Thursday, October 11, 2012

Did You Sleep Your Way To The Top? And Other Journalistic Questions.

The topic of this post is not of wide-reaching relevance, given the horrible problems of this world, but it opens a nice peephole to some of our cultural beliefs and customs about women, men and sex.  In particular, to what extent sex can be a topic for an interview with either men or women, and what type of questions can be asked.

It all started with a Twitter fight between Andrew Goldman and Jennifer Weiner.  The former writes for the New York Times, the latter is an author.   The fight begins:

And then it got worse, other people joined in and so on.

Margaret Sullivan, the NYT's public editor,  addressed the issue:

I asked Hugo Lindgren, the editor of the Times Magazine, about the incident, sending him a blog post that raised questions about some of Mr. Goldman’s earlier questions to women he interviewed, including one with the NPR journalist Terry Gross and one with Whitney Cummings, both of which had elicited criticism from some female readers.
My questions and his responses are below:
1. How do you respond to the complaints that Mr. Goldman’s questions are frequently sexist and misogynist?
We don’t publish material we believe to be misogynist or sexist. The blog post you sent me cited 3 examples, out of probably a thousand published questions that Andrew has asked since he took over the column. In the context of the full interviews, none of them struck me as sexist or misogynist. There were frank, sensitive questions, not declarations or assertions of his own. In the Terry Gross interview, Andrew is not making his own presumption about her sexuality. He is referring to an anecdote that was published in the introduction of her own book, which was made even clearer when she makes a joke about how widespread this misperception is. The Whitney Cummings question is perhaps a little cheekier but still refers to something other people have said about her — “On those Comedy Central roasts, your fellow comedians liked to joke about how you slept your way to fame. How accurate is that criticism?”
2. What is your view of the specific question to Ms. Hedren about sleeping her way to the top? Did you see it in advance? If not, would you have approved it?
I saw it and approved it. This is the full question: The worst abuse happened after you rebuffed his advances. Actors have been known to sleep with less powerful directors for advancement in show business. Did you ever consider it? The whole reason for the interview is a new HBO movie about how Hitchcock sexually harassed her. It was an unsavory decision she was actually faced with, so he asked her about it: He made no assertions about what she should or shouldn’t have done. Andrew’s questions acknowledge and refer to sexism in the world, but they are not, in and of themselves, sexist.
For what it’s worth, his editor and top editor are both women. They did not object to the question. But I take full responsibility for it all the same.
3. What is your response to the Twitter back and forth as detailed in the piece I’ve attached here?
I thought Andrew was needlessly rude and insulting, and I told him that. He apologized to Jennifer Weiner, and she accepted it.
4. Could you clarify Mr. Goldman’s position with the magazine? Is he a freelancer? A part-time staffer? Does he do other work than the Q&A?
He is a freelancer. He has not yet contributed to the magazine in other ways, but has an active assignment.
5. Is he in good standing at this point? Are you providing any coaching/feedback/disciplinary measures? Does all of this change his standing with The Times?
I made it clear to him that kind of behavior he exhibited in this Twitter exchange would not be tolerated, and he was contrite and accepted that without argument. My feeling is that he had an unfortunate outburst, and that he will learn from it. He works very hard on these interviews and does a good job. Readers are entitled to whatever opinions they have of his work, and he needs to be comfortable with that and engage thoughtfully when appropriate, or not at all.

John Cook responded:

