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When women journalists prevailed over New York Times

By Saswat Pattanayak

New York Times faced a class-action lawsuit in 1974 brought against it by 600 of its own women employees. An affirmative action plan mandating progressive hiring practices was to be the outcome of its settlement, four years later. Who were these courageous women and what were their professional commitments like? Today’s New York Times digs into this history and offers a tribute to those times when women staff writers contributed to a page named after its four themes – Food, Fashions, Family, Furnishings. They wrote about culinary interests and peculiarities in fashion (the only radical writings cited by the report include profiles of Richard Avedon and Diana Vreeland). According to the NYTimes reporter Amanda Svachula, The four F’s page ran from 1955 to 1971, and “around 1971, the header was changed to Family/Style”.

But that is not entirely accurate. Ms. Svachula has written an exceptional piece, no doubt. It is a much-needed peek into the 70’s, and how journalism has evolved since. At the same time, some fact-checks need to be done, and a critical approach to the understanding of the evolution adopted.

Firstly, contrary to the report, the “Food, Fashions, Family, Furnishings” page was not retired in 1971. Indeed, it was very much active even in 1974. It was eventually renamed, but the chronological accuracy is of essence. It is of essence, also because the NYTimes article today completely overlooks the pattern of reporting that was conducted by its women reporters throughout the 70’s. I will use Enid Nemy as a case study to argue that the same “Four Fs” page (and subsequently, Style) was consistently also used by women reporters to address women’s rights and issues surrounding feminist movement of the time.

For instance, on December 9, 1974, Enid Nemy’s wrote a piece titled, “A look at Sex Roles in Blue-Collar Jobs”. It is true that her story appeared as a two-column story, whereas the main lead for that page on the day with a five-column spread was titled “Cosmetics Gift Race Goes On”. But Nemy’s story was clearly the more powerful one – it highlighted a class analysis related to blue-collar workers – both women and men. She quoted Professor Alice Cook from Cornell University describing female work force as possessing unique characteristic of the phase of re-entry into the workforce. “This is a special problem, because women’s work is interrupted and men’s is not.” She also quoted Professor Sheila Tobias in a panel on “white blue-collar workers and feminism”, as saying, “Not every issue is purely male-female. Most issues impinging on blue-collar workers, male and female, may very well be class.” Nemy explored the concerns of the black women as the “group that suffers most from unemployment.”

In 1975, Nemy’s report on November 8, titled “Feminists reappraise direction and image” was an analysis of the entire women’s rights movement in the backdrop of Equal Rights Amendment which had failed to pass. Nemy offered a platform to a diverse range of voices. Whereas one feminist said the movement had “ignored or misunderstood a lot of women”, another said, “a large number of women didn’t trust the present movement and the present leadership.” Yet another said, “We have to reach out to the housewife. The movement pays lip service to them, but their work should be honored and respected.” Nemy depicted the conflicts and the “bickering” and the “fight among ourselves” that had become the mainstay of feminist movement of the time. Like a sincere reporter, a chronicler, and unlike most professional journalists, as an interpreter of the events, Nemy continued her work.

For several years, Enid Nemy reported on issues of women’s rights within the Style page. She extensively covered the “second stage” of the women’s movement in New York Times. She described a panel that would make Selma James proud today. A panel titled “Helping the Homemaker, New Needs, New Problems” in 1979 had argued that the women’s movement had “denigrated the role of homemaking.”

A panel titled “Marriage as an Economic Partnership” challenged the amount of discretion allotted to judges in divorce proceedings, and discussed marital property reforms aiming to empower non-wage earning spouses to obtain credit.

After quoting Alvin Toffler at the panel envisioning a “demassified third wave” in the following century, where considerable amount of work will be shifted to home, and Isaac Asimov at the panel predicting the takeover of mundane jobs by machines, Enid Nemy brilliantly concludes her report in an irrepressibly witty manner with a feminist in the audience who smiled and said, “We just got out of the house, and they’re putting us back in.”

What is instructive in this context is that the Fashion/Style page was being subverted with women’s rights issues by the women journalists of the day. Nemy reported on a Fashion Group Inc. seminar, no doubt, but because it focused on how professional women could benefit from awareness around credit line and credit history. Nemy conveyed the advices of panelists which rings true to this day for many professional women, who should “Establish a financial identity in their own names, not just their husbands; have some bank assets in their own names; have charge account cards in their own names, rather than their husbands’ name or as Mrs. Someone; and, establish a line of credit at a bank before it was needed, since it would cost nothing if it wasn’t used.”

