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The Golden Rule #3

Musings on the Ethics of Contemporary Journalism

In late March, Kathy Sierra, a blogger writing about Web design, cognition, and computers, was threatened with chilling, sexually graphic messages on her blog,Creating Passionate Users. Chris Locke, aka Rageboy, hosted some of these comments on his blog. These posts created a firestorm about sexist discourse in the Blogosphere. Melissa McNamara from CBS News has recapped in Blogophile how industry insiders feel about these developments.

Sierra responded and implicated Locke in the terrifying messages. Locke’s response eventually led to an amicable joint statement by both bloggers, and hopefully, this incident will produce positive outcomes. The robust discussions about free speech, civility, blog protocol, and online journalism ethics are an inspiring start, but the online community needs concrete results, not simply discussion.

I’m not keeping my fingers crossed.

Shortly after all this, Don Imus’s cacophony blitzed the airwaves. Been there, done that, and we know the fallout. But the essence of Imus’s stupidity was about sexism and not racism: the “ho” part of his comments ignited that firestorm.

This has forced many to pause and wonder: Just how rampant is this journalistic sexism? Sadly, we don’t need to wonder hard or look far for answers.

In the media drone following the first Democratic presidential debate, one reality lurks: mainstream journalists will focus obsessively on Senator Hillary Clinton's gender. Media Matters has detailed the “rife” sexist commentary that followed that debate, particularly the comments from MSNBC’s cadre of commentators. Their discourse isn't pretty.

Television is a visual medium, and it’s only natural to focus on a candidate’s appearance. The question is how much attention is too much and what specifically warrants scrutiny. Tucker Carlson asked a Clinton spokesperson if Clinton had an “unfair advantage because of her sex.” Yeah, women have always had an unfair advantage when running for president, and they have been capitalizing on that advantage for decades.

Chris Matthews said, “I'm fascinated by the visual…She's the only woman out there, so everybody else will be in charcoal or navy, and then everybody else will have a red tie, so she gets to be the distinguishing characteristic." Is gender really a characteristic? One’s character is based on his or her personal choices; gender is not a choice. Matthews then drooled over Clinton’s pearls, and even Senator Barak Obama’s wife, Michelle, captured his imagination. Michelle “looked perfect," Matthews said, "well-turned out...attractive -- classy, as we used to say. Like Frank Sinatra, 'classy.'" The sophomoric obsession on their dress and “cosmetics” was at least annoying if not offensive.

When was the last time we focused this much on Bill Clinton’s jewelry? The color of Dick Cheney’s attire? Or Laura Bush’s similarities to famous actresses? (The potentially racist implications in the commentary on Michelle Obama, and by default, Barak, warrant another dispatch). Recently, John Edwards’s haircut was questioned, but that was not a debate about cosmetics; instead, that controversy focused on the economics of his haircut: How can he be one of Us if he gets a $400 haircut?

Male journalists made these comments; the responses Matthews received from his colleagues, most notably Andrea Mitchell, the only female, are telling. Mitchell reminded Matthews of Mrs. Clinton’s and Obama’s credentials, mainly that they are Ivy League-trained lawyers. The silence from Matthews’s male colleagues during these exchanges was uncomfortable.

Are these three types of sexism synonymous? No, of course not. The raving lunacy that drives fringe online predators like those in the Sierra incident is potentially criminal. The shrill incivility celebrated by shock jocks like Imus is breakfast for millions. The unfortunate stereotyping that fuels snippets of commentary from male journalists like Matthews and Carlson is wrong. However, to suggest these three incidents are disconnected is foolish.

Sexism is sexism. And sexism starts with an idea, sometimes big and ugly, at other times subtle and small, but always with the dangerous assumption that women are inferior simply because of gender. Each of these sexist commentaries perpetuates that idea. The only difference is the degree to which it perpetuates sexism and who is propagating the ugliness.

The venom aimed at Sierra is an act of supreme cowardice. Most people understand that although those comments are dangerous and have scarred many people’s lives, they still can be reduced to the sentiments of fear-mongering losers who influence a smidgen of America’s outskirts. Imus paid his price, and because his influence looms large, his punishment was even larger. He carved a prominent niche within the industry, and when his gruff rhetoric surpassed its boundaries, his fate was sealed.

I’m concerned about the mainstream voices who have the luxury of being perceived as professional, prime time journalists who are somehow beyond recourse because their subtle sexism is nested within the vagaries of today’s acrimonious political discourse. This “quiet sexism” leads the drumbeat for more daring, louder misogynists. Mainstream journalists’ irresponsible behavior is a green light for The Fringe, and the latter could care less about ethical responsibilities. Certainly, when discussing presidential politics, more important topics abound than the way candidates “look”. Frankly, I’m tired of hearing how Candidate A or B “looked presidential”. What does that really mean? Is it a euphemism for “looking like a man”?

Speech isn’t always free. If it were, there would be no need linguistically for the modifier “free”. The despicable sexist “speech” shot at Sierra shouldn’t be allowed. It is certainly costing us, and there is a profound difference between saying, “Jane Doe is a jerk” and “Jane Doe should have her throat slit.”

The First Amendment ultimately permits this kind of speech, at least legally. And it should. However, the law is not the only way to enforce “cost”. The sexist “speech” from MSNBC’s journalists should also be punished. If it can muster the fortitude to fire Imus, MSNBC can certainly take a closer look at Matthews’s and Carlson’s comments. As the Imus incident proved, capitalism is still this country’s moral authority: when advertisers turn away, the moral high ground is paved. Civility should never be legislated, but it can be enforced through common decency, ethics, and the wallet. MSNBC’s advertisers heard America once, and they should hear us again.

People are never as anonymous as they seem online or on television and neither are their audience. Fortunately, those of us who are consuming these products have many mediums in this global marketplace of ideas to counter these rude, sexist dialogues, shatter the masks of anonymity, and make ourselves known. The only question remaining is will we?

Chris Justice is an Assistant Professor of English & Mass Communication at The Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland, United States.



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