The media, as an industry, is one utterly obsessed with itself. The only industry that can rival it on those terms is literature, but few others keep so close an eye and so sharp a tongue on their own internal operations and machinations. Not knowing this is probably the biggest naiveté of the anonymous student journalist at the heart of the Farrago–Herald Sun hullabaloo that’s been playing out—quite viciously—this week.
She’s been named elsewhere, and derided for the weak points in her argument and the undergraduate-levels of outrage and pique in her piece, as well as her asymmetrical haircut and use of the word ‘heteronormative’. It’s attacking the player, not the ball, and the level of spite has surprised me. Surprised me precisely because it seems to demonstrate exactly what the young woman’s critics are saying in their attacks: that the news industry is tough and rough and she shouldn’t have expected anything else.
It horrifies me, not in the least because I’m also a graduate of a media degree, I also trained to be a journalist—although by the time my internship rolled around, I was nervously knocking on poetry’s door (and abandoning any idea of a regular income). But I worked on student journals in the last years of my degree, and spent the first few afterwards trying to work as a freelance journo, too.
The thing about student journals is that they are just that: magazines and newspapers written by students for an audience of students. They are amateur, undergraduate productions—that is their very point. They’re supposed to be full of fire and fury and vim and vigour. They’re supposed to be a bit crashy and uneven.
I’m not saying this to defend the writing style of the ‘Hun-Mole’, or the fuzzy logic that crops up within the article. The article is not a great piece of journalism, but that’s not the point. I’m saying, to the mainstream newspapers that have attacked her: what did you expect?
Student journals can’t be held to the same professional standards as the mainstream media. I’m not even sure that they should be because they don’t have anything close to the same privilege, the same access to public space. They’re not really a public forum. It’s not 1970 any more.
By the same token, I’m aware that what goes on in student media doesn’t necessarily stay in student media. That the articles written as a nineteen-year-old in those pages can come back to haunt public figures—look at what has surfaced from Julia Gillard’s university days, for example, or what we’ve learnt about the student politics of Tony Abbott and Peter Costello. But those people are politicians, not interns: what do they expect?
The other unsettling thing about this whole fiasco is the anti-feminist sentiment that has been circulating just beneath so much of the discussion, at the expense at any real, engaged debate. It comes back, in part, to the flawed writing of the article, which gives a number of examples of perceived sexism in the news room, and includes the line ‘Men were also continuously and unnecessarily sexist, waiting for me to walk through doors and leave the elevator before them.’
But still I watched, yesterday, as a number of well-known journalists in Sydney traded their own jokes over Twitter:
Shit. I just held a door open for a young woman. I am such a sexist.
I just crash tackled a woman who tried to make me sexist by going through a door first. I showed her gender equity.
Help! I want to get out of this lift but women keep getting in, so I’m stuck here to avoid making a sexist blunder.
It’s dismissive and it’s patronising, and it ignores the very real and valid examples that the author made. But what did I expect? One of the reasons I became so quickly discouraged with my own attempts at journalism was this kind of hard-edged boy’s club mentality that I kept encountering, even as I was lucky enough to be supported by some pretty impressive female mentors.
I’m not writing this piece to tell my stories. But I’ve never forgotten being pressed up against a wall at an industry function, being assigned the story on weight loss supplements because I’d ‘probably find it more interesting’, the editor who thought that it was funny to call me Pip, short for Pipsqueak, because I stand at not-quite-a-metre-and-a-half tall. That last example may not be sexist, but it’s patronising as all hell.
This is what made me so furious: that these stories, years later, are still practically the same as those this intern had to tell, and still being dismissed as a part of a culture, a problem that just is the way it is and that we should just accept or move along. We should, at least, be expecting something more.
10 Aug 12 at 13:30
This whole thing really drives home for me the fact that young writers working on the Internet today are not afforded the same right to forget their past as writers who came up before the Internet.
Back then in ye olden times, you were free to have your early mistakes and missteps consigned to the street press, or student newspaper which would really take some determined digging to unearth. It was fine to be writing embarrassing stuff, because no one of consequence would see it and was all part of the process of becoming a writer or journalist.
But now there’s lots of only partially-formed stuff that’s out there, and it will follow people around forever, meaning there is no luxury afforded to emerge kind of fully-formed in a broadsheet or magazine, and that being where your career proper begins.
So this is either absolutely terrible/mortifying, or all to the good and part of the new normal in that everyone from now on will have this history of not-so-great stuff trailing off after them. I’m unsure. But I do think that judging young people harshly for being young is both monstrously unfair, and a stubborn and awful traditional that always has been and forever will be thus.
10 Aug 12 at 13:33
Those twitter jokes responding to the young student’s ‘chivalry as sexism’ argument seem to me to be legitimate frustration with the occasionally (I stress very occasional) overbearing aspects of feminism.
A lot of young men feel somewhat emasculated by the constant pressure on them to double guess what a woman may be thinking for fear of offending her. Does this woman expect me to hold the door for her? Or will she be angered by what she perceives to be sexism?
It may sound trivial, but these are legitimate concerns for many men. Personally, I believe chivalry adds a layer of courtesy to our society, and after being raised to behave in such a manner, I would feel unshakeable embarrassment if I brushed past my mother to get through a door before her.
Of course, I do not mean to defend the very real atmosphere of chauvinism that exists in many newsrooms. I don’t know which journalists tweeted those jokes, so I can’t comment on whether they were being entirely dismissive of the young student’s article.
But I do know that, while I agreed with nearly every point in her article, I was angered and frustrated about the chivalry part.