Goldman was rapidly and roundly rebuked on Twitter by New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum—"If you can't respond to criticism without embodying the very douchebaggery you're accused of... C'mon"—and many, many others. After briefly trying to explain the insult as an attempt to comically embrace the caricature he felt Weiner was painting, Goldman apologized for the comment and deactivated his Twitter account.
Last night, Sullivan weighed in. After interviewing Goldman's editor Hugo Lindgren and Weiner, she correctly criticized his "hideous misjudgment" in attacking Weiner personally on Twitter. But she went farther: She gave credence to Weiner's charges that Goldman had exhibited sexism in his interview questions, sending an angry and unhinged critique by blogger Ed Champion to Lindgren and asking him to respond. And she was eager to see Goldman disciplined, strongly suggesting that he should have been fired for the error: "It sounds as though he's going to get [a second] chance. Given his misbehavior on Twitter and his status as a highly replaceable freelancer, I think his editors are extraordinarily generous to give it to him." (She also, oddly, repeatedly harped on the "strong obscenities" Goldman used on Twitter, as though bad words are an offense worthy of disciplinary action. The obscenities he used were "shit" and "bullshit.")
Sullivan's condemnation of Goldman was smug and unforgiving. Calling for his head over one insult, for which he has apologized, is massive overkill. And the eagerness with which she contemplated Goldman losing his job over a mistake that he regrets—almost gleefully calling him "a highly replaceable freelancer"—was unbecoming. Astonishingly, Sullivan, who purports to be the Times' ethical line judge, didn't even contact Goldman for his thoughts before virtually calling for his firing.
But the worst part was Sullivan's seeming endorsement of the charge that Goldman is some sort of misogynist based on the questions he had asked various interview subjects in the past. As evidence of the purported controversy, she cited Champion, who called Goldman "vulgar" and "repulsive" and floated half-baked conspiracy theories about Harvey Weinstein's role in his career. If you're interested in checking out Champion's bona fides on the subject of misogyny, here he is joking about double-teaming the First Lady of the United States.
The rap against Goldman is this: He asked Hedren, "Actors have been known to sleep with less powerful directors [than Alfred Hitchcock] for advancement in show business. Did you ever consider it?" (In Sullivan's inaccurate framing, that became Goldman "asking a successful woman if she has slept her way to the top.") Goldman asked that question in the context of a new HBO movie about Hedren's relationship with Hitchcock, which was a bizarre and cruel sort of sexual slavery—he was obsessed with her and ruined her career over her refusal to give in to his vile advances. Asking did you ever consider it is a perfectly legitimate question—Hitchcock forced her into an awful choice, and he's asking her if she ever had second thoughts about the one that she made. It is most emphatically not, per Weiner, an "accusation" that Hedren slept her way to the top. After I went back and forth with her on Twitter today, Weiner acknowledged to that if she had been Goldman's editor, she wouldn't have thought twice about the question.
But Weiner is also upset about this question Goldman posed to the comic Whitney Cummings last year: "On those Comedy Central roasts, your fellow comedians liked to joke about how you slept your way to fame. How accurate is that criticism?" This was obviously not offered as a serious question. It was not an attempt by Goldman to assess the veracity of the claims being made by Cummings' fellow comedians. Any attempt to read it as such is willfully obtuse. It was a chance for Cummings to address the jokes, and to either riff on them or respond in earnest. (She riffed on them: "If sleeping with people worked, I would be doing it.") It was a provacative way of saying, "What's it like to constantly be accused by men of sleeping your way to the top?" Which is a question I'd imagine a lot of women would want her to be asked.
But there's more. Weiner also cited this Q-and-A with NPR's Terry Gross, in which Goldman asked: "I gather that people frequently assume you're a lesbian. Several years ago, it came up at a cocktail party for your husband, the writer Francis Davis, celebrating his Pew Fellowship." That question was premised on the book Gross was promoting. Here's what Gross herself wrote:
The second most frequently asked question about me is whether I'm straight or gay (this may be number one in San Francisco).... The confusion about my sexual orientation has led to some pretty amusing scenarios. About ten years ago, when my husband, the writer Francis Davis, won an arts fellowship, I went with him to a reception honoring him and the other recipients. My mother-in-law came with us, and at one point I saw her laughing at something the wife of one of the other fellows had just said to her. She later explained that the woman had pointed at me and whispered, 'Terry Gross is here. Did you know she's a lesbian?'"
Goldman's question was literally in invitation for Gross to tell a funny anecdote from her book. There's nothing remotely inappropriate about it. Goldman also asked Gross in the same interview whether she chose "'Fresh Air' over having children," which some may object to as somehow presuming that women are baby-making machines, or something. Of course it doesn't—it simply asks whether she considered her career and children as incompatible alternatives, which is a totally reasonable question. (The answer is no.)

I'm probably quoting too much above, but that's the quickest way to set the stage for what I want to say.  Perhaps it's worth adding that Goldman's assignments in the past have often included asking questions about sex, or at least that he has interpreted those assignments in that light.

OK.  That's enough stage-setting.  The basic issues here are three:  The first, and easiest to resolve is the Twitter brawl.  Goldman was clearly out of line there and pretty much every critic agrees on that, even John Cook.  And Goldman apologized.

The second question is about whether Goldman routinely asks sexist questions of women but not of men.  This matters because no one interview is enough for trend-spotting and because the specific questions in any one interview can easily be justified by stating that the interviewer had heard rumors and decided to ask about them.  The problem, of course, is that in a different interview there might be equivalent rumors but the interviewer does not ask about them.  The only way to solve that conundrum is by looking at masses and masses of interviews by Andrew Goldman and by analyzing them based on the sex of the interviewee.

This question embraces the narrower question about the possible sexism in the mentioned interviews in those quotes above.

The third issue is the widest and by far the easiest to judge!  Aren't you glad that I'm finally going to say something less fuzzy?  That issue has to do with the wider cultural values about women's proper roles and about who can be asked what.

For instance, consider a journalist interviewing a very powerful man in the movie industry.  Would that interview ever ask about whether he had ever made women give him blow jobs or other sex in exchange for a role?  Would an interview with a powerful male CEO ever ask how many women he had promoted only after they slept with him?

I don't see that happening in a general interview about the careers of those men.  Indeed, I can't even imagine interviews with women about possibly sleeping their way to the top asking for the names of those magnates that demanded it.

And asking Terri Gross about children vs. career can be shown to be a similar culturally driven question because men are not asked about choosing children OR a career:

Goldman also asked Gross in the same interview whether she chose "'Fresh Air' over having children," which some may object to as somehow presuming that women are baby-making machines, or something. Of course it doesn't—it simply asks whether she considered her career and children as incompatible alternatives, which is a totally reasonable question. (The answer is no.)
This question is perfectly unreasonable if addressed to famous men because they are not expected to be in charge of all childcare.