San Jose Mercury News

Monday, June 8, 1998

Diversity Efforts Aside, Gender and Ethnicity Do Not Matter in All Cases
Stumbling over stereotypes

Jane Harman is a woman, so she was supposed to get the ``women's vote.'' But Gray Davis out-polled Harman 2 to 1 among women voters.

Jerry Brown, a white candidate in the heavily minority city of Oakland, swept the mayoral race.

Laurie Smith's gender helped her stand out in the race for Santa Clara County sheriff, where she was the only woman among five candidates with comparable experience. Does anyone think that she led the pack because women wanted a sheriff from Venus, not from Mars?

The ``Latino vote'' split on bilingual education -- I think. Polls showed majority Latino support for Proposition 227 throughout the campaign, with 62 percent planning to vote ``yes'' 10 days before the election. That casts doubt on Los Angeles Times/CNN exit polls in which only 37 percent said they'd voted for 227. So does the ``yes'' vote in areas with lots of Latinos, such as San Diego County, where 70 percent of voters backed 227.

In any case, it's clear that, despite Latino leaders' monolithic defense of bilingual education, there's not one ``Latino'' opinion on the best way to educate immigrant children.

Here's a radical thought: Maybe people make decisions based on a variety of factors, not simply on gender or race or national origin.

Maybe women want a governor with a track record in state government, and non-white Oaklanders want a mayor with clout and connections and creativity. Maybe Latinos think for themselves, and don't all reach the same conclusion.

Somehow when people start out talking about diversity they seem to end up talking in stereotypes. Last week, Los Angeles Times publisher Mark Willes apologized to his staff for saying that the way to attract women readers is to give them fewer analytical stories, and more emotion. ``I made some comments that seemed to stereotype women in an exceptionally unfortunate way,'' Willes said in a memo.

But Willes didn't retract other comments he made in a Wall Street Journal story last month on plans to attract more female and non-white readers. In addition to writing more sob stories aimed at women, the Times may tie executives' pay to the number of female and minority sources cited in stories.

Willes talked about diversity goals, not quotas for quotes, but we all know what happens when the boss's bonus is based on numbers.

On some issues, there's a female or Latino or black or Asian perspective. But not on everything. Sometimes stressing gender or ethnicity is misleading, telling readers that's what matters when it's not.

As a woman, I don't care if the people quoted in a story about India and Pakistan's nuclear tests are male or female. I read newspapers primarily as a human, a citizen, a Californian, a parent, etc. ``Woman'' is just part of the et cetera.

Los Angeles Times reporters are now wondering if they'll have to flag the gender and ethnicity of everyone they quote, so the diversity enumerators will know that the traffic figures came from Kelly Gridlock, black woman, not simply from Kelly Gridlock, traffic analyst.

When they do phone interviews, should they ask sources to identify themselves by race, ethnicity, color, creed or national origin?

The Gannett chain tried a minority quota system for their newspapers. I remember a funny/sad story by a reporter who'd worked for a Gannett paper in Vermont, where ``minority'' means French-Canadian if it means anything. To meet the chain's diversity directives, the newspaper quoted and/or photographed the same man virtually every day. He was a city official, and he was black, and who else was there?

At best, this is a very narrow definition of diversity.

At the same time Los Angeles Times staffers were furious at stereotyping by their publisher, New York Times staffers were furious at stereotyping by their metro editor, Joyce Purnick.

In a commencement speech at Barnard, Purnick told the graduates that mommies don't get to be metro editors, because they leave at 6 while the childless women and the guys work till 8 or 9. ``There is no way in an all-consuming profession like journalism that a woman with children can devote as much time and energy as a man can.''

The first female metro editor at the Times, Purnick said she succeeded because she gave up the chance to have children.

Just as Willes stereotyped women as the only readers who like to read human stories, Purnick gave only a nodding reference to fathers, suggesting that only mothers try to balance family and career, and that virtually all women are less committed to their work once they have children.

At a meeting of outraged reporters, Purnick fell back on a vapid stereotype to defend herself. She was asked, ``Do you actually think that because we're mothers we contribute less?''

``You contribute differently,'' sad the metro editor.

What she really meant was: ``Yes.''

Purnick's brutal truths could spark a discussion of how to change things so that talented people aren't pushed aside permanently for the sins of parenthood, and editorial decisions aren't made exclusively by childless workaholics.

But probably not. When people resort to the soothing euphemisms of ``difference feminism'' they stop confronting reality, and trying to change it.