Using your best Nancy Sinatra voice, sing: “Bang, bang. My source just shot me down.” That’ll get you in the mood for this story.
While working on a freelance piece for Lydia Magazine about the imbalance in male versus female film critics writing for mainstream media, I reached out to the women working at the top four newspapers in the country: the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today and the LA Times.
Starting an email with “My name is Kate Everson, and I am a contributing writer for Lydia, a small webzine that’s putting together its first print issue this summer. I’m working on a story and was hoping you would be available for an interview…” comes with a little less confidence than starting one out by saying you’re writing for Bitch Media or, as I do on an almost hourly basis, you’re an associate editor with Human Capital Media. There’s less clout when you’re coming from a place not many people have heard of — and fewer are liable to regard as a legitimate magazine.*
*Note: Lydia really is legit. Our website’s just been remodeled into a work of art.
To the rest of the world, Lydia is one of the many small sites trying to make a name for itself among the Jezebels, Bustles, Mashables and Buzzfeeds. So imagine my surprise when Pulitzer Prize-winning, WSJ editorial board member and veteran critic Dorothy Rabinowitz sent me an email inviting me to call her.
New Yorkers know her as a Jon-Stewart-hating, Citi-Bike-loathing journalist who happens to be the head of one of the most influential publications in America (and by extension, the world).
So why would you, environmentally conscious and Daily-Show-quoter Kate Everson, have any interest, let alone respect, for a woman like Rabinowitz?
Well, apart from the fact that I routinely face death via Divi Bike while walking to work through the Chicago Loop each morning — so bike-share programs aren’t that great a thing to me, either — a lot, actually.
Here’s a little background on Ms. Rabinowitz’s accomplishments: Working at WSJ since 1990, she’s now a member of the editorial board. She was nominated for a Pulitzer in 1995 for her television commentary, 1996 for her exposé on sexual abuse in day care facilities and again in 1998 for her columns on TV’s place in culture and politics. The fourth time was the charm — she won in 2001 for her commentary on social trends and culture.
So when I dialed her number and she answered, I felt like here it was, my perfect source, an established and respected industry leader who would give me insight into an issue I had researched up and down. I was Sherlock “Robert Downey Jr.” Holmes chasing after Irene Adler. I had spotted that perfect-coal bin-turned-tarmack outside my window and was hurtling through the air toward it.
Except, remember how that sequence ends?
Dorothy Rabinowitz was my decaying wood bin of reporting. Here’s why.
I introduced myself and our publication, and continued to discuss my research, which focused on the imbalance between male and female film critics. Niche publications focused on entertainment are dismal compared to the leading papers in the country — the top four most-read papers in the US each have a female critic, but only 9 percent of critics writing for pop culture-based publications like Entertainment Weekly or Variety are female.
“What do editors/critics/readers need to do to change this?” I asked when I finished my spiel.
She replied by giving out from under me and dumping me in a heap of coal.
“The what-can-we-do aspect of any writing is enough to send people screaming in boredom,” she said. “The question itself is intellectually and imaginatively empty of promise.”
But, even when Holmes is in that coal bin, he’s able to find the door thanks presumably to the shaft of light coming in through the hole in the roof — likewise, Rabinowitz illuminated a new way to look at the story: “What’s not empty of promise is what you’re telling me (the statistics). Just put the facts out and raise the question, ‘Why is this so?’”
I’ve been hung up on by sources, told by company media reps that they can’t help me and even reprimanded by the head of a major government organization for asking questions about a story he deemed nonexistent. None of those situations made my stomach plummet to the bottom of my feet the way it did when Rabinowitz responded to my pitch by telling me my focus was all wrong.
And it probably would have gone back up to belly-level, if it hadn’t been for the fact that deep down, I knew she was right.
We talked for about half an hour until she had to leave for a meeting, and during that conversation I learned a few things:
1. The gender gap in film critics is (apparently) not as obvious as I thought.
Rabinowitz said she had never noticed it, and if a board member of the most circulated paper in the country doesn’t know something, then it’s probably not common knowledge. Note that this was one minor “Booyah!” moment that made me think I was on the right track writing about this topic.
2. Contrary to the “what can we do about it?” way I’ve always approached gender issues stories, sometimes readers rather know the “why” aspect.
I don’t know if it’s journalism school that did it or just my assumption that inciting action is more interesting than explaining an issue to death. I had approached the story as I have most of my work, with a focus on the solution rather than the expository. Rabinowitz challenged that, and I have to agree with her that the “why” in this case was probably more interesting (yet harder to report on) than the “fix.”
3. It’s possible to totally disagree with a Pulitzer Prize winner.
OK, I admitted I agreed with her comment that my story should have a different focus. But apart from that, I found myself holding my tongue while furiously typing away as she talked. She offered up her own explanation: that perhaps women weren’t as interested in writing film criticism as men. She had lectured at journalism schools and found that although most of the students were women, they really wanted to be on TV reading the news. “They wanted to be Katie Couric,” she said.
Unofficial lesson number four: Pulitzer Prize winners can infuriate you.
I’ve been one of those women in a journalism class being told by her professor that yes, most of the students in this room may be female, but most magazines are headed by men and most journalism awards go to male recipients. I’m a living example of a woman who wants to be a film critic, wants to be a serious editor for a non-fashion publication, but sees the current statistics and knows that something has to change if that’s ever going to happen. I don’t want to be a token female, and from the five women I talked to in process of researching the article, I can tell you that I’m not alone. A lot of us don’t want to be Katie Couric. In fact, most of us want to be Pauline Kael. Or Susan Orlean. Or Renata Adler.
Or Dorothy Rabinowitz.
I changed my story to focus more on the “why,” but I still kept in the “what can we do about it.” And although I hung up the phone, coal box soot getting into the bullet holes of where Rabinowitz had shot my story — and, by extension, me — down, I also knew that I had survived being thrashed by one of my idols. I had become a stronger reporter in 30 minutes, and I had learned to change my approach to a story while still holding true to the message and information I needed to convey.
It was time to dust myself off, dress my wounds and write.
The article I wrote based on my interview with Dorothy Rabinowitz is set to publish this summer in Lydia’s first print issue. Be sure to check for information on how to get a copy of the magazine so you can read more of Rabinowitz’s (and other’s) input on the subject of women in film criticism.