Susan Estrich on Gender, Missing Voices, and That Nasty Email War

Susan Estrich

Susan Estrich, a law professor at the University of Southern California, author, columnist, commentator on Fox News and former advisor to Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign, has launched a high-profile war of words with Michael Kinsley, editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times. Estrich accuses Kinsley of “blatant sex discrimination” on the Times’ opinion pages, because few women are published. Estrich’s correspondence with Kinsley, and his replies, have been reprinted widely, including by the DC Examiner. Estrich took special exception to a series of op-ed articles (all by women), published Feb. 13 in the Times, entitled “Gender Studies.”

Susan Q. Stranahan: You’ve been critical for some time about how the Times treats women on its staff and on its opinion pages, launching a campaign two years ago to save the job of the lone female news columnist [Patt Morrison], and now demanding the inclusion of more women’s voices as commentators. What are readers of the Times missing?

Susan Estrich: When we don’t hear women’s voices, we miss out on half the population — and I do think it makes a difference. [Yesterday,] there was one article by a woman on the Los Angeles Times [op-ed page] — it was from the Harvard Crimson, and it was about women and science. Need I add that it was the only piece about gender issues on the page. The only piece by a woman on the New York Times’ op-ed page [Thursday] was Maureen Dowd’s piece on the AARP/gay rights issue, which is certainly related.

But it’s not just that women are more likely to notice gender issues, and write about them. There’s a famous U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1964 called Hoyt v. Florida that upheld Florida’s exclusion of women from juries, on the grounds that women were different, with the implication that their lives were sufficiently different to justify the separate rules, but at the same time, their voices weren’t important enough that they needed to be included. In the law, we call that sexual asymmetry — separate and unequal. The fundamental recognition that women do bring different perspectives, a range of them, but different ones, is important, and to exclude those perspectives is a loss for everyone.

SQS: The Los Angeles Times isn’t unique in the absence of female commentators. “Most newspapers will only ‘take’ one liberal woman. If they take Molly Ivins or Ellen Goodman, they won’t take me,” you wrote. “Can you imagine someone saying that they can’t take Bob Novak because they take George Will; can’t take Bill O’Reilly because they take Bill Safire? Silly.” Why, in your view, is one female columnist considered to be “enough?”

SE: I’m not sure why people consider one to be enough — clearly they shouldn’t. But let’s face it: Many of the decision-makers are men, and the stereotypes are strong. When Karen Jurgenson was the editorial page editor of USA Today, she didn’t take that approach. She hired Linda Chavez and me, and two men, and I didn’t even know at the time how unusual that was. But I should add, it isn’t just a liberal issue. Ann Coulter and I may not agree on much, but we do agree on this: She has written four bestsellers, but last time I talked to her, [her commentary] wasn’t in any paper big enough to be included in Lexis-Nexis. Laura Ingraham is terrific on the radio, but she had a really tough time getting stations, and switched [time-of-day] and syndicators before she started to hit pay dirt.

I don’t think discrimination is conscious, but that makes it even harder to deal with. I don’t think anybody sits down and says, we hate women here. But they call their friends, print whom they like, whom they know, who’s been around. It takes a conscious effort to make change. I remember once asking a panel of men at a news business conference about how gender entered into their coverage and to a man — including now-Mayor Bloomberg — they said they didn’t take gender into account. Well, if you don’t, [the end result] is just one woman, or none. That is what most corporate boards look like, and it’s what most op-ed pages look like. But an op-ed page is easier to change than a corporate board. You can change it in a matter of hours or days, just by deciding to, and reaching out consciously.

SQS: You’ve picked this fight with your former Harvard law school classmate, Michael Kinsley, a formidable journalist whose tenure at the New Republic and Slate didn’t produce howls about sexist bias. Jack Shafer of Slate recently ran a list of women writers Kinsley has published or mentored. Has something changed?

SE: I’ve been working on this issue since long before Michael came to the Los Angeles Times. It isn’t personal; it shouldn’t be personal, and I don’t want it to be. As an institution, there are clearly issues at the paper. The Wall Street Journal has a woman publisher. The New York Times has a woman in the number-two job, a woman editorial page editor, a woman deputy managing editor. The Los Angeles Times’ top woman is, I believe, number seven on the masthead, the only woman with any editorial title. Top women are gone. We’ve had to fight for the only woman columnist [Patt Morrison]. I hear, indirectly, of management meetings with no women at all.

This is also a paper that is very alienated from its community. I remember, when I lived in Boston, people were proud of [Tom] Winship’s Globe, as people in D.C. were of [Ben] Bradlee’s Post. There is very little sense of community ownership of the Times. Quite the contrary, I keep hearing from people who say to me, you think women have it tough with these guys, wait ‘til you hear this. The bottom line to all these conversations ends up being, Can’t we find someone from Southern California to buy this paper and return it to the community? I think that may be the larger issue at play here — alienation and estrangement.

SQS: Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz has called this very public exchange of emails between you and Michael Kinsley a “spitball fight.” A blogger wrote that you both were exhibiting “a level of maturity roughly that of fourth graders.” You complain that Kinsley cancelled at least one dinner invitation, doesn’t call, doesn’t return emails. You launched a Web site and you’ve threatened to go to advertisers “or take other appropriate action” if your complaints aren’t resolved. You’ve even asked Kinsley if his Parkinson’s disease “may have affected your brain.” Kinsley, on the other hand, has accused you of blackmail and withdrawn an offer to publish a piece by you. He suggests that if you want to boycott media institutions that aren’t progressively feminist you resign from Fox News. Is this now a battle over an issue or one of egos?

SE: I don’t think we should be debating emails that were never intended, at least by me, to be public. Call them what you will, I would never make someone’s health an issue, and I really am sorry if anyone took it that way. People did ask questions. Most of us expected the paper to publish our letter [protesting the “Gender Studies” commentary], not turn it into a federal case. But that’s beside the point: There’s only one real issue here. I’ve been counting since I was a second-year law student — counting the numbers of women partners, counting CEO’s, counting women who make it to the top, and since 2000, counting women’s voices in the media. For four years now, my students at USC have been counting the number of women on the opinion pages of the Los Angeles Times, and the results are the only issue any of us should focus on. I got the tally from my students for the last week, since we raised the issue, and I think it illustrates the point: it’s 16-3 for this week, add Friday and Sunday, and we’re even worse, at 23-3, male to female. That’s the issue, not Michael or me, or dinner or emails. Twenty-three/three is not a reflection of our city, of who has something to say, it’s not a reflection of what a truly neutral and nondiscriminatory page should look like. It requires conscious non-discrimination to fix it, and the only way to make change happen, in my experience, is to get people’s attention. I always try, first, to work within the system. That’s what I’ve been trying to do. But if it doesn’t work, you put pressure on the system. I’ve spent my life fighting for equality, because it matters. And by the way, Fox News has a good record of promoting women to top positions, including Suzanne Scott, who is now number two in television, and a terrific and talented woman whom I am proud to work for.

SQS: Michael Kinsley says that you are right, that more women should be writing for the Times’ op-ed pages. Name some writers you’d like to see published there.

SE: What a dream. There are so many writers in L.A., many of them sometime screenwriters, which is an entire world I don’t know well, but here’s just a taste: Patt Morrison (twice a week), Barbara Howar, Joan Juliet Buck, Sandra Tsing Loh, Carol Leib, Carol Ann Leif, Tammy Bruce, Kimberle Crenshaw, Connie Rice, Vilma Martinez, Carrie Fisher, Arianna Huffington, Stephanie Miller, Aileen Adams. Anyway, that’s just [off] the top of my head.

Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.