An Interview with Feminist Media Maven Jennifer Pozner

Jennifer Pozner’s list of titles is intimidating, to say the least. She is currently the founder and executive director of Women in Media and News, a widely published journalist for both corporate and independent media outlets, a regular on the college lecture circuit, a frequent media commentator, and an author. As if all these weren’t impressive enough, she previously directed the Women’s Desk for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a media watchdog group, and wrote the Media Watch column for the now departed feminist newspaper, Sojourner: The Women’s Forum. Published this November, her first book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, deconstructs the stereotypes inherent in reality television and explores the ways in which it has shaped culture in the last decade.

Jennifer Pozner

Fortunately, Ms. Pozner was able to take time from her busy schedule in order to speak to Paradigm Shift.

1. Why did you start Women in the Media and News?

It was late 2001. We had never yet had a woman anchoring the news full time and we didn’t have the blogging landscape we have now. There were also a very limited number of people doing media analysis policy from a feminist perspective.  I started because I really did feel alone in this. When I founded Women in Media and News I thought it was really important for women to be seen as a key constituency. I hadn’t really seen it at the time, even in leading media reform and media justice committees.

We work with activist and with journalist. Because the goals of activist who want to improve media should be in line with the goals of good journalists. One would hope that good journalist want to see better more accurate more diverse more reflective journalism and more challenging more critical entertainment. Women’s voices are crucial in every area. We help journalist correct the invisibility of women’s voices and the marginalization of women in news in general.

2. What advice would you give to someone like me, a woman still in her first year of college, who wants to work in some type of media outlet in the future?

I would say diversify your skill set. If you want to be a reporter, focus on solid reporting skills first. Make sure you understand how to do journalism ethically and comprehensively. Then learn as many different ways to do that journalism as possible. The more strategies and tools that you have and the more formats that you’re proficient in the better your chances are of being seen as an invaluable asset to any media outlet. Be really clear in what you’re in it for because that will help any young journalist breaking in to feel like they want to stick with it.

3. How did you transition from a desire just to report the news to something more? How did you make a name for yourself?

I originally planned when I was in school, in my first year of college, I thought I would do commentary journalism.. Then in the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college this awful, awful writer Katie Roiphe came out with a book called The Morning After: Fear, Sex and Feminism and it was excerpted as the cover of the Sunday New York Times Magazine one week that summer. The book was incredible inaccurate, just factually, devastatingly inaccurate. As a young journalism student I thought “Oh ok, this is a terribly inaccurate story. I’m reading the New York Times with a red pen in my hand and correcting it. That’s not right. I’m just a student, I shouldn’t know more than The New York Times. Of course other news outlets are going to debunk this.”

In fact, it turned out that the story became perceived as truth because it had been in the New York Times. It ended up starting a trend story. Every other newspaper seemed to run it. And I thought, “Oh crap, I can’t do traditional commentary within these newspapers and these magazines if this is the level of inaccuracy in these outlets. I have to be a media monitor instead of just a traditional columnist.” And then I found Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, which was, at the time, the only progressive media watch group in the country. Of the hundreds of pieces I found at the time, the only outlet I found that debunked the inaccuracy, the factual flaws and problems of those pieces, and took on the wider media landscape for promulgating those myths was FAIR’s magazine Extra! And I thought, “Ok, this is what I need to do with my life.”

When I graduated from college I wrote the first media watch column ever for Sojourner: The Women’s Forum, which was at the time the oldest and longest running feminist newspaper in the country, and I wrote a media watch column for FAIR for several years. Eventually when Laura Flanders left as the Women’s Desk director at FAIR, I applied for the job and got it and ran the women’s desk for several years, which was amazing. So, I started at FAIR, got my dream job at 24 and then when I left FAIR in the end of 2001 I founded Women in Media and News.

4. I am sure many young women, myself included, could see you as a role model in the industry. Who were your role models when you first started?

It’s funny, when I started working at FAIR I was 24. When I started my media watch column for Sojourner, I was 21. I had these dream positions really early and people were asking me for advice and mentoring, even who were significantly older than me. I always felt like it was really important to share the information and mentor both younger and older women. I had wonderful experiences with people whose work I looked up to and whose work was formative for me. I feel like that’s been so important to me and so whenever anyone tells me I’m a role model it’s really gratifying.

