Women Journalists in the 21st Century: Peggy Simpson
Peggy Simpson,72, reported 17 years for the Associated Press starting in 1962 in Dallas. She was transferred to Washington, DC to cover a Southwestern regional beat for the AP in Congress in 1968. She covered the assassination murder in Dallas of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, including being an eyewitness in the Dallas jail to the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald. In 1975, Simpson covered the United Nations Conference on Women, which was held in Mexico City. By the time she arrived, she found that local AP reporters had been asking heads of delegations as they arrived if they were “bra-burning feminists”, and also asked them what they thought about bra-burning feminists. When the AP was sued for gender discrimination, she joined the lawsuit. Her bureau chief called her a “stupid bitch” and another AP editor said that if she ever returned to the AP, she would cover weather forever. At the time she joined the AP lawsuit, she was on a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard. After that year, she left the AP. In 1979, she covered national politics for the Boston Herald and then covered national economic issues for the Hearst Newspapers for five years. She then opened a Washington bureau for Ms. Magazine to cover the women’s political rights movement. When Eastern Europe was transitioning into democracy in the 1990s, Simpson covered the transformation as a freelancer. Simpson taught at Indiana University as the Riley Chair Journalist-in-Residence, George Washington University and at the American Studies Center at Warsaw University. Simpson holds a master’s degree from Indiana University’s Russian & East European Institute and a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Texas. Simpson currently freelances in Washington and writes for a New York-based web site: http://womensmediacenter.com. She also is president of the Dupont Circle Village which recently launched its own Facebook page on its 2012 calendar which is smashing stereotypes about “old folks:” http://www.facebook.com/DupontCircleVillage?sk=wall
Simpson was interviewed by Emily Woodbury, who will graduate from the University of Iowa in 2012 with journalism and political science degrees.
Emily Woodbury: Why did you become involved in journalism?
Peggy Simpson: I liked to write but the real motivation to become a journalist was listening to NBC’s Pauline Frederick on NBC Nightly News, from the United Nations. The quarter-hour NBC radio show came on before or after my mom’s favorite radio soap opera — and I listened to news from the 7th grade on. I learned a lot and thought it would be so interesting to cover all those many different types of stories. So even though I never met a reporter before I became one, I had been inspired by one — on the radio.
EW: How do you define journalism today?
PS: I think it’s a profession in turmoil. I still define reporting as pursuing a story with as much information you can muster ahead of time but still approaching the issue with an open mind. And being arms-length from the bigwigs in whatever field you’re reporting on so that you can be an honest broker, a genuine conveyer of facts not always known by the general public. And knowing enough to be able to put things in context. I still think of journalism as a field that serves the public. But I think it has splintered into so many parts that I’m not sure most people would agree with any one definition.
EW: How has technology influenced or affected your career?
PS: When I began reporting, I hardly even used a tape recorder. Then I learned to do radio “actualities” for the AP when they started their radio service. And of course, when I began reporting I often dictated stories, on deadline, to a live person on the other end. Computers changed all of that.
EW: How will technology affect the future of journalism?
PS: It’s already affected it. About 30 years ago, a colleague of mine on the Nieman fellowship who had worked for ABC network news as a field producer predicted that the emergence of CNN and of leaner cable news teams would do in network news as she knew it. She wasn’t far from wrong. Thousands of people were downsized from network news to regional news to local news show as they adapted to the leaner CNN news teams. In print, two of the three economic pillars of the news media have ceased to exist: classified ads used to make up 30-35% of the revenue of newspapers but Craig’s List has taken that away. Circulation was another major source of revenue but the bulk of people 30 and under don’t read print publications — they read on line only. And they read dozens of sites, not one or two papers, cover to cover.
EW: What one word would you use to describe the status of women in journalism today?
EW: What role(s) will women have in future journalism?
PS: I think journalism is like a lot of other fields that had been closed to women (basically): the men in the key top jobs still hold onto them and pass them onto their younger male friends whom they’ve mentored. Who you know still is extraordinarily important, more than how good you are. And I think one hard lesson for those in the breakthrough-generation or the lawsuit generation is that no one cedes power; you have to take it. And a lot of women have been doing that and proving to be terrific at top jobs, in news as in other jobs. It’s not an automatic open door, however.
EW: How do you define objectivity? How do you determine when fairness and balance are getting in the way of what is real or true?
PS: I think objectivity is in the eye of the beholder….to an extent. If you’re ignorant of the context or even the facts you can be as “fair and balanced” as possible and still produce an inadequate story. When I was with the AP and when I was covering the women’s political movement in its infancy, I really chafed at having to stick in quotes from, say, Phyllis scholarly to “balance” what the feminists were saying. But at the same time, then and now I want to talk to people on all sides of an issue, whether it is a political or an economic story, or one involving women’s rights. You have an obligation to flesh out what the opposition figures are saying and to be savvy enough about their issues to ask smart questions that will let the general public know what they’re really about. Example: it’s been hard for most reporters to take seriously that the current crop of anti-abortion activists also fundamentally opposes most contemporary forms of birth control. That’s lazy reporting not to know that and to reflect that in stories.
EW: What do you think women can do to foster progress for women in the media, and still be taken seriously? How can women reach out to those that think gender equality is already achieved and that feminist are too picky about the little things?
PS: I think groups like JAWS and informal networking meetings are usual in bringing together generations of women. And I think a JAWS listserv also works to highlight egregious practices or comments and, in many cases, to get the spotlight on them and something to get them changed. It’s not so much the abstract concept of gender equality but of continuing to be vigilant about the scurrilous comments or actions by prominent (and not so prominent) people in power that show what they REALLY think about equality. As in, women are still mostly moms or are harpies or are too sexy, etc.
