Pressing Issues

The New Yorker Has a Byline Problem


How is it that the magazine that helped grow the #MeToo movement is failing to represent women and people of color in its pages, and especially on staff?



In “A Reckoning With Women Awaits Trump,” David Remnick’s recent lament on the Trump administration, The New Yorker editor suggests women will be the undoing of this administration with the same confidence the prospect of a Trump presidency was dismissed on grounds related to the treatment of women. The latest uncrossable threshold is wife battery. We’ve already crossed it—the known and concealed admission of accused wife beaters into the inner sanctum of White House power is now established fact.

Mr. Remnick writes that “those who know  [Trump] best recognize the political consequences ahead,” referring to the court of media whisperers inside the White House, and to an exiled Steve Bannon. The essay is more cri de coeur than prophecy, complete with what are now recognizably Remnick-esque tropes, a sort of modern-day version of Homeric epithets in Trump commentary—”infantile character,” “self-dealing greed,” “colossal narcissism.” That a feminist reckoning awaits Trump may be true, or it may be a bit like expecting that Donald Trump and his minions will eventually all sit down together for a Tibetan death meditation.

Perhaps the problem is the easy commodification of the word that inspired this line from the poet Theodore Roethke: “All profits disappear, the gain of ease, the hoarded, secret sum.” Inherent in any reckoning is a sense of loss. It must go deeper than the drumbeat of accusations and rolling heads in Hollywood, the news media and other industries. Women must share equal power with men. That means letting go of the social order we know, and extending the vision of inclusion to all groups. In most sectors of our culture—and distressingly in liberal media—that’s far from happening. Take The New Yorker: Trump coverage and political journalism in the magazine’s online edition are almost exclusively the domain of white men, with few exceptions including recent writing by Susan B. Glasser and Masha Gessen. This, of course, reflects a well-known trend in the industry. Data from the Women’s Media Center, Rutgers University, The University of Pennsylvania, The American Society of News Editors, and other sources show that women and minorities are underrepresented across media platforms and produce far less news content than white men. In fact, women are credited for only a small slice—just under 35 percent—of political stories in the country. Women of color in political journalism are disproportionately few and often face complicated hurdles, as tributes to the late Gwen Ifill made clear.

Even now, with journalism’s renewed sense of mission, women and minorities at The New Yorker and across the media spectrum scarcely have a voice in the political storytelling under a president who degrades them to rally his base. Women of color make up under 5 percent of newsrooms in general, and have been most impacted by recent layoffs. Much of the data suggests a systemic unwillingness to open up the ranks.  Eye rolls from diversity-fatigued recruiters greet yearly reports documenting the inequities—this at a time in the country’s history when one in three Americans belongs to a minority group.

Alex T. Williams, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, has studied media trends for several years. Originally from Arlington, Texas, and the son of a Vietnamese immigrant single mother, he grew up questioning why his working-class neighborhood only made headlines in local news outlets when a serious crime occurred. His research, published in The Columbia Journalism Review, contradicts the common notion that qualified minority journalism candidates are scarce. Drawing from Grady College’s Annual Survey of Journalism & Mass Communication Enrollments and other sources, Williams has observed that minority journalism graduates are hired at far lower rates than whites and often don’t form part of an accrediting culture that includes campus newspaper volunteering, unpaid internship and references from friends in the industry. As Williams wrote in 2015 in “Why Aren’t There More Minority Journalists” for CJR: “When newsrooms eliminate candidates because they didn’t volunteer on the campus newspapers, complete an unpaid internship, and come recommended by a friend—it disproportionately affects minority candidates. This has led to the myth that minorities are not trying to enter the field of journalism. They are. They’re just invisible  because they aren’t getting job interviews.”

At The New Yorker, a simple byline count bears this out, time and time again. In a typical month, between 70 and 80 percent of the magazine’s national political coverage—both commentary and news—is written by men, with very few contributions from writers of color.  Sure, others do the exclusion thing too, as Mr. Remnick has pointed out in interviews. But few spread their brand of enlightened progressivism quite the way this editor does.

Mr. Remnick has successfully turned his publication into a literary magazine/news operation hybrid that delves deeply into the intersection between politics, culture, and identity. The New Yorker helped give a platform to the #MeToo movement and Remnick seems engaged in the conversation about inclusion and change. But the shortage of female and minority bylines in political writing under Trump and an editor who decries the president’s racism and misogyny, seems to suggest the outrage, while heartfelt, might also be the sound of someone grasping at his own self-preservation.

In the past, Mr. Remnick has bristled at the subject of diversity in his own staff. In interviews, he’s quick to catalog the names of women and minority writers at his magazine, a number of whom are only sporadically published. Sure, things are farther along than the days when, in consult with the male cohorts around him, he robustly supported the Iraq War—as did much of mainstream journalism—in a political environment of wholesale deceit in some ways bleaker than the current one. He has cited this as a mistake, and the magazine did publish game-changing exposes of the U.S. military operation’s abuses. It’s a moot point now to think that a wider range of critical takes from writers more attuned to the propensity for subterfuge and betrayal in our elected governments might have saved the publication from falling in line with a collective lack of journalistic judgement.

