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Demeaning Women in the Newspaper of Record: A Letter to Bill Keller

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Anyone who follows The New York Times' coverage of women's issues knows that its record is wretched, from the Book Review's demeaning assessments of important books by women writers to the front-page stories and magazine covers that have presented a grossly incomplete and misleading picture of crucial subjects involving women and work.

On April 3 I published THE FEMININE MISTAKE, a highly detailed assessment of the value of work in women's lives and the consequences of economic dependency. I expected many stay-at-home mothers to be upset by my findings, which suggest that full-time motherhood is a risky choice that deprives women of important rewards in addition to income.

What I did not expect was that The Times, where I myself worked as a reporter for ten years, would go out of its way to disparage my book, a work of original reporting that represents a new take on these issues.

But in today's culture story about so-called "mommy books," which was pegged to the controversy surrounding THE FEMININE MISTAKE, Motoko Rich offers up a reported piece that dismissed the book's content and deliberately omitted crucial facts. Applying the same sleazy journalistic standards that have become so commonplace in the paper's other reporting on subjects involving women, Rich claims that these books don't sell. That's her preferred narrative and she's sticking to it, despite the fact that my book doesn't fit her thesis.

Just for the record, The New York Times' own extended bestseller list puts THE FEMININE MISTAKE at number 26 for this week.

But astonishingly, Rich failed to mention that highly relevant fact. Instead, she manipulated the evidence to suit her forgone conclusion that "mommy books" generate buzz but not sales.

Since THE FEMININE MISTAKE was just published three weeks ago, her only evidence consisted of partial sales figures for the first two weeks of the book's life. In fact, these numbers suggest that in a matter of days THE FEMININE MISTAKE had already outsold Linda Hirshman's GET TO WORK and was more than halfway toward the total sales of Caitlin Flanagan's TO HELL WITH ALL THAT, even though both those books were published last year and have been in stores for many months.

My book has also sold nearly half as many hardcovers as Sylvia Ann Hewlett's highly publicized CREATING A LIFE, which was published in 2002. But instead of noting that my sales figures are unusually encouraging for a serious work on this topic, Rich lumped all these books together and wrote them off as having been a disappointment.

And yet my book, according to The Times' own accounting, is a national bestseller. So why did Rich leave this indisputably salient fact out of her story? Because it would have undermined her thesis that nobody cares to read books about women, and that THE FEMININE MISTAKE is therefore doomed to oblivion?

That's worse than dishonest; it's downright malevolent.

When my publisher protested this deliberate omission to The Times, Rich's editor, Amy Virshup, replied that the reporter "didn't mention this fact because she knew that as of the April 29 list it had dropped off the list."

Oh, really? Thanks for the lesson in Journalism 101, Amy. I've been a reporter for 36 years, and that's a new one on me. Is this like saying that if Jon Corzine has a near-fatal car accident today, you don't have to mention it, because he'll be in a hospital bed and he won't have one next week?

All of this might not be so offensive if The Times had already given THE FEMININE MISTAKE a substantive assessment. But somehow The Times -- unlike most other major publications -- hasn't yet managed to review this much-debated book in either the daily paper or the Sunday Book Review.

Meanwhile THE FEMININE MISTAKE has earned stellar reviews from The Washington Post (which gave it the front cover of the book section, calling it an "important" book that offered "a ferocious analysis of the economic realities that mothers face"); The Philadelphia Inquirer ("an important new book...as wise an argument as has been proffered in some time"); The Miami Herald ("fresh and smart,"); and USA Today ("a well-crafted cautionary tale for women of all ages...passionate and unflagging...packed with pragmatic, well-researched advice"), among many other newspapers. Then there was the four-star critic's choice rave review in People and high praise from numerous other magazines, including a starred review in Publishers Weekly that lauded its "impressive research."

If the newspaper of record is lagging behind all these monthly and weekly publications as well as its fellow daily newspapers, what's wrong with this picture?

Of course, none of these favorable assessments were mentioned in Motoko Rich's story. She did, however, see fit to lead her piece with five whole paragraphs about a blogger who has not read the book, but who nonetheless had written a 1200-word posting complaining about it. Now, that's informed commentary for you.

The marginalization of women and women's issues in the pages of the newspaper of record has become so egregious that it doesn't take a paranoid conspiracy theorist to wonder what its editors are thinking.

Mere incompetence can't begin to explain the extent of this bias.