The female reporters were not simply “kept upstairs” by the Times, as the headline today suggests. These journalists attended and covered the women’s movement, interviewed feminists, and shared opinions. After attending a women’s forum at the Russian Tea Room, Enid Nemy shared some radical feminist thoughts with her readers. She quoted Dr. Suzanne Keller of Princeton University as arguing that the stereotypical images of gender are harmful even when there is a depiction of fantasy superwoman. In Dr. Keller’s words, “To assume that a conventional family life can be combined with unconventional achievements means that you have only yourself to blame if this is not so for you. The notion that it is up to the woman to find way exempts social institutions, and men, from their responsibilities, and self‐blame serves the status quo.”

Not all events covered by Enid Nemy were necessarily radical, and by being so, they provide unique insights into the history of feminism. In one conference, she writes, subject of reverse discrimination was introduced by Nobel Laureate (in Medicine) Dr. Rosalyn Yalow who chastised the purposes of a women’s organization which she said was merely to “self-destruct….there is no such thing as equality if there is a need for women’s organizations.” Likewise, Professor Judith Stiehm hypothesized that if women entered armed forces, then the men may have to enter the realm of infant nurturing because “when the role of the warrior is no longer exclusively masculine, much of its luster will be lost.”

In a sense, Nemy’s reporting reflected highest journalistic values of objectivity – in that, she did not limit herself to her own sets of beliefs; but it was more importantly, subversive. She refused to remain within the confines of traditional expectations from someone assigned to the beauty care and style page.

On a page where a story on John Weitz’s designs for women (“From a Men’s Designer, Easy Clothes for Women”) took up most space, Nemy ran a five-column feature on “the Urban Widow”. She interviewed several women for this article and ended with the “widow with the modest fortune” as someone that summed up the piece with these words, “Marriage is lovely, but I’ve enjoyed just about as much as I can stand.”

Civil rights were not gained overnight by a change of heart in the authority, or via threats of lawsuits. Progressive people from all walks of life engage in constant struggles against the status quo in order to improve it for the next generations. Female reporters of the Times were perhaps assigned a specific floor and a specific theme, but as Nemy’s and her peers’ works demonstrate, they did not simply wait for a change to happen. They became part of the movement that forced the establishment to change the page’s header and to accommodate writings about women’s rights and feminism. The headline is not that they were confined, but that they prevailed.

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Lesson from Snowden: Myth of the Free Press

By Saswat Pattanayak

The sudden rise in whistleblowers in the US could be a new phenomenon, but the governmental scrutiny and penalization process surrounding them, is hardly so. Apart from the widening scope of social/virtual media’s sphere of influence, there is hardly anything unique about the circumstances unraveled by Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning.

Political radicalism, underground media activism, and alleged unpatriotic nature among conscientious citizens in the United States are what have indeed uniquely shaped this country. It has always been the case of the powerful ruling class elites duly supported by the judiciary, military and corporate media constantly engaged in wars against progressive activists and causes. Because the blazing speed with which various official and classified documents now reach a diverse global audience is something new, the use of technology in bridging the gap between ruling class and the formerly clueless audience certainly appears to be groundbreaking in our times.

But to claim that there are spectacularly outrageous misdeeds that the Obama and Bush administrations uniquely are culpable of when it comes to attacking free speech rights, is to get the peoples’ history entirely wrong. It might suit our times to highlight what appears to be bizarre and unacceptable to us from a legal standpoint, but to view that as historically decisive moment that is unprecedented, would be to trivialize the various ongoing struggles against ruling class monopolists.

To begin with, there is clearly nothing novel about collection of vital information about individuals. In many cases, it may not even be illegal. We have been willfully submitting information related to our private lives to corporations such as Google and Facebook since years now. Unless it is a special dislike we harbor towards the government as an institution, the privacy rights argument appears quite weak at the outset. But what is important to remember while expressing shock and disbelief at PRISM is that such experiments have been core to the way governments have always functioned in collaborations with business houses.

It is only after Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers that enormous importance was attached to the idea of a whistleblower, and by extension, to the idea that it is crucial to expose an administration when they lie. There’s no denying that it is important to leak official documents with an intent to secure individual rights, but what is equally critical is to not get all shocked at the findings of classified information. What is essential is to recognize what I.F. Stone used to say: that, all governments lie. All administrations resort to lies. That, international diplomacy is nothing but a systematization of lies. What is crucial is to acknowledge that individual freedom is always going to be limited so long as a state exists. That, it is not just the communist and overtly authoritarian regimes which manipulate individual rights to free speech and privacy, but the western liberal democracies have also always done so.