People like Laura Flanders, who ran the Women’s Desk at FAIR and is now the host of the brilliant and incredibly important media outlet GritTV with Laura Flanders. She was the one of the foremost media critics, maybe the main, feminist critic in the country. Her work was incredibly formative to me as I was first finding that there was a field of media criticism to even look at. To think that I could do her work helps me conceptualize how to do this work ethically.

Jean Kilbourne, the feminist advertising critic, the mother of feminist advertising criticism. She’s become a good friend, and so has Laura Flanders. They’ve both been not only formative in terms of their brilliance and their influence, their writing and their film work and their media work, but they’ve been as generous with their ideas and their time as they are brilliant in their writing and media analysis.

Susan Faludi, who wrote Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, which was probably the single most important book I read when I was in college. It came out the same year I was trying to figure out how I would do the criticism. Kind of gave me a framework within which to explore and articulate many of the ideas that I was already thinking of, but couldn’t quite put my finger on yet because I was 18 and trying to figure it out. I didn’t quite see the pattern, and Backlash helped me see that pattern and has informed all my work.

Let’s say those three are good examples, but there’s been a lot of others. Sometimes role models can be your own peers. Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler who cofounded Bitch Magazine, are in my age cohort but I’ve learned a ton from them and we’re friends now. Veronica Arreola who is a founding board member of Women in Media and News. She and I first met online in an early Internet chat list, women leaders online. We were the only women in our early 20s. We bonded like crazy in that early time and we stayed in touch and she’s one of my best friends and she’s one of my closest political and media allies. And I’ve learned a ton from her and I think she’s learned a lot from me too.

I would encourage young women who are looking for role models to try to find mentors, and if mentors don’t materialize go out and ask the people whose work you admire. I never had a mentor per say. And I wish I had. I’ve felt like everything I’ve done I’ve had to do on my own. If I had to do it over again I would have asked specifically for mentorship from women who were experienced in the industry. So I would definitely say young women should not be afraid to ask for what they need, but I would also say don’t assume that mentorships and role models have to come from people that are older than you. You can learn from many different people and many different styles.

5. What motivated you to write Reality Bites Back?

I was seeing this reality TV landscape unfold in ways that were very, very familiar to me as backlash against women’s rights and social progress. And I kept waiting to see other people take the subject on with the level of depth and clarity and political analysis that I thought was necessary. And unfortunately I did not see that happening. I did not want to write this book! I keep saying that! I knew if I wrote this book I would have to watch hundreds of thousands of hours of reality television and I did not relish that thought. But I just wasn’t seeing that kind of conversation happening.

There was no mainstream book taking on the subject of what reality TV has been telling us about who Americans are, in particular who women are, who people of color are at the turn of the century. This is a genre that pretends to about real people in their real lives and pretends to be a reflection of where we are as a culture, and it is anything but that. It is highly crafted, highly manipulated, incredibly regressive. It isn’t reflecting where we are. It is trying to shape where we are in the most regressive way possible, the most manipulative way possible.

6. Did your opinion on reality TV change during the writing of this book?

My opinion didn’t change about the genre, although it got deeper the more research I did. The other motivation I had for the book wasn’t just about the backlash, but about the fact I had been doing multimedia lectures for students, for colleges and youth groups, for four or five years, from the beginning of the genre. The genre started in 2000 with Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire and then Survivor. I was doing these multimedia lectures and the first couple years the students were really critical of what they were seeing in reality TV. They were really questioning the basic assumptions that reality TV producers wanted them to buy into.

Then over the years the more these shows became sort of ingrained in the television landscape and ingrained in our culture, the less critical young people were becoming. Where students who used to be critical were now saying instead of asking me why anybody would object themselves to humiliation on a show like The Bachelor or laughing at the product placement on America’s Next Top Model and talking about how inappropriate the judges comments were to the girls on the show. Now they were saying things like, “How much weight do you think I need to lose because I want to audition for Top Model?”

