Friday, March 31, 2006

WAM!

The Women, Action & the Media Conference begins today in Boston. I had been invited to speak on a panel called "Start the 'Opt Out' Revolution Without Me: Media Coverage of Work-Life and Family Issues," but for some personal reasons, I won't be making the trip.

It promises to be one heckuva interesting event, though, particularly the "Opt-Out" session. One of the organizers of the event/panelist, Judith Stadtman Tucker from Mothers Movement Online still asked me for some dad-based perspective on how the media covers fathers. She was wondering where the absolute worst writing on dads could be found.

It was a tough question, actually, and what follows is based on my response to Judy. There is very little bad reporting done on fathers. This is the happy side effect of the not-so-happy fact that there is very little reporting done on fathers (though this is changing, and publications from Parents to Details have done some positive, spot-on pieces about fathers this year). To put it in a more gender-neutral way, there is very little reporting done on the family as a unit. This is a source of deep and abiding frustration for me.

Take the "opt-out" stories. Invariably, these stories (including the original Belkin piece) spend thousands of words talking about mom's "choice." Yet to read these stories, you'd think the choice was made in a vacuum where other people don't exist. These women, by and large, have husbands, but their decisions and motivations are never put under a microscope. We don't learn if the husbands of opt-out women are different than the husbands of opt-in women or if this is about economics or marital power or a generation gap in expectations about fathers.

(Perhaps the most interesting bit in the interesting-bit-packed Elle profile of Caitlin Flanagan was the news that Flanagan's husband went corporate largely to enable Flanagan to fulfill her longstanding desire to do the at-home mom thing. What I wouldn't give to get his perspective, then and now. I don't know if he's happy with his decision or not, but he certainly ought to be a part of the story.)

Until the media starts probing the father's motives as well as the mother's (and the way the needs of both spouses interact), no opt-out story will ever tell a full or accurate picture. So the absence of dads in these stories constitutes lousy reporting.

The other headache is death by a thousand slights. No writer is dumb enough to bash father directly via long-form journalism, largely because the news is so good. Fathers are doing more around the house, young fathers claim to be more committed to work/life balance than the generation that came before, etc. etc. So if a writer -- usually a neotraditionalist woman arguing for a return to the Donna Reed family model -- wants to suggest that dads are, at best, bumbling caretakers, they have to do it subtly, as a throwaway aside. The examples abound.

So while the state of dad-focused journalism isn't terrible, the lack of father consideration in broader family stories means that there's plenty of family reporting that tells half (or less) of the story.

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