Monday, January 22, 2007

Withering Critique

From Opinion Journal's Best of the Web:

Classic Maureen Dowd--II

Remember that New York Times piece celebrating the decline of marriage, which we noted Tuesday? Gal Beckerman of the Columbia Journalism Review astutely critiques the paper on "diversity" grounds:

Apart from a tossed-off paragraph that reminds us that, buried within these statistics, seventy percent of African-American women are single, there is nothing to indicate how the epidemic of single parentage in the black community contributes to this statistic. We imagine--though aren't told--that many of these women are raising children alone and being dragged deeper into poverty because of their unmarried status.

Instead the rest of the article is completely about those middle class white women who insist they have chosen to be without ball and chain. We meet Emily Zuzik, a 32-year-old musician and model who lives in the East Village of Manhattan, and Linda Barth, a 56-year-old magazine editor in Houston. We hear about how happy Sheila Jamison, who also lives in the East Village and works for a media company, is and about how Shelley Fidler, a public policy adviser at a law firm, has "sworn off marriage."

As far as we can tell, not only was there no socio-economic diversity among those interviewed for the piece, there was also no racial diversity. These other women, ignored entirely by the Times, might have told a story quite different than Shelley Fidler, who said, "The benefits [of singledom] were completely unforeseen for me. The free time, the amount of time I get to spend with friends, the time I have alone, which I value tremendously, the flexibility in terms of work, travel and cultural events." . . .

What's going on here? Maybe the Times . . . is just pandering to its imagined audience, among whom middle-class white woman living in the East Village of Manhattan must make up a large share. . . . If in the part of America where reporters live, being free from marriage is an unequivocally positive thing, this shouldn't mean--as this article leads us to believe--that this is the case for every woman in the country. For some, what the Times is describing as freedom feels, one can imagine, like a curse.

It also occurs to us, though, that the confirmed spinsters and gay divorcées the Times celebrates are far from the norm among middle-class white women. Only a bare majority of all women are single, according to the Times, and several factors skew this number:

The Times relied on statistics that defined "women" as anyone 15 and older, but few 15- to 17-year-olds are married.

As Beckerman notes, 70% of black women are single, which means that the rate of singledom among nonblacks (the great majority of whom are white) is correspondingly lower.

The Times itself acknowledges that many older single women are single not by choice but because they have outlived their husbands (the reverse is far less common).

If the Times intends this story to appeal to middle-class white women, then, its audience is mostly married. Why would a married woman want to read a celebration of the unattached life? Because marriage, for all it has to offer, also demands a lot of compromise and toleration. The Times article offers a fantasy to married women who, even if generally happy, find some aspects of the conjugal life frustrating. It is a work of escapism, closer to a romance novel than to serious social-science journalism.

I'll bet this kind of journalism is a big hit in the newsroom.

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