So I really started to realize that we needed a real awakening in the culture as to how we were being manipulated by these programs and for what purpose. Which industries were benefiting from and costing from this kind of political regression and benefiting from and costing from women’s humiliation. So I started focusing on those issues but when I was writing the book I wanted to be really clear that it wasn’t just about sort of a small set of traditionally understood women’s issues around body and around romance. I wanted to make very clear that the reality TV landscape has representational problems around not only gender, but also race and class and sex and consumerism. My perspective didn’t change. I didn’t start to think the shows were any better than I originally did, it’s just that it got deeper.

7. Do you think it’s possible to still enjoy reality TV while acknowledging the inherent stereotypes and biases?

I think that’s a case by case. My job as a media critic is not to tell people not to watch television or not to enjoy what they enjoy. My job as a media critic is to give people the tools they need to watch and engage with media with a critical eye, with their critical faculties engaged. That’s why in Reality Bites Back as well as on the book’s website there are extensive resources from the “Fun with Media Literacy” chapter. There are games, there are strategy guides, there are tip sheets all aimed at helping people watch television in a way that will allow them to deconstruct the biases, the product placement, the advertising shilling, the gender and race tropes in their favorite programs in order to arm themselves against propaganda and manipulation. Once that happens, if you can watch with a critical eye and still enjoy the program then all the more power to you.

For example some of the resources in the “Fun with Media Literacy” chapter include reality TV drinking games. And the fun comes in through the game. You can still enjoy watching the shows but instead of enjoying the humiliation that you’re seeing or enjoying the mockery, the oppressive ideas that are being sent out you’re enjoying the process of deconstructing those ideas.

8. You’ve acted as a media commentator quite a few times. What was your favorite experience in that role?

This wouldn’t be my favorite, but it was both a worst of and a best of. My first national TV debate was when, I was I think 22 or 23, with Bill O’Reilly, nobody even knew him yet. I had never seen his show. It was during the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal. I had written for Sojourner a media column about how news outlets across the country were claiming feminist were somehow hypocritical because feminist had advocated that Clarence Thomas be held accountable for his sexual harassment of Anita Hill where we were not saying that Bill Clinton should be impeached because of this affair with Monica Lewinsky. Nobody said, not even Monica, that she was harassed. They were in a consensual sexual relationship. Sexual harassment is about a lack of consent.

Anyways, so I go on the show and he just kept badgering me and trying to get me to say that Bill Clinton was a sexual harasser and I wouldn’t do it. And he was doing his classic O’Reilly thing where he’d ask you a question and two seconds into to starting your answer he’d scream at you and cut you off. I made this decision. I thought “you know, what’s the worst thing in the world for live television. Dead air. Ok, I’m going to use that to my advantage.” I got really tired and frustrated, so at one point I just said, “Bill. Bill, do you think I can finish my answer. You asked me a question I’d like to answer, but if don’t want to let me finish that’s ok, I’ll just sit here.” And then I smiled and said nothing. He kind of sputtered and didn’t know what to do and he’s like, “Uh, ok Ms. Pozner, what did you have to say.” I got Bill O’Reilly to shut up! For like about 30 or 40 seconds, which he rarely does.

I think also, surprisingly enough, there was one news segment I did on a Fox show that was actually the best experience I’ve ever had on cable or broadcast news, aside from independent news. I was on Geraldo Rivera’s show talking about reality TV a few years ago. Turns out, Geraldo Rivera is a father of daughters. His daughter’s were watching The Bachelor one night he walked in on them and watched with them for a bit and was horrified by the messages they were getting. It was just me and Geraldo. He said “ So it seems to be these shows are setting women’s movement’s back thirty years. What do you think?” I said, “I think you’re actually exactly right. This is the work I’ve been doing on the subject.” And he just asked me more questions to elaborate on those points and I did. He said that was important and hoped his girls would be able to think more critically about it and thought his daughters deserved better. Then the segment was over. I went home thinking this must be what it’s like to be a conservative commentator all the time! You go to the outlet, they treat you with respect, they let you speak, and then you go home. It never happened before and it’s never happened again.

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