Women's news, or women's market?
Special to The Freedom Forum Online
NEW YORK "There has been a lot of talk lately about new media for women women.com, ivillage.com and the Oxygen Cable Network but under all this talk about content women can't find anywhere else is beauty tips and fashion styles," Jennifer L. Pozner, women's desk director for FAIR, said at a panel discussion on March 30.
"There is nothing really new about getting women to buy more products," she added in the program, "Women's Media: Building Feminist Alternatives to Commercial Media." "It seems as if this 'new media for women' exists as a platform for advertisements in order to exploit the women's market."
As women's desk director for FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), Pozner monitors coverage of women in mainstream news. In a brief presentation before introducing three panelists at the Housing Works Used Book Cafe in Greenwich Village, she held up two ads for women.com that appear in magazines.
The copy for one reads, "A website for skirts." Another reads, "A website for chicks."
"They are packaging it in an empowerment rhetoric," Pozner said, "but it is not particularly new or progressive and it is certainly not political."
"When commercial media aren't ignoring women, they are presenting distorting images of women and using us as a marketing tool," Pozner said. "Ms. Magazine, Womanhood.com, and Dyke TV are great examples of what media really looks like when it is by women for women."
The panel brought together three women working in alternative media outlets. They discussed what they charged was a lack of full and fair coverage of women's issues in both the mainstream media and in what is being touted as new media for women. These three outlets Ms. magazine, Womanhood.com and Dyke TV were starkly contrasted with other new women's media, representatives of which, however, were not on the panel.
The discussion was sponsored by FAIR, an independent media watch group with a leftward bent that seeks to invigorate the First Amendment by advocating greater diversity in the press.
"In the alternative media, we often try to counter the [lack of coverage elsewhere] by allowing women to tell the stories themselves," Pozner said. "How do you balance the personal stories of 'sharing and caring' with the larger, broader social critique of political issues?"
One of the main themes of the discussion was the content and format of alternative media for women. "I am going to ride the free press wave for as long as I can," said Ophira Edut, former publisher of HUES (Hear Us Emerging Sisters) magazine and now developer and content producer for the soon-to-be-launched Womanhood.com, a project of Urban Box Office, which is sponsored heavily by venture capitalists.
The venture capitalists are not presently monitoring the content of her site, Edut said, because of "a real drive to capitalize on the chic style of urban youth."
That is just fine with her. Although she does not label her site "feminist," she strives to include as much progressive content, news and cultural critique as she can. "I don't know how long that wave is going to last," she said, "but for now I have control over content and integrity."
Edut, author of Adios, Barbie!, a book about body images and girlhood, criticized what she saw as the "bungled attempt by mainstream media to pick up on progressive issues and try to do them in an advertisement-friendly format."
Ms. and Dyke TV bill themselves as feminist media outlets for women and do not sell advertisements, while Womanhood.com is privately funded and does not label itself "feminist." The panelists agreed there was the risk that selling advertising in women's media eventually would lead to editorial compromises.
Ms., in fact, began the trend of alternative media for women and actually made news in 1990 when it went ad-free. And Angela Ards, senior associate editor of Ms., said the magazine's circulation had dropped ever since.
Another problem, the panelists agreed, is the availability of very little actual news in the new media for women.
"What happens to democracy when news is considered a product like sunglasses or SUVs," Pozner asked in an interview later, "and the audience is no longer considered by journalists to be engaged citizens, but rather to be news consumers?"
Citing recent mergers of large media conglomerates, she added, "When profit is the motive instead of journalistic ethics, then we need to ask what implications that has for news coverage. News about women gets sidelined."
Pozner asked the panelists to define news for women. All agreed their outlets made an attempt to cover more stories about girls, women of color, poor women and lesbians to integrate the diversity of women's experiences and backgrounds.
Harriet Hirschorn, board director for Dyke TV, described the typical formatting of her show, saying, "We did a four-part series on domestic violence which was a very traditional format for a TV segment going to people's houses, interviewing experts, providing information for how people can get help." Dyke TV also broke the story of the closing of the last lesbian bar in Harlem.
"A lot of pieces produced [in] gay and lesbian news also often involve very personal testimonials, such as coming-out stories," she said.
Ards saw a similar pattern at Ms. "That's one of Ms.'s strong points," she said. "Lots of different kinds of writing fiction, poetry, news reportage, profiles, feature stories."
Another theme of the panel was keeping the free press truly free, as in keeping the Internet accessible and affordable for all potential users. "It is really important that the Internet remains open for access by all," Pozner said.
"Our voices have to be there, contesting other voices that are there on the Web, just like in print," Ards said. "It will always be difficult to get your political, feminist message out there. We have to continue to fight in those spaces and create a voice for ourselves, even though it is very difficult."
"Dyke TV does have a Web site," Hirschorn said, noting that a lot of people must find it by word of mouth because it is not advertised enough. "But what we are really waiting for is video streaming for women for technology that is good enough. Our greatest challenge after staying alive is distribution."