April 28, 2004,
If you want to see media bias in action, write a book about media bias," said Myrna Blyth, who's just emerged from a two-year retirement after 20 years running Ladies Home Journal to kick over the traces with Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness and Liberalism to the Women of America. The book, an industry tell-all with plenty of juicy anecdotes from Blyth's years in the hand-wringing, back-biting world of women's magazines, recently spent almost three weeks on the New York Times's bestseller list. But the review in the New York Times itself was disapproving.
Blyth, who I met for lunch in L.A. the other week when she was in from New York promoting her book, added that the Los Angeles Times has yet to review Spin Sisters, which was published in March. But that may have less to do with media bias than Spring Street's tradition of writing about hot media stories late or never.
"A Linda Trippian fake friend," Emily Nussbaum wrote of Blyth in the New York Times review earlier this month. Nussbaum took particular issue with a Spin Sisters chapter in which Blyth attended a high-powered media baby shower for Hillary Clinton's press secretary, along with Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters, et al. In the book, she recounts noting to another guest that she's probably the only person at the party who's ever voted Republican. The response: "You were invited despite that fact."
"Note to expectant mothers: Don't invite Myrna Blyth to your baby shower," Nussbaum advised in her Times review.
Or anywhere else, for that matter. Because Blyth has an eagle eye for embarrassing moments of clueless elitism, and after decades in the business, she's taken plenty of notes. Elsewhere in the book, she recalls sharing a cab to the White House with three other top women's magazine editors, and notes the stunned silence that ensues when the black driver eavesdropping on their conversation about the family-values lobby volunteers that prayer in schools might be a good idea. "He can't really mean that," whispers one shocked editor to the others as they leave the cab.
Blyth told me that Nussbaum was perhaps the wrong reviewer to be throwing around words like "Linda Trippian," as her father, Bernard Nussbaum, was White House counsel during President Clinton's Monica Lewinsky troubles. I suggested that it wasn't really shocking that the New York Times assigned Spin Sisters to someone they knew probably wouldn't like it; after all, the Wall Street Journal assigned it to me, who they knew probably would.
As Blyth pointed out, though, the Journal admits having a particular point of view on its editorial pages: "But the New York Times is supposed to be neutral."
And so are, presumably, women's magazines; diet tips and recipes, after all, don't necessarily belong to any particular point on the political spectrum. But don't expect too much Ann Coulter in women's mags, Blyth said. "Yes, Ann Coulter is extreme. But Eve Ensler is also extreme, and she's in women's magazines all the time."
Politics aside, though, the Seven Sisters and their cousins do have their own peculiar way of doing things. I'm no veteran insider like Blyth, but I have periodically visited that inner circle of journalism hell known as women's magazines, so I know what life in a henhouse is like. A friend who spent years as a subeditor at one of them used to refer to the place as the "Bitch Pit." From the writer's point of view, you always take the assignment thinking it's going to be easy money, and it almost never is.
I was once alert enough to turn down one of these pieces within two minutes. The article, called "I Can't Believe I'm Getting Paid for This!" was conceived around interviews with people like a woman who bakes brownies for a living. Since no matter what you do, I can believe you're getting paid for it, I'm happy to say I declined without wasting the magazine's time or, more importantly, mine.
"I once asked Gil Schwartz [the CBS executive vice-president who uses the pseudonym Stanley Bing for his inside-business articles] why he writes for men's magazines instead of women's," Blyth said. "And he said, 'Because the men's mags just publish the thing! The women's endlessly revise it.'"
Spin Sisters is a well-researched polemic that argues the media is run by an ossified elite who came of age in the '60s and '70s and have never questioned their formative beliefs: that bigger, better government is the answer to many personal problems. It's the same tactic CBS whistle-blower Bernard Goldberg made in the best-selling Bias a couple of years ago these fish don't know they're wet, which makes shooting them in a barrel especially irresistible but Blyth's screed is more fun than Goldberg's.
Anyone who's glanced at the racks by the supermarket checkout knows what she's talking about: cover after cover of what Blyth calls "female fear factor" stories from Family Circle's "Attack of the Killer Cleansers" to Cosmopolitan's "sleepsex" rapists. (Don't you hate it when your boyfriend rapes you without even waking up?) But, as she hammers home in Spin Sisters, the elite editors of the Seven Sisters and their cousins have no idea of the problems their 50 million readers really face.
"Not only do these women not live like you or think like you," Blyth argues, in a style that's half sorority slam book, half "The Day My Momma Socked It To the Harper Valley PTA," "they do things you probably wouldn't do either." No, indeed. "Queen of Nice" Rosie O'Donnell snarling to a fan that she doesn't sign autographs is a particularly memorable Spin Sisters moment.
Blyth's colleagues may have suspected over the years that she wasn't really like them either. For one thing, she detests spas, although like most women's magazine editors she's been to all of them, gratis. She told me about one, where former addicts lead clients in an "equine therapy" exercise: The first time you try to lift up the horse's hoof you can't, but the second time after the instructor has demonstrated how to live in the moment you can.
"My opinion is these were just really well-trained horses," taking subtle cues (as horses will) from the instructors, said Blyth. "And I have a real problem with listening to former addicts tell women who are paying actual money how to live their lives."
Not surprisingly, many of Blyth's former fellow women's magazine editors have a real problem with her. "That she wanted to take everyone down with her I thought was truly pathetic," Cosmopolitan's Kate White told Mediaweek.
"They often snipe at me about my age," noted Blyth, who's 65, married, and the mother of two grown sons. "I'm like, 'Yeah, girl ...' It's kind of lucky to get to my age."
It's easy to assume that Blyth will never eat lunch at Michael's, the Manhattan media watering hole, again. "But I still go to Michael's, and I still have my cobb salad," she told me. Recently, New York Daily News gossip columnist Lloyd Grove came over to Blyth's table, on a day when Good Housekeeping editor Ellen Levine also happened to be having lunch there.
"He said, 'Has there been contact?'" Blyth recalled. "I said: 'Physical contact?' I told him she did say 'Hi' as she passed my table. That's all; just, 'Hi.' So Grove wrote an item about that. As I told my husband later, 'Nice for Ellen to get some ink.'"
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy's World. She is an NRO contributor.