Justin Peligri: For women in media, prospects aren’t all rosy

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Barbara Walters blazed a trail for female journalists, but was met with opposition in the early days of her career when she hosted shows alongside male anchors.

If you follow the same people I do on Twitter, you might have recently noticed a sizable group of journalists posting about their peers in the industry – specifically two prominent women.

There was the retirement of ABC News’ Barbara Walters, who stepped down as co-host of “The View” after an illustrious, half-century career in television journalism.

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Justin Peligri

On her last show, dozens of female journalists from every news network flooded the stage, embracing Walters one-by-one to thank her for blazing a trail for them.

It was a good week for women in the media, then, as many took the opportunity to flaunt the progress that’s been made since the early days of Walters’ career, when her male counterparts feuded with executives over sharing screen time with a woman.

This should be a reassuring story for this year’s female School of Media and Public Affairs graduates. Many of those young women will enter a journalism world devoid of the hurdles Walter initially faced.

But do graduates really have that much to celebrate?

As it turns out, not entirely. Not if we rewind back to two days before Walters’ final show, when executive editor of the New York Times Jill Abramson was unceremoniously fired in light of what the publisher called “an issue with management in the newsroom.”

“What’s next for me? I don’t know. So I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you,” Abramson joked during her commencement address at Wake Forest University on Monday, in which she mentioned gender discrimination in the workplace but didn’t explicitly discuss the details of her own firing.

Before Abramson was sacked, everything was moving along quite well at the world’s most acclaimed newspaper, which was why her abrupt push out the door raised a good number of eyebrows.

“One reason gender and pay issues have so dominated the conversation over Jill Abramson’s ouster is that there’s a vacuum to fill,” Ezra Klein wrote for Vox. “As of yet, there is no obvious performance-based explanation for her ouster.”

In recent years, the Times has increased its advertising revenue, despite the national trend in the reverse direction. A few months ago, the newspaper revealed a new state-of-the-art website and launched “The Upshot,” a news analysis and data-driven blog, proving that the Times can compete in the Nate Silver data journalism era even after he left the organization. All of this occurred during the tenure of the newspaper’s first female executive editor.

Television screens and front-page bylines increasingly reflect the demographics of American society. But anyone who says the battle for equality is over is either lying or not paying close enough attention – and it’s something graduates must realize.

Unfortunately, a report in Politico all but discards the issue of sexism, alleging that Abramson had irreparably lost the support of the paper after attempting to appoint a major new hire without consulting other top editors.

The article would have us believe that it’s not about her gender – it’s about her pushy management style.

But the issue is more nuanced. Times media reporter David Carr acknowledges that Abramson rose to the top by being “tough.” But he also gets it right when he says that an aggressive and no-holds-barred approach “are all in the historical job description of a man editing the New York Times.”

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Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson was fired under what some are calling gender-based circumstances.

The double standard we apply in conversations about female leaders versus male ones is something that all alumni, regardless of gender, should feel compelled to change in the profession they are about to join.

More women in journalism means there are more people to combat an industry rife with inequities. But it also means that budding writers, reporters and broadcasters have a responsibility not only to be good at their jobs, but also to be ready to deal with gender-based controversy when it inevitably arises.

The series of reports from different publications makes it clear that Abramson wasn’t exactly easy to work with. But would that be news if the editor was a man? Would an iron-fisted male editor with a fiery temper induce flinches from commentators on Twitter?

Here’s what female graduates who think their journalism futures are rosy should keep in mind: Abramson might not have necessarily been fired because she is a pushy broad, but the fact that she was a woman – and an aggressive one at that – is inextricably part of the way this story has been discussed all along, to say nothing of the alleged pay gap she experienced.

(By the way, if Abramson did, in fact, earn less than her male colleagues, that wouldn’t be unusual. The median yearly income for male journalists was about $10,000 more than that of their female counterparts, according to a 2012 Indiana University survey, an unfortunate manifestation of the pay gap seen throughout the workforce.)

Walters and Abramson both had long and impressive careers working for preeminent news organizations. Let’s take time to celebrate Walters’ fanfare-laden exit – but not ignore the problems that still pervade the way we talk about powerful women, as evidenced by Abramson’s fall from grace.

The gossip about Abramson will fizzle out as time passes, as will the remembrances of Walters’ career. But the fight for equality for female graduates looking to make a name for themselves in journalism isn’t going away anytime soon.

Justin Peligri, a junior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet senior columnist.

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