EW: Do you think “feminist” has taken on a sort of negative connotation? If so, what can feminists or women for change do to change that perception?
PS: I think “feminist” is a word that still has salience, partly because so many women of all ages claim it. I think we’ve turned a corner on the negative connotation, at least more than 15-20 years ago. There still are some who say “I’m not a feminist BUT….” and then go on to decry some of those egregious comments that a politician has made. It wasn’t just feminists who were outraged at John Edwards’ behavior or saw the hypocrisy of a Herman Cain — or understood the unfairness of paying women less than men for the same job, as in the Lily Ledbetter case. These weren’t self-proclaimed feminists who stood up to demand their rights — but it was the feminists who came forward to fight for them. And now I think there’s a lot more recognition that they’re on the same wavelength, pushing for the same equal opportunity for all.
EW: In your experience covering democratic transformations, what role did you find women played in democracy?
PS: In Poland, the major democratic media organization was run by a woman and women played pivotal roles as underground couriers between the key democracy and “Solidarity” players. There were fewer of them in the first wave of elected politicians. But when a woman became prime minister in Poland, this stifled what was a beginning of an insidious “tell the women to go home” movement by some of the chauvinist men in Solidarity. She was competent — as had been Maggie Thatcher. Women had had very good educations and held high ranking jobs in factories and bureaucracies under communism (NEVER the top jobs) so when the systems changed, a lot of women had the competence and the will to take charge of some ministries and of some businesses and factories with not too much learning curve (and with no affirmative action; they were there and equipped for the job and, once the chauvinists were out of the way, they played a big role.
EW: How has news coverage of female politicians changed since you first started reporting? What could still be improved?
PS: t’s been a sea change that that’s partly reflecting the sea change of women in society, top to bottom. Women were oddities in politics when there were so few and they were targets for ridicule, if the men could get by with it. Bella Abzug was an extraordinarily smart and active lawmaker when she was in congress; she worked with republicans, not just democrats; she got things done, far more than just jawboning. I was thinking about her this week because of the huge positive publicity about barney frank leaving congress, another very smart and very controversial politician. Bella was treated as a subject of ridicule by a lot of her House colleagues who might have been intimidated by her, might have not known how to deal with an outspoken, very smart woman. Barney never was ridiculed. He also was there for more than twice the time she served and rose to very significant power positions. Pelosi still gets a lot more ridicule from republicans, on a very personal level, than I think most republican leaders would get. Speaker Boehner gets cautious news treatment about his weird behavior; no one thinks he’s a kook but Pelosi gets pilloried for being a San Francisco shrew. But — they didn’t knock her off, in terms of the leadership spot, and all the republican spots personalizing the democratic party as one ruled by Pelosi didn’t really get traction; it was the economy, not Pelosi, that did in the Dems’, and I think she gets a lot of respect from her own folks — and therefore from the politically savvy news reporters. So that’s really a significant sign of the change we’ve gone thru. As to what could be improved: more women in more top jobs, more analysis of the differences that women bring to the table vs. male leaders and what results from that.
EW: What did you take away from your work on the shootings of John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald?
PS: The importance of being there. A British reporter had tried to persuade me to join him in getting a taxi outside the Dallas city hall so they could easily track the cop car carrying Oswald to the county jail. I decided to stay put in the basement of the jail, which is where Oswald was shot. On the JFK shooting…I stayed next to cops and listened to what they were getting in, what they were telling each other, which is how the AP got the first reports of a cop being shot (by Oswald) and the erroneous report that LBJ had had a heard attack. But I’m not sure I have any sweeping conclusions. I was 28 at the time and I was by far the youngest AP reporter based in Dallas or in the pool of reporters who gathered there. And I was still standing at the end of the day, ready for more, and showing that I could take in the horror of the time and not dwell on it but keep on reporting and reporting. And leave the personal reflections until way later. I think you just go on automatic pilot — when Oswald was shot, I didn’t think, I just went for the phone on the desks I could see behind the crowd of cops, in the basement intake office. When I learned that JFK had been shot, I found out the location and went right back out the door to the scene of the shooting and just stayed put next to the cops where I maybe could learn stuff.
EW: Where would you suggest young women journalists find mentors? Do you think it is important for young women journalists to find female mentors?
PS: I think mentors are great. Wish I’d had some. I don’t think they have to be female but that’s often helpful. I think it helps to have folks give you feedback on your work, to steer you away from trouble, to chew you out when you need that. When I was on the AP night desk in Dallas, with no break-in training or hand-holding or anything grand like that, a guy who had the day shift before me would occasionally stay another 4-5 minutes after his shift was up to set me straight about stuff. Such as: “if you keep pushing news stories onto the AP state wire after 8p at night, you’re going to get yourself fired; don’t you know editors don’t give a damn about anything but sports at that time of night?” well, no, I didn’t know that and no one in charge had told me they were getting complaints about my work — let alone tell me the unwritten rules about news vs. sports. And I’d worked first as editor of a weekly paper so didn’t really know the innards of a daily paper so I didn’t know, on my own. This guy was a real curmudgeon and a right wing nut, to boot. But he went out of his wave to educate me and to save me. And I was eternally grateful. Even more in retrospect when I realize the informal hazing that went on against some other pioneering women by the men who dominated the bureau — and most of those women left or were fired, none the wiser about what had handicapped them.
This is part of a series of profiles of JAWS members by University of Iowa students. For a complete listing, see this page.