09 November 2008

Op-Ed Gals

Get me rewrite!

Of all the New York Times’ current roster of columnists regularly appearing on the op-ed page of the the print edition, two are women. Through their work, readers are afforded a female (and often feminist) perspective four out of seven days of the week. Not a bad average — on the surface.

Yet consider who the male columnists are: Paul Krugman, an expert on economics (and a recent Nobel Prize-winner); Thomas Friedman, an expert on foreign policy (economic and Middle East); Nicholas Kristof, another expert on foreign policy (humanitarian); Frank Rich, an expert on media (and a former, willfully irresponsible lead theater critic for the paper). Roger Cohen is yet another expert on foreign policy, as well as a deeply, deeply dull writer. The remaining columnists nowadays are two Republicans, William Kristol and David Brooks, who are both experts on not being Democrats (and not much else); and Bob Herbert, the only African-American on the roster, who focuses on social and urban issues.

Then let us remember the ladies. They are not tokens — oh, no, because there are two of them! And yet they are not experts, either. What are they?

They’re funny. Both of them.

Thanks to her assiduous self-marketing, in books and on television, Maureen Dowd is the better known of the two, and she’s got impeccable connections, being a former White House correspondent during the first Bush presidency. Her writing, in its content and in its quality, has improved considerably since the death of her mother, a crusading reporter: the loss seemed to shock Maureen Dowd into taking up a mantle of responsibility, and she seldom resorts any more to the frankly lazy (though entertaining) columns she used to write, re-casting the second Bush administration as characters from Harry Potter, for example. But she’s still funny.

Gail Collins is my preference, and I’ve begun to look forward to Thursdays and Saturdays, when her columns run. She’s as funny as Dowd, and a sharper observer. She’ll come up not only with a winning phrase (for which Dowd has an undeniable gift), she’ll also come up with the telling moment. This may be because she started out covering Long Island politics, for Newsday, where a reporter may work a little harder to persuade readers that a story is interesting and important. (“Vice-President in Bribery Scandal” is an easy sale, but “Councilman in Bribery Scandal” — who cares?) She may have to work harder, too, to glean the information that illustrates a policy or sums up a personality.

Moving from the political beat to the opinion pages of Newsday, and from Newsday to the Times, Collins brought these skills with her. I rejoiced — Collins was my chief reason to read Newsday. (Okay, I confess, she was really my second reason; the comics were first.) And so I was sorry when she was promoted to run the Times’ editorial page. It became something of a game to discover her unique voice in the paper’s staid official pronouncements — much the way I used to spend Sunday mornings looking for the “Ninas” hidden in Al Hirschfield’s cartoons. Gradually, I detected a loosening, more vernacular style and flashes of wit in many of the editorials. But honestly, her talents were wasted on the job, and when John Tierney burned out (in record time), Collins resumed her op-ed duties, and I rejoiced again.

All that is background. What counts here is that, although I find much to admire in the work of both Collins and Dowd, I’m befuddled. Why are all the boys serious and all the girls funny? Is it impossible for “the paper of record” to find a woman who doesn’t have to crack wise in order to make her point? Are there no women experts — on some subject or other?

Nearly 60 years later, journalism hasn’t progressed at all since the days of Hildy Johnson, the “girl reporter” played by Rosalind Russell in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday. Hildy more than held her own with the boys in the pressroom, but she did so by fast-talking smart-aleckry and the judicious flashing of her shapely legs. She was tough, sure, but she had to be — because she was a woman in a man’s world. She couldn’t afford to be dull, she couldn’t afford to dress sloppily, she couldn’t afford to let down her guard for a second.

We see the same kind of character again and again in movies from the late 1930s and early 1940s. Sometimes she’s played by Jean Arthur, too, or Barbara Stanwyck or Carole Lombard. These pictures were comedies, mostly, and we had a name for them: “screwball.”

The same word might be applied to the Times’ hiring practices on its op-ed pages.


Mo MoDo said...

I too find Maureen Dowd witty, catty, and entertaining. That's why I have an entire blog devoted to her.

Gail Collins is nearly as good and just a bit slier and subtler.

Bill Kristol is also side-splittingly hilarious, just not intentionally.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering about the same thing that you brought up. I find Collins to be very moving and I prefer her, at least for the election coverage. Another point we might bring up is WHY are they still covering what Palin says and does???? Is this news? Not to mention the very lame comments from McCain yesterday concerning a dinner where Obama was toasting a Palestinian leader. Are all people from Palestine de facto bad guys? GRRR....I am irritated by the cartoon quality of the Republican party...on the other hand, that did help our guy win, so maybe I should just applaud the fact that they cannot seem to learn. Gives us more wiggle room? Sorry...this is diverging from your essay, but just have to bring it up!

Anonymous said...

Roz Russell's HILDY JOHNSON is my quintessential view of a woman journalist, but I wonder whether it was ever that accurate ... or a wishful thinking projection of how the Broadway-turned-Hollywood writers who created her hoped a woman journalist would be. Maybe it's taken many many years for reality to catch up with HILDY, in the form of Maureen Dowd. BTW Anna Quindlen is worthy of mention too though not found in the Times these days.