The Story My Male Editors Kept Killing
While women have made strides in media and publishing, it seems we’re still often subject to the whims of men
A year and a half ago, in the wake of the tragic Las Vegas shootings, I was struck by a single idea: If mental illness is such a prominent culprit in the phenomenon of mass shootings — as so many politicians and media pundits claim it to be — where are all the female mass shooters? After all, we have mental illness too, in arguably much greater numbers than men (at least according to the best available data). And yet, almost all mass shootings to date have been committed by cis men (most of them white).
In October 2017, I shared my idea with AlterNet. The female editor I emailed enthusiastically accepted my pitch and, after a couple of weeks of rigorous research and interviewing, I filed it. Her initial remark was that it looked good to her as is, and she would be passing it on to her superior for a final review. Then something strange happened. She came back with a slew of criticisms, copy and pasted from her supervising editor, and the outlet’s publisher: a man.
After perusing his comments, the first thing I understood was that he hadn’t read my piece thoroughly. This became clear when he scolded me for blaming gun violence on mental illness. He then asked me to insert commentary and quotes that were already in the piece. But the most distressing part was when he began making grand — and factually incorrect — assertions. For instance, he said that women didn’t commit mass shootings because “women don’t own guns.” Additionally, he wrote that men often begin to become violent with women when they try to leave the relationship. Though women on the whole own less guns than men, 22% of adult women still do — far from none. And while men with a history of domestic abuse are more likely to try to murder their female partners when they attempt to leave or succeed at leaving the relationship, the first instances of violence often begin far earlier than that.
I found this editor’s comments jarring, even offensive. Nonetheless, I wanted to try to maintain a working relationship with the publication, so while I gently pushed back on some of his false claims, I assured the female editor I would try to address some of his concerns as best I could. I took a few days to revise it and then re-filed. But my piece was killed because the male publisher believed that “…making the claim that gender is a stronger [predictor] of violence than mental illness counters our editorial priority at the moment.”
Many female editors are still supervised by male editors, whose implicit biases can impact a piece in a way that affects its original intention.
In the end, I was informed I was expected to label toxic masculinity a “form of mental illness.” When I refused — because I found it unethical to call something a mental illness that is not formally classified as such — my piece was squashed.
I shopped the killed piece around for a few days until it piqued the interest of a female editor at Politico, who accepted it as it was on spec. However, my piece was again passed on to a male editor to review — who asked me to change the premise of the piece to shift more of the blame for mass shootings on mental illness rather than toxic masculinity. He based his request on his own misinterpretation of some data in my article. When I gently corrected him, clarifying the data and sending him a half-dozen links to peer-reviewed studies that supported my hypothesis, he went silent nearly two weeks and then sent me a brusque one-line email killing my piece.
This time I balked, emailing the female editor at Politico who initially commissioned the article to let her know I thought male editorial bias was at play. This was the second consecutive time a female editor had accepted the piece only for a male editor to ask me to change its premise and then yank the piece when I wouldn’t. Eventually, I convinced her to overturn her peer’s decision and run my piece anyway. In the weeks leading up to my piece going live on Politico, the AlterNet publisher who had refused to run my article in the first place, Don Hazen, was fired amid an egregious #MeToo scandal. As I watched my Facebook feed blow up with women’s stories regarding Hazen’s sexual and professional misconduct, my suspicion that sexism had played a role in my piece being killed seemed validated.
So was the suspicion that experiences like mine are not uncommon.
“The idea about what is newsworthy and what isn’t has always been filtered through a male lens, and so often through a sexist lens,” says Jennifer Pozner, a journalist and media critic, as well as the author of Reality TV Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV and the forthcoming media literacy graphic novel, Breaking [The] News. “Men’s opinions have never been considered biased, especially white men’s opinions, which are considered the standard neutral opinion in journalism, while those of women and people of color are considered biased, inaccurate or not newsworthy.”
