July 21, 2007

Mistake and Bias

Two books read in succession: The Feminine Mistake by Leslie Bennetts and Bias by Bernard Goldberg.

Both take on the question of women and the workplace and their children. Though my friends and family know the majority of my opinions on this matter, I will try to stay away from them, as I usually do to protect myself and, in this case, so I will not have to cite this blog for my class this fall when I will write a book review of Bias.

The manner of these authors' arguments is my main concern.

The Feminine Mistake is an excellent, yet sometimes exhaustive look at women and the workplace. The argument of Bennetts' book is that women should continue to work after they're married, through their pregnancies and children's early and teen years because they substantially threaten themselves by not working, particularly financially. She gives several back-ups including divorce, abandonment, depression after the children leave and difficult workplace re-entry after an extended leave. The book's tag line is a nice summation; it's a quote by Ann Crittenden: "Leslie Bennetts tackles head-on the popular myth that a man is a financial plan."

The book has a heavy emphasis on the experiences of women in these circumstances, and minimal authorial commentary. More showing than telling. However, many of the sources, which she says are mostly of the stay-at-home mom sort would not offer to give their names. I wondered why they would not give their names, and thought that perhaps Bennetts could have been a bit overbearing herself and with her questions, but I cannot attribute almost all of these ommitted names simply because of this reason. In any case, with her unnamed sources the burden of proof and the opinion lies solely on the author's shoulders and interpretation. Bennetts thrives under that load, though. She looks her readers in the eye and points out her flaws and debunks them, through a plethora of named females from all walks of workplace and childcare life combined with intermittent statistics.

However, as I've learned, statistics and the opinions surrounding them can be altered to suit an author's needs.

When citing a New York Times report of census data that 60 million women were single or living without their husbands, compared to the 57.5 million women living with a spouse, Bennetts brings in a demographer, William Frey, that says, "the institution of marriage did not hold the promise they might have hoped for."

This is, at best, a dramatic statement. At worst, it's a vague, self-serving quote. Women may not be in marriages because of the death of a spouse, hardly a reason for the loss of promise in the institution of marriage--just the result of the biological condition.

Bennetts is redeemed as the book progresses, however. She looks at each situation that a woman may face, seeming to say to women who believe that a couple should decide what is right for them on a case-by-case basis, "Hey, woman, wake up! Chances are you'll be on your own again someday, sometime! Be ready!"

Oh my, I've let my opinions in...which brings me to Bias.

Bias is structured in three parts: tirade, viable case, vendetta. While I understand the importance of naming names, Goldberg takes this to an extreme. He laces his points with his personal experiences (or should I say slights?) in the newsroom to illustrate his points. I took his statistical evidence a bit more seriously than memos and calls and watercooler chat that he remembers, but stats can always be tainted by set-up.

When Goldberg hands out stats on journalists versus the public, for example, based on a Los Angeles Times nationwide survey, I was suspicious. What journalists were surveyed? What sector of the public was asked? How were the questions asked?

And while the intentions of Goldberg are probably noble in trying to make the reading of his statistics a bit more palpable, the statistics are not written in parallel form. This statistic: "75 percent of the public was for the death penalty in murder cases; 47 percent of the journalists were for the death penalty," seems to leave something out. What about journalists who are for the death penalty in murder cases and, for that matter, what about the death penalty in murder/rape cases or serial murder situations? They are not delineated here and the reader is left making a decision based on the limited information available, through, ironically, Goldberg's tinted lens.

At the same time, Goldberg is proving his own point that journalism is about flash and kaboom. Going into the details of this survey would take away from his argument, or would it? Much of this book is filled with statements concerning Dan Rather and the issues Rather had with Goldberg after publishing his critique of a network news in aWall Street Journal article, "Networks Need a Reality Check." Each statement made by Rather or the network execs becomes a paragraph (or ten) in the book, hence my description "tirade." He could have spent a little more time explaining the survey and skipped the hundred or so exclamation points which make the book seem in some points like an e-mail hastily sent to one's boss, instead of a serious look, as Goldberg claims, at the media industry.

Maybe, I keep thinking, Goldberg was too close to the system--too "CBS insider" to truly assess the situation with, ironically, limited bias from himself. Though he doesn't claim to be unbiased in his editorial-like account, I can't help but think that he should have been. I would have taken his points more seriously. As it is, my bias as a reporter viewing a jilted reporter tends to make me hear his prose like a boss listening to a whiny employee:

"I have written exactly two times about Dan Rather and liberal bias--or, for that matter, about Dan Rather and any subject, period! Two times!"

To that, I would ask, okay, you can write about one person--your superior--two times, but how many times in those two pieces did you mention that person? Nine, 65? I would have to say somewhere in that range because the name Rather rang in my ears at night when I put down this book. I dreamed of news desks and combovers.

As I said, The Feminine Mistake and Bias have something in common. They both take on women in the workplace. However, Bias' take on this issue is to initially say they're not going to make a stand either way, but actually make one later in the chapter.

Early in the chapter ominiously named, "The Most Important Story You Never Saw on TV," Goldberg says that "this is not an argument for or against mothers leaving the house to work in an office or a factory. That is not my concern, despite the troubling statistics, at least relating to lachkey children. The argument here is that once again the elite journalist on television have taken sides."

Whatever Goldberg. After stating this disarming claim, I was comfortable for a bit. Okay, I thought, back to the media bias. He stayed on the topic for about 10 paragraphs and then let working mothers have it at chapter's end: "No wonder elite culture treats them (working mothers) as hothouse flowers, who must hear nary a discouraging word. But the fact is that working moms are at the very center of variety of cultural ills. Maybe a little stigma is what they deserve."

Sort of different, huh? He says throughout the book that he is not advocating one side or another; but his opinions, construed conservative or liberal, are sprinkled throughout, despite his protestations that they aren't. I think he uses this to inadvertently make a point about his kind of journalism. Goldberg thinks that a journalist cannot completely disengage from bias because a journalist is a human being. He gets to the root of the issues and gives his opinions on bias in the media, but also gives us his opinions on those issues, too. The book is generally a mess, an overstuffed, overcooked turkey on Thanksgiving Day.

I'm going to have a field day on my review.

Posted by Amanda Cochran at July 21, 2007 12:58 PM | TrackBack

When you write your review, instead of criticizing Goldberg for expressing an opinion, you might instead want to engage with the weak points in his arguments (and the strong ones, as well).

Think of the book as a long editorial, where opinion is permitted but must be justified, rather than a hard news article.

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at July 25, 2007 9:23 PM

I don't think I was criticizing him for having an opinion, but his manner in expressing it, especially when talking about his co-workers.

He does have good points at times and I have noted them in my copy's margins, but when I reached the part on working moms I wanted to throw the book into the nearest fish tank.

Posted by: Amanda at July 25, 2007 10:33 PM

The "mommy track" is a very emotional topic. Regarding opinion about co-workers -- yes, this is the sort of book that you write after your bridges are already on fire.

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at July 26, 2007 10:17 AM

Why the fish tank and not the dishwasher?

Posted by: Karissa at July 27, 2007 5:23 PM

Because ours is broken. Funny story about that...I think you just gave me an idea for a blog.

Posted by: Amanda at July 28, 2007 2:06 PM
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