Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Spin Sisters

How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness --- and Liberalism --- to the Women of America
Myrna Blyth

Nonfiction, Media

There are a number of people who will be put off by the insertion of the word "liberalism" in the title of this book. There are also a number of people who become more interested in the contents of such a book because of what such a word implies.

Such is the power of language.

Blyth's book deals primarily with the insular nature of the world of women's magazines, and how the cycle of reinforcement means that those within that world never truly realize that there are other opinions out there. This is the kind of insularity that leads to comments about the author being invited to a party 'in spite of' the fact that she has occasionally voted for a Republican; this is also the sort of world that led to the infamous comment "I don't know how Nixon won; nobody I know voted for him," after Nixon won 49 states.

Far more important than the political leanings, however, is the drive to be first and most, which has led to extremely fuzzy journalism and an excess of "the fear factor", as Blyth puts it. In order to keep their readers hooked, a columnist can take an isolated incident or scary anecdote and telegraph it into a story about how "it could happen to you." For an example, take the story of those people who blamed vaccination for causing their children's autism. Any decent science major or statistician can tell you that correlation does not equal causation, and recent studies have shown no links between the two, but not before a large anti-vaccine movement got underway. (I think they need to do a "fear factor story" on The Tragedy of the Commons: How Someone Else's Decisions Can Affect Your Child's Health.)

More to the point, in a society where women are freer, healthier, and have more opportunities and free time than any previous generation, these stories are designed to keep women stressed and guilty - not through any ulterior motive to keep women unhappy, mind you, but through the ulterior motive of getting women's attention in a field supersaturated with similar stories. And the reason that they don't do stories in an area that is new and different is twofold: these are the stories that they are interested in, so they can't imagine being interested in something different, and tried and true is the working formula that they don't dare to change.

The book is written in an open style, with endnotes rather than footnotes so as not to break up the flow. Each chapter leads into the next with a little teaser - no doubt learned by the author as she worked for and managed various magazines. There will invariably be a bit of idealogical breakdown between who will read and who won't read this book, but if you are interested in the way that women's magazines present material, and the reasons why, for example, the race to stickdom for models is taking place in their pages, you might give it a try.

Even if you disagree with her, Blyth raises some interesting points.


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