Pozner explains that until recent years, men held virtually all high-ranking editorial positions at most media outlets, serving as the gatekeepers who decided who and what was published. But as the internet gained mainstream popularity, women became prominent contributors to the blogosphere, where they accrued high readerships. Magazines and online publications took note, hiring them on as editors and writers.
But while that may have led to some considerable progress, women and those of other marginalized identities still have a long way to go in achieving true equality in the newsroom and the larger world of publishing.
Consider this: According to the Women’s Media Center’s 2017 report on the status of women in U.S. media, women produced only 37.7% of news reports in 2016 at 20 of the nation’s top news outlets. During this same time, work by women anchors, field reporters, and correspondents in broadcast news actually declined, falling from 32% in 2015 to 25.2% in 2016. Even in regards to reproductive issues, women were found to have authored only 37% of bylined news articles and opinion pieces on the topic in the nation’s 12 most widely circulated newspapers and newswires. Meanwhile, the nonprofit VIDA, which runs an annual count to discern how many women have bylines in major literary outlets in a given year, found that in eight of the 15 major publications they analyzed, women writers didn’t even make up 40% of 2017’s bylines.
This isn’t even considering the issue of compensation, as surveys consistently show that significant gender and racial pay disparities exist at most major national newspapers, even those with union representation. It also does not account for the pattern of harassment and violent threats female reporters often receive when they do publish pieces that tackle misogyny or gender-based violence— as I did when my Politico piece finally went live.
Pozner, who has been writing and reporting on issues that impact women for over 20 years, noted that she first tried to publish an article exploring the correlation between misogyny and school shootings back in 1998 and was rejected by all mainstream publications (her piece was eventually accepted at Sojourner: The Women’s Forum). So as bad as my publishing experience was, she observes that it was still significantly better than what she went through two decades ago.
“Now at least there are female editors who initially greenlit your piece before the male editors killed them, who you could then appeal to,” Pozner says.
The challenge is that many female editors are still supervised by male editors, whose implicit biases can impact a piece in a way that affects its original intention. Implicit biases — inherent ideas that reflect our upbringing and the culture we were raised in — are pervasive and difficult to identify, because they are usually subconscious. Implicit biases adversely impact women everywhere from the workplace to the healthcare system. Such biases, which we all carry to some extent, can be especially damaging when they contribute to normalizing misogyny.
It’s important to interrogate one’s discomfort, to be willing to try to identify and understand the personal prejudices that may lead one to dislike or disagree with something.
This is was happened to Kimberley*, who asked that her real name not be used, when she wrote a personal essay on domestic abuse that was originally accepted by a female editor at a well-known online publication. The male editor later asked that piece be “lightened-up” for readers.
“For so long, I kept quiet about my experiences… as so many women do,” says Kimberley. “These issues are finally being talked about on a national level — women are sharing their trauma hoping things will change — and still, editors are working to tone the message down. It’s very upsetting.”
Kimberley is concerned that putting a lighter spin on a story about domestic violence will make those who have had similar experiences feel unheard and misunderstood.
“A lightened up version… helps no one,” says Kimberley. “It’s awkward and [its] point… gets lost.”
One step in the right direction would be for male editors to pause and self-reflect before they consider killing or requesting that the voice or direction of an article be changed, especially if that article is by a woman or someone from a different demographic than them. It’s important to interrogate one’s discomfort, to be willing to try to identify and understand the personal prejudices that may lead one to dislike or disagree with something.
In the post-#MeToo era, we know the power of female voices when they are not being censored. Unfortunately, while women and femme writers have been making strides in media and publishing, it seems we’re still often subject to the whims of cis male editors. And until we have much more control over the narrative — especially on issues that disproportionately impact us — we still have a long way to go. But by learning to trust women (as well as others who have been historically oppressed) to tell our stories the way we want, we will not just have more equity and inclusion in journalism and publishing, but a more richly diverse landscape of storytelling and reporting — and ultimately, a better society.