Elevate Difference

The Edge of Change: Women in the 21st Century Press

My bias as a journalist and editor made me want to love The Edge of Change, but the stubborn remnants of the journalistic outlook into which I was indoctrinated gave bias a real beating. So, in the end, I just liked some parts and hated others.

The concept was great, but the construction was lacking. Many of the book’s chapters, which range from personal essays to academic discussions to interviews, deal with many of the relevant issues well enough to be important counterpoints to the often male-centered nature of modern media criticism. Any journalist, male or female, who wants to make it in this rapidly-changing field, to improve how the media functions, or to preserve what is best about the press would do well to consider the issues the book raises about the need to adapt, the value of diversity, and the responsibility of representing the communities in which we work.

However, the book’s organization, shifting formats, and lack of focus often distract from the book’s theme. For instance, some of the essays and interviews focus so intently on the individual that the context is lost and we learn little about how these individual experiences relate to or illustrate the major trends affecting women in the press. On the other hand, some chapters deal with the state of the press in general and skip discussions of gender altogether. Scattered throughout the book, these chapters would probably have made more sense as an introductory section. These are just two examples of an organizational logic that seems to defy intelligibility as its eight major parts shift from a temporal perspective to women’s affect on the press to women’s professional roles to issues of diversity to the choices women make in their careers, with each category popping up in the “wrong” section here and there.

Yet, these problems are minor compared to the book’s two glaring flaws: the complete avoidance of class issues and a beginning chapter comprised of worn-out gender stereotypes and pseudo-scientific claptrap. Over the last few decades, journalism has become increasingly exclusive in terms of class, a fact that has garnered much criticism and has played a major role in the development of a modern press that is less reflective of the race, class, and gender composition of the general population and the pool of potential journalists than it was thirty years ago. Yet, this disturbing trend and its effect on the future of the press garner not a single mention. The second major flaw deserves its own essay, but I’ll have to settle for giving it its own paragraph.

In a chapter titled “The Female Mind: Biology of the Twenty-First Century Woman,” Helen E. Fisher, biological anthropologist and Chief Scientific Advisor to the online dating site chemistry.com, peddles the usual pseudo-scientific theories on innate sex differences that describe a natural order in which men and women somehow miraculously evolved 1950’s U.S. gender roles on the African Savannah in the Pleistocene. Fisher, like so many other purveyors of pseudoscience, ignores the actual scientific evidence concerning sex differences, the tremendous overlap between the sexes, and the variations across time and space that make it impossible for many of these traits to be innate products of human evolution. The inclusion of this chapter, with its bad science and worse logic, is downright insulting to intelligent readers specifically and women in general. For that fact alone, I’d suggest skipping this book.

Written by: Melinda Barton, January 22nd 2010