After rising to fame, Daniel Ellsberg has declared that Snowden’s are the most remarkable contributions in recent times. He said, “I definitely have a new hero in Edward Snowden, the first one since Bradley Manning, and I’m glad it didn’t take another 40 years. People who respect or admire what I did, they may not realize it right now, but before this is over, they’ll recognize that he deserves great admiration.” Whereas Ellsberg is right in calling Snowden, Manning or Assange as heroes of our times, they are not the only ones in the span of last forty years, or if Ellsberg’s claim to fame is considered, in the history of the United States.

Nothing could be farther from truth. Only in recent times, prosecution of Judith Miller clearly revealed to what extent journalists could be penalized for concealing their sources. As a New York Times reporter, even as she did not publish any article about the Plame Affair, Miller had to spend twelve weeks in jail for refusing to reveal her source. Miller clearly is not a hero in the sense that Glenn Greenwald or Bob Woodward are, but the lesson that needs to be drawn is that not all journalists are equally privileged in order to get away with what would be considered a “crime” for others. Race, gender, accessibility, networking, political rapport among many other factors influence the heroisms.

Even as Woodward has made millions of dollars off the sales of his investigative journalistic books – works that have ideologically helped the Democrats – during those very times, every other underground paper in the country were being shut down by the government. Woodward or Ellsberg were champions for a change of power in Washington to suit their political beliefs, not activists for press freedom on behalf of publishers and editors of radical media.

An Underground Press Syndicate (UPS) was formed just to address the assaults on press freedom in 1967. Managing editor Ron Thelin of Oracle wrote, “Well, here we all are, Uncle Sam on the verge of death. A sleep-stupor symbol-addicted environment haunts our hearts, and what are we going to do about it?” Jeff Shero who had campaigned for the abolition of segregated toilets at the University of Texas founded ‘Rat’, a major left-wing underground newspaper. New York’s ‘East Village Other’, California’s ‘L.A. Free Press’, ‘Berkeley Barb, Detroit’s ‘Fifth Estate’ – and at least thirty other small radical publications had together formed UPS as a means to organize, educate and agitate the masses, to make investigative journalism accessible and to make investigations that truly exposed the contradictions within capitalism.

UPS was inspired by the Black Panthers and shared information with the public that would help challenge the duopoly of phony democracy. They were also vehemently anti-sexist. One of their resolutions ran, “That male supremacy and chauvinism be eliminated from the contents of the underground papers. For example, papers should stop accepting commercial advertising that uses women’s bodies to sell records and other products, and advertisements for sex, since the use of sex as a commodity specially oppresses women in this country.” As a result of the underground media activism in the United States, as Abe Peck wrote, “DDT was banned, abortions were legalized, the draft ended, U.S. troops finally left Vietnam, the American Psychiatric Association “de-diseased” homosexuality, and draconian sentences for smoking plants were reduced.”

Scandals like Watergate were the bread and butter of the underground press, while New York Times and Washington Post were busy covering nuclear power stations. I.F. Stone and Hunter S. Thompson, Max Scherr, John Wilcock, were among the more prominent names in the underground media scene. It was only after the UPS became so impactful that it attracted FBI’s campaigns to shut it down, that the kinds of Bob Woodwards and Daniel Ellsbergs rose to prominence. With big media, pulitzer prizes and partisan favors monopolizing over investigative norms, the revolution found itself stalled. Ellsberg failed recently to appreciate his predecessors, maybe because the underground journalists were not just opposed to Nixon, but to the entire system of political economy that benefited the liberals and the white left. Whereas, “Actuel” published regularly investigative reports on FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s murderous rampage, some sampled stories from a typical issue of “Fifth Estate” included: a strike by illegal Mexican American immigrants in the Californian vineyards; the MC5 tel
ling stores that wouldn’t stock their records to go fuck themselves; the white left: can you take them seriously?”

Berets and black leather jackets, Afro hair, military salutes, and iconic poster images – the underground press raised its fist; self-defense and communal self-sufficiency spawned new organizations such as the IBA (International Black Appeal) which appealed in the pages of the Inner-City Voice for help in distributing food in the ghettos of Detroits, suffering in the aftermath of the 1967 riots.