10 Aug 12 at 13:59
Jason, It’s pretty simple. Open a door for anyone (regardless of sex) when it’s helpful for them. Don’t open it when it’s just as easy or easier for them to do it.
But leave out the overbearing feminism argument. It’s dreary, boring and evidentially lacking.
10 Aug 12 at 14:30
Fiona, this piece is excellent, and really articulates many of my own thoughts about the issue. While I’m not exactly ashamed of much of the work I did in student media—first as a sub-editor and contributor, then as an editor—I wouldn’t want it to be subject to the level of vicious scrutiny that the anonymous intern’s work has faced. And, as Elmo notes, there’s something to be said for the idea of a place where beginning writers can publish without fear that their early work will come back to haunt them. (I’m lucky enough that my early student media efforts disappeared down the internet’s memory hole when the paper folded and the student union disconnected its server.)
Jason: Here’s a question for you—why does the idea that a woman might be offended by your ‘chivalry’ upset you so much? A large part of this brouhaha has been a group of (mostly) men telling the anonymous intern that the newsroom has always been this way, so get used to it. This kind of sidelining of women’s feelings about the ways they are systematically discriminated against—often expressed in the reprehensible phrase “suck it up, princess”—is pretty common. But suddenly when it’s a man’s emotions we’re talking about, these emotional concerns are really valid and important. “Oh no! She called me a chauvinist for holding the door open for her! How terrible!” There are many worse things in life than someone erroneously considering you a chauvinist, and I dare say this young woman’s experiences were much worse than what is, at worst, a mild inconvenience. Yet so much of the criticism of this woman has centred around the door-holding issue. Surely basic logical consistency would dictate that the “suck it up, princess” crowd should also “suck up” their own feelings about being mistaken for a chauvinist?
10 Aug 12 at 14:30
The door is a distraction – it’s not the point of this the Farrago article, or this one either.
10 Aug 12 at 14:52
A minor point, perhaps, but it’s worth noting that there’s usually a fair distance between student newspapers that seek to emulate actual newspapers, and student magazines that don’t. When I studied journalism at UQ, journalism students wrote for The Queensland Independent, and were horrified by the unprofessional shenanigans that were going on at Semper Floreat. It was mostly media/comms and philosophy students that wrote for Semper.
10 Aug 12 at 15:02
Elmo Keep makes the point that young writers’ young writing is harder to hide these days. Well, here’s an idea – young writers don’t have to publish on the internet every thought they ever have. Maybe more awareness of potential future embarrassment might mean less bad writing online.
Also, it’s pretty easy to find hard copies of old student magazines in libraries/archives etc. They’re not that well hidden!
10 Aug 12 at 15:02
Great piece and great comment Ian Syson.
10 Aug 12 at 15:22
I read the front page Age story yesterday on this Farrago report with interest. While the intern’s interpretation of opening doors etc as sexist struck me as a bit of an overflex – one might expect folks of a different set and age group to behave a bit differently in terms of manners – her report on the sum of a range of behaviours that overall come across as boorish and chauvinist was not. There was clearly a cultural clash at work here and the frisson and apparent feelings of shock and disappointment are quite worthy of display. Just because the military has had a culture of cadet degradation, doesn’t mean they should be allowed to. This kind of treatment is clearly a much softer ‘blooding’ but the domineering white anglo male culture evident in any byline perusal at our dailies is, in my opinion, one of the reasons that sales of papers are on the slide.
10 Aug 12 at 16:15
RE Elmo’s comments above: I agree. And maybe student organisations should seriously consider not publishing to the web. I’m not sure I’d have been a student writer/editor if my terrible writings were going to end up on the web for eternity. And I think that would have been a shame. It was comforting that my writing would disappear into obscurity the moment it was published.
10 Aug 12 at 17:02
If you spend two weeks surrounded by sexist homophobic ars*holes, then the so-called chivalry will no doubt take on a different colouring and seem as patronising as the names they used for her: being “nice” isn’t always being nice. And it’s an easy way for journos to ignore the rest of the piece.
10 Aug 12 at 17:44
As one of the jokers cited above, I just wanted to add that there was no malice behind the gag. To me, that particular sentence in the Farrago piece stuck out as silly, and so some gentle fun was had.
Which is not to say that everything in the article was silly. Quite the reverse. The intern author made a series of valid, important points about the toxic cultures that can flourish in a newsroom. (And not in every newsroom. The SMH newsroom – the one I’m most familiar with – is a million miles from the one described in the piece.)
Sexism of the sort the author describes is abominable – but not sexism in the shape of men allowing women to pass through a door first. In a world of gender inequality, that’s one to let slide. Well, that’s what I reckon, as a 43-year-old bloke … others might disagree.
And I agree with Fiona about being shocked by the viciousness of the attack, including the outing of the author’s identity. That was all unnecessary and out of line. She was an intern who made some valid points (plus at least one silly one) and for that she should not have been torn to shreds.
11 Aug 12 at 18:00
Unfortunately, Ms Burden’s case, which may have real foundation and merit, was ruined with the use of bad examples. No one really feels moved by the seedy underbelly of white male elitist workplace practices when the best you’ve got to show for it is an anti-gay marriage sentiment uttered by one person and a man who might open a door for you. It just doesn’t have me up in arms crying “get the bastards!” Yet I understand the sentiments she was getting at and the crass way certain stories were dealt with- it’s just a shame that her “evidence” for this culture was so poor. In effect, it’s given ammunition to the very people she wanted to fight, by aiding their response that any such backlash is an over-sensitivity to a few comments made in the workplace that were not dealt with through the proper channels at the time. Pity, because I think had she been a better journalist about it, she could have been onto something.