March 24, 2005,
Susan Estrich's hissyfit about the lack of female pundits at the Los Angeles Times has inspired a slew of thumb-sucking stories about the state of the female commentariat. This shows no signs of abating, especially since Maureen Dowd weighed in last week. But what's been generally overlooked is that Estrich also complained that Kinsley has been slighting local women's voices and despite her histrionics, that did raise a legitimate question: Why is opinion editor Michael Kinsley only going after East Coast writers for the West Coast's biggest daily?
Unlike the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times isn't really a national paper; you can't get it delivered to your door outside the regional circulation base, so its influence with the chattering classes is limited. But while even in their national editions the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal emphasize New York and Wall Street, the L.A. Times at least in its opinion section now seems determined to deemphasize L.A. points of view, especially for the featured pieces.
Kinsley, who does come off as the stereotypical Los Angeles-hating East Coast wonk, said recently that because L.A. is the second biggest city in the country, "it's really bush league to care about where the writers are from." I'd say that pointedly overlooking writers who live here is what's bush league, because it's provincial and makes the paper (and the city) seem overawed by the major players to the east.
Not everyone agrees with me, even those who share my distaste for Estrich's affirmative-action agenda for women. "Who cares where the author is from?" City Journal's Heather Mac Donald e-mailed the other day. "Unless you believe, reasonably, that geographical proximity means greater knowledge? But even less important, it seems to me, is getting articles about Iraq from L.A. writers...quality should be the only criterion, in my view, and I just don't believe that once you start thinking about any other type of qualification gender, geography you don't inevitably start interfering with a pure merit evaluation."
Heather's right when it comes to international topics like Iraq, and I'll concede that there's a larger pool of good opinion writers on the East Coast, if only because the especially psychotherapized culture here in L.A. discourages anyone with an actual opinion. I can't count the number of times someone has told me, in the worried tones that suggest Big Brother might be listening, "But that's a value judgment!" The last time this happened, I snapped and said, "Yes, and since I have values, I'm making the judgment."
But unlike traditional, pedestrian-friendly eastern cities, Los Angeles is a peculiar, hidden place that takes a long time to get to know. And not every topic is Iraq: There are plenty of important domestic issues (jobs, schools, and health care, to name a few) that are experienced differently by a typically entrepreneurial, self-employed Angeleno than by someone from the East Coast establishment. An opinion section that proudly ignores its own talent base seems not only contemptuous of its audience but downright strange.
Now it's true that the L.A. Times traditionally has been known for the bland, small-town quality of its writing; that's one reason I've long called it the biggest little Hicksville paper in the world. But as it happens, last week's op-ed by Georgetown linguistics professor Deborah Tannen is a lesson that non-L.A. writers can be just as earnest and lame as our homegrown kind.
"Men attack problems. Maybe women understand that there's a better way," L.A. Times editors subtitled the piece. Responding to the current discussion about why there aren't more female pundits on the op-ed pages, Tannen suggested this is because of natural gender differences she and her students have witnessed on the playground:
"Little boys set up wars and playfights. Little girls fight but not for fun." Actually, as anyone who's been around children knows, boys may be more aggressive physically but girls can be quite vicious verbally exactly the sort of trait you'd think would predispose them to opinion writing.
As a linguistics professor, Tannen surely is aware of this, so her argument is essentially dishonest from beginning to end. (And disingenuous too, in this Mean Girls-obsessed era.) But she doesn't let any of that get in the way of her hearts-and-flowers notion that women are kindler and gentler and that's why we need more of them on the op-ed pages. What nonsense. Veteran foreign correspondent Georgie Anne Geyer, who fought her way into the media boy's club back when it really was a boy's club, takes a dim view of all this in her syndicated column this week:
"I find that our male colleagues recognize and reward us far more...than do many of our 'sisters,'" Geyer writes. "We seem to be invisible to our fellow women scribes, even though we're seen all over the country in paper after paper and on television...as I watch the dust settle, I wish they'd note that there are others doing the 'tough' work and not being criticized by those bad men at all."
I'm also getting awfully tired of the word "comfortable" being thrown around so much in this discussion. In her New York Times column, which Tannen was partly responding to, Maureen Dowd quoted Gray Lady opinion editor Gail Collins, who said, "There are probably fewer women... who feel comfortable writing very straight opinion stuff."
Maybe so, but the job of newspaper editors isn't to make women feel comfortable; journalists, in fact, are supposed to afflict the comfortable. Opinion writing isn't a therapy group or the school counselor's office, and God help us all if this latest round of media hand-wringing tries to make it so.
"Comfortable" seems to be one of those code words that indicate something really idiotic is coming, generally from women who in their sensitivity understand that "there's a better way." I still remember an incident that made the news several years ago, when a neighbor of mine was discreetly breastfeeding her 14-week-old infant under her sweater at a table in the children's books section of our local Borders. Another customer (female) complained to a clerk (female), who, backed up by the store manager (female), told the nursing mother to quit it. The clerk's only-in-L.A. explanation: "It's a comfortability issue."
Meanwhile, Susan Estrich just sent out another mass e-mail, this time about a book she's writing called The Case For Hillary Clinton, which she says she's been working on "feverishly (between getting the next generation of women columnists their jobs) and I need your thoughts...I've come to the conclusion, and this is not where I started, that Hillary is the best choice for Democrats."
Hillary in 2008, now there's an idea. With friends like Estrich, do the Dems really need the vast right-wing conspiracy for an enemy?
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy's World. She is an NRO contributor.