On making The New Yorker a more heterogeneous enterprise, Mr. Remnick has said: “We need to do better.” But numbers overshadow the noblest of intentions. The latest study from VIDA, published in January and based on self-reported data, shows that women’s bylines at The New Yorker hover below 40 percent, a very slight increase from the previous count in 2015. Women of color—in political writing and across the board—rarely appear. Hispanics, the country’s largest minority, have yet to write regularly for this 90-year-old publication, despite their significant contributions to the country’s literary culture. Even as outside contributors, their views are seldom heard on the political state of affairs or any other subject. Live online coverage of Trump’s recent State of the Union address reflected the same biases. No women or minority writers contributed a single post analyzing the speech as it was delivered, except for a brief entry by Lauretta Charlton urging us to read said writer’s posts. Of 30 recent online stories (from March 2, 2017 through February 21, 2018) addressing the biggest news of the day  – Parkland, gun control, and anything related to the Trump administration—roughly 23 were written by men and seven by women. The most frequent bylines belonged to John Cassidy, Charles Bethea, and Eric Lach. Amy Davidson Sorkin, who writes about politics for the magazine, has a piece on DACA, and (outside this range of publication dates) an in-depth take on the Mueller indictments in the March 5 issue. But, despite objections to raw numbers as an unsubtle measure of a particular group’s contributions to any publication, the status quo is clear.

Considering recent events, it’s hard not to see how producers of news have a hand in determining when “tipping points” happen. This means that, #MeToo gets a green light, but #BlackLivesMatter meets mainstream resistance to honest conversations about race and white supremacy. The environment is one in which innocent, unarmed Black Americans are shot without cause by white officers, while a white gunman commits mass murder at a high school unimpeded, as armed officers stand by, before being peacefully apprehended. It’s the same public sphere in which Donald Trump typifies Mexicans as rapists before a successful bid for the White House, calling to mind a history, within the news media itself, of similar depictions.

Until the news narrative—and the truth-seeking project of journalism as a whole—is shaped by men and women who more closely reflect their own public, campaigns for social change catalyzed by Donald Trump’s election will remain perilously selective. As it stands, hiring practices and byline counts continue to mirror the current administration’s own unabashed stance on matters of race and gender. It seems the mantras of inclusion, diversity, multiculturalism and now “reckoning” are little more than shifting rhetorical guises for deeply rooted institutional biases on the left. That means Trump-refreshed bigots and batterers have little to worry about, large swaths of the American populace remain conveniently out of view, and our obsessive, patriarchal focus on women will be okay now that we’re weeping for them as victims. So long as we don’t give them real power and hire them for the jobs they deserve.

At a recent talk at the Columbia School of Journalism, a young woman enthusiastically mentioned the magazine’s hiring of the writer Doreen St. Felix and asked Mr. Remnick about the importance of diversity at his publication. The New Yorker, Mr. Remnick replied, “should reflect the intelligences and experiences of the world.” The caveat: “I’m not doing this so that there’s 15 percent of this and 20 percent of that.” What he looked for in potential hires, he said, is “excitement in the deepest sense.” It’s an old and specious argument that suggests  “excitement”—originality of voice, brilliance, vision—must prevail over calls for greater inclusion. This implies an incompatibility between the two. His words hark back to critics in the late 1980s and ’90s, when identity politics challenged notions of what gets taught at campuses across the country. Harold Bloom wrote, in a 1998 piece in The Boston Review, “Our modish multiculturalism is a lie, a mask for mediocrity …” The New Criterion‘s Roger Kimball made similar noises about the threat of multiculturalism’s “vacuous openness.” More recently, David Brooks, a diversity-averse moral grammarian, went on a listening tour for the New York Times to study the”amphibian” multifariousness of human beings. Ever trying to find his “unifying narrative”—or existential comfort zone—in a changing world, Brooks makes a discovery: “One thing that’s hit me over the head right away is how many young adults have interesting backgrounds …” Speaking with global millenials, Brooks concludes: “If you start with the Amphibian approach—that every new and different person you meet is first of all my brother, my sister—then the concept of difference changes.” Brooks is finally onto something –  the fundamental need to be seen as fully human at the heart of most movements for inclusion.  In a New York Times article in September on the hiring of Ian Buruma as editor of The New York Review of Books, a revered publication as diverse as the Trump Senate health-care committee, publisher Rea Hederman said, “We would like to be as diverse as we possibly can, but the main thing is to maintain the quality of the publication.” White-dominant staff rooms everywhere, by these arguments, must surely flow with profound talent.

In his essay on women and Trump, Mr. Remnick includes an exchange between two men—Joshua Green, author of “the best book on the 2016 campaign,” and Steve Bannon—as they watch the Golden Globes together, to exemplify his larger point about distortionist thinking. What he does is further reinforce a familiar cycle of myopic self-reference in elite media circles. An insider’s game of publishers, book deals, awards, and fortuitously spoken words for a paperback edition’s perfect preface, no less. It’s the thinking that says Joshua Green and even Steve Bannon are substantive, Oprah and Omarosa are, in different ways, inherent side-shows (“‘Time’s Up!/”‘It’s not going to be O.K.'”), and battered wives are fodder for newly sensitized men.

Magazines, newspapers, and cable news remain influential and indispensable, as the surge in digital subscriptions and viewership across the news industry shows. Their influence determines what we know and when, who forms part of the conversation and who doesn’t, whose life experience counts, whose accomplishment, or suffering, victory or death is worth registering in the public consciousness. It wasn’t a rallying cry that one came away with from Ms. Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech. It was how she focused the world’s attention on the little-known life and recent death of Recy Taylor, and Taylor’s relevance to the global audience listening.

The day after the Golden Globes, multiple headlines read: “Who Is Recy Taylor, The Woman In Oprah’s Speech?” From boardrooms to mastheads, too few people are making choices about what, and who, matters. No reckoning is really underway until that changes.

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