalists simply as “great journalists.” Both young men and women in the profession need role models and mentors. I’d like young women (and men) interested in our profession to admire seasoned ladies based on their qualifications and accomplishments, not because they got as far as they did despite the fact that (or because) they’re women. Focusing disproportionately on Abramson’s gender, and not on her record, doesn’t help.

I wish Abramson the best of luck, and I hope she knows that she has a whole fleet of young women journalists coming after her. Someone had to be first, after all. But not the final.

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Commentators must have standards, too

I’ve always loved movies — I saw “The Little Mermaid” in the cinema when I was about 2 and a half, and the rest is history. In middle school and high school, I wrote reviews for my parents and other family members to read and occasionally for my high school newspaper. In my 8th grade gifted class, we had to interview a professional working in our area of interest. I contacted Bob Butler, the film critic at the Kansas City Star, and asked him about his work. He replied in great detail and showed good humor toward my teenage-minded questions, and to this day I remember that and appreciate the time he took replying to me.

Much of my journalism experience up to this point relates to opinion writing and commentary. I wrote a column for my high school paper, served as the opinion editor and wrote and assigned staff editorials as editor-in-chief. My first job at the University Daily Kansan involved writing book reviews for Jayplay. I spent my sophomore year as a long-distance columnist before manning the opinion desk for a semester and working on the editorial board for an additional two semesters after that.

The big misconception I see about opinion writing? It’s the idea that, because they’re presenting an “opinion,” a person can say or write whatever they want. Oh, no no no no. The top-quality columns and editorials will involve just as much reporting and research as any straight news story, and it’s these writers’ knowledge of what they’re discussing that makes their voices so critical.

Bearing that in mind, I was surprised to read yesterday on Deadline that Movieline had sacked Elvis Mitchell over an error in his review of the film “Source Code.” According to Nikki Finke’s Deadline article, the studio screened a final cut of “Code” for Mitchell to review. Yet in his review, Mitchell took issue with Jeffrey Wright smoking a pipe in the film — an act that director Duncan Jones said on Twitter had been included in a draft of the script but was cut for the actual film. Yet it ended up in Mitchell’s review. Finke wrote that Movieline formally asked Mitchell to explain himself, and eventually terminated his contract entirely, after he’d worked there a scant three months.

If you’re unfamiliar with Mitchell, just know that he’s no small-timer; before joining Movieline, he worked as a critic for the New York Times, appeared on television and is a fixture on the festivals circuit. For a seasoned critic like him to make that kind of a mistake is almost … scandalous.

The reader comments accompanying the Deadline article are all over the map. Some speculate that he left the film early, or didn’t see it at all, and based his review on a copy of the script he had. Others suggest that he read the script and saw the film, and just got confused. Still others defend him and suggest that we don’t know the whole story. Whether they support him, many commenters suggest that he might be given a pass were it not for other erratic behavior, such as backing out of working on Roger Ebert’s review show and a development program with Columbia Pictures, both missteps that Finke discusses in her article.

Ultimately the only person who knows exactly how or why the discrepancy occurred is Mitchell. Not being in the theater with him, it’s not my place to say that he saw the film or not, because obviously I can’t know. But this episode, which brought down a highly respected film critic, should be a cautionary tale for opinion writers, a lesson telling them to take care and make sure they get their facts right. Film critics — including Roger Ebert — make mistakes all the time when it comes to characters’ names and relationships and even some basic plot points. What probably cost Mitchell was that his error was made not when describing the film, but when judging it. A troublesome mistake, clearly, but one that all aspiring opinion writers should be wary of.