SMOKIN' IN THE BOY'S ROOM
Get out the Midol.
That was the warning hissed by one editor, male, upon exiting the very first meeting of the Rocky Mountain News Task Force on Women.
And don't forget the aspirin, either. Because this embarrassing attempt to enlighten its own newsroom promises to be a headache for everyone involved, not to mention an irritant for the actual females the News project so far studiously ignores.
The official task force--a who's who of quotable notables--gathered two weeks ago at the newspaper's offices. Amidst the audio-visual aids was this greeting from publisher Larry Strutton: "This is the right thing to do. A newspaper has to reflect the community it serves. No newspaper I have ever worked for has done that effectively, and I suspect that is why you see the big dropoff in women's readership...I look at this as an opportunity to make us smarter and wiser about what we are missing. I am convinced the things we are doing that offend women or minorities are not mean-spirited or deliberate. But I expect it will happen a whole lot less frequently when we are through with this process."
In the meantime...well, there was Sunday's Molly Mayfield column. For a newspaper that professes to be concerned with reflecting the community it serves, resurrecting Mayfield at all was a peculiar move. Fifty years ago, the feisty female advice columnist was a trailblazer who led the News on its long climb towards circulation supremacy. Since the pseudonymous column was brought back two years ago, however, it has read more like a screed by a smarty-pants student council president back in the days when a girl was always elected secretary--and secretary only.
Perhaps Molly was waxing nostalgic about just that time when s/he penned this "sexual harassment trepidations" lament: "Look in vain for the easy-going camaraderie, the professional mentoring, the beers with colleagues after work, which had marked the supposed stone age of men/women relations. Golly. Could it be that the strict enforcement of workplace `equality' is chasing off the very gains that women hoped such enforcement would achieve?"
Golly. At Molly's own paper, of course, they won't know until some form of "equality" has actually been achieved. As Strutton himself notes, "I remember the first directors' meeting I had at the Rocky Mountain News in August of 1990. I looked around and said, `It's all male and it's all white.' I think we've made a lot of progress...Diversity in the newsroom is more critical than it is in any other department because it does affect content. I can quote you examples where people unknowingly wrote or did things that other groups found very offensive. The people who offended them didn't have a clue that was what they were doing."
Consider the clueless editor's note Jay Ambrose wrote for Take Your Daughter to Work Day, in which he told readers that his 5-year-old granddaughter promised to wear her "prettiest dress" if he brought her to the newsroom. Apparently just nine years separates the tot from the hot-to-trot: A recent News headline referred to a 14-year-old girl's "affair" with her minister, when the story below accurately reported that the now-woman was suing him for abuse. (She won.) And then there's the odious "Women of Distinction," an annual homage to society do-gooders that would have seemed dated in the real Molly Mayfield's day but incredibly is a recent News brainchild.
The paper doesn't have a clue. And a task force isn't going to provide one.
Particularly when its membership has no more newsroom representation than biweekly columnist Trisha Flynn, who has the good sense to write at home, and reporter Fawn Germer, who pushed for its creation. (Germer blew her chances for "easy-going camaraderie" when her fawning column about getting Gloria Steinem's autograph--and advice on footwear--appeared mere pages behind her supposedly objective interview with Steinem.) Also missing in action are real women, the sort who keep their homes and do their jobs and, with any luck, still read papers, the kind who make Denver a city of almost startling equality--outside of the News, that is.
Instead, the group consists of high-profile women who frequently find themselves in the paper, women who have professional reasons to improve their access to the News. For that matter, the task force also includes prominent men--men who may not know much about journalism and may know even less about women, but who certainly know valuable professional contacts.
One is former state senator Regis Groff, who had a starring role in an earlier Germer column about sexual harassment because he once told her she looked "hot" in a red dress (no footwear advice offered). Some women, still smarting over what they consider the inequitable treatment of female newsmakers, turned the News down flat. (Judith Albino is the refuseniks' most popular poster girl, although she wouldn't be there to kick around if the University of Colorado regents compromised on a woman president in the first place.) One vows that the only reason to go near the News would be to deliver a bomb.
Don't expect this task force to drop any bombs. "To those on the outside who are skeptical about what we are doing," Strutton concluded, "let me say that there are a lot easier ways to give lip service and placate people. You don't do something like this and let it fail because then you are worse off than you were when you started. That's not going to happen here."
Forget that it happened when Strutton ordered gender-sensitivity training for all employees, then exempted some, then dropped the project altogether. Just remember that women readers are no more easily categorized than men and can't be bought--not with baseball teams, not with estrogen-leaking columnists, not with coupon deals, not even with task forces.