Thirty years since, underground press no longer exists in the United States. Instead of asking what led to the demise of an activist-oriented news coalition that not just made investigations and made classified information accessible, witnessed its publishers getting jailed and offices ransacked, and virtually experienced first-hand the murder of press freedom – if we continue to glorify four white men in last forty years for merely leaking information that would have otherwise kept our private lives private, then we are missing the mark entirely.

Long before the UPS came to fore, when the American administration was attacking radical newspapers, W.E.B. Du Bois already had attested in 1953, “It is not a question as to whether these facts and opinions are right or wrong, true or false. It is the more basic question as to who is going to be the judge of this, and as to how far honest people can remain intelligent if they refuse to listen to unpopular opinions or to facts which they do not want to believe. There is a determined effort today to put papers like these out of existence, to harass and harry them, to make readers afraid to subscribe to them or to buy them on news stands; to keep newspaper distributors from handling them; and in these and other ways to make their continued existence impossible.”

Snowden’s episode followed by Lavabit exposes what should have been long known, had we been paying attention to the history of the underground press. Cops have confiscated typewriters, cameras, darkrooms, graphic equipment, business records, books and posters; editors have been convicted of false obscenity charges, on charges of immorality, their cars firebombed and their offices infiltrated by plainclothed officers. Starting from the “red scare” to the “witch hunt” to the underground press, anticommunist arrests of journalists and sustained harassments targeting anyone, black or white, that exposed the racist administrative policies, press freedom in the United States (and much of Europe) has been a sham all throughout the recorded history.

Ellsberg, Woodward, Assange, Manning, Snowden are merely those who have relatively survived the assault.

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Means to Control Media

By Saswat Pattanayak

Media shape, mediate and direct much of our lives. The way we think and the way we act are largely due to the media contents. Media are in part owned, in part managed, and in larger part consumed. The managers and the consumers have no say in the control and ownership, but the owners have a say regarding the way media need to be managed and consumed.

That’s the irony: the majority of people on the planet have no say in how they will receive news, in what must constitute news and which news must prevail. We the journalists (managers), and we the masses (the consumers) do the jobs for the owner class and reap profits for them. Every now and then in the peoples’ history, when the independent voices among us have found an outlet for expression of resentment against the systematic control of news content and flow, the owner class, guarding its rich and powerful class interests, have imposed laws to prevent us from doing so. These days, in the most exploitative saga of all times as we have ever witnessed, laws are being proposed to control human thoughts.

Whose Media is the community of organized peoples who are connected together through modems and computers and are representing those who have been deprived from this ability, to voice the collective resentments in every way possible.

News as represented in mainstream media are presupposed on grounds, two of which are: the immediacy and the unpredictability. First, it does a disservice by focusing on the immediacy of event by not taking into account either of the logical connectedness of geographical distances (that is, by assuming the news nearer home is more important than farther—which is grossly fallacious, knowing the way international decisions affect every nook and corner of the planet) or, of the historical disconnectedness that are encouraged in this pursuit (that is, by assuming that the only important issue at hand is what is happening, not what led in the past to the present occurrence. This is pertinent to understand the way events are shaped over the elite history systematically to ensure dominance of the ruling class and to understand the other history of struggles constantly engaged to overthrow the exploiters). Secondly, journalists on the mainstream media continue the disservice by coining some surprise elements surrounding what they competitively announce as their “breaking news”. Indeed, we view, no news must come as a surprise. News are either premeditated by the ruling class to legitimize their rules, or they are byproducts of sustained struggles of the working peoples throughout the history to bring the changes that are being “legally” curbed.

News is what happens to us because of either our indifferent silences, or our radical voices. Silences are preferred by those interested in maintaining the status quo, of upholding the institutions of blind beliefs, faith systems, and societal values – that have always been instruments of oppression at the hands of the minority ruling class. In contrast, voices are raised by those interested in replacing the institutions of slavery, serfdom, competitive sweatshops, war-mongers, and conservative glorifiers of the ‘good old days’! Voices are raised against everything that was representative of the days of systematic oppression that continue to flourish in the garb of political systems that suit their class interests and the religious towers of inhuman submissions that go hand in gloves to maintain the “faith” among the peoples in the existing world of institutionalized poverty, war, and the misrule by the economic elites.

Whose Media is then the voice of the voices! Because most of us on this planet have been accused of being voiceless for too long.