Network Military News Distorts Women's Role

The recent coverage of a woman general's sexual harassment complaint typify the problem: Women in the military make news in sex scandals, but are often ignored as leaders, experts and commentators.


The recent news coverage of Lieutenant General Claudia J. Kennedy, the first female three-star general in the Army, is typical of what type of media coverage women in the military receive, according to a recent study.

Kennedy was most recently in the news on March 30 after she made public an allegation of sexual harassment against one of her peers. Within days, her reputation was on the line as well and just as quickly restored-all on the nation's front pages.

A recent computerized search indicated that Kennedy's charges and the counter-charges were repeated in nearly 300 major news stories around the world.

In contrast, during the two years before the allegation, Kennedy's name was mentioned 323 times by major news outlets, usually in the context of a possible political career and often as part of a list of other notablewomen.

It is this imbalance in news coverage-lots of stories about sexual harassment, fraternization and adultery-that gives the public a distortedperception of exactly how many women are in the military, what kind of jobs they do and what the critical issues are, says a recent report issued by Women, Men & Media.

“Military Women in the TV News Spotlight,” examined a decade of majornetwork coverage of military news and it found that women were prominentin those stories that discussed sexual issues but not otherwise.

The study, conducted by Andrew Tyndall and Aleksandra Scepanovi, stated thatduring the past 10 years women were 14 percent of all enlisted troops butaccount for twice that many sound bites in network news broadcasts.

Of the top five military news stories of the decade, three were the Tailhookgroup rape, the Aberdeen rape scandal and the debate over the combat rolefor women.

“Civilians have grown more accustomed to gender integration of the workforce, have become tolerant of diverse sexual orientations, have little truck with sexual harassment, believe that adultery is a private affair, andexpect institutions of higher education to be coeducational,” Tyndall'sstudy said. “To the extent that the military takes a contrary view of thesematters-or scandals make it seem that some in the military do-thatdifference is newsworthy and it is the job of Pentagon correspondents toexplain it to their civilian audience.”

Tyndall said it is this gap between civilian and military values, not thegender gap, that drives press coverage and popular opinion of the military.

Tyndall added, “Military women have the potential to make headlines as longas the military's sexual mores and attitudes towards gender are differentfrom those of society at large.”

Tyndall's study also indicated that in the coverage of the Gulf War, theexperts and politicians quoted about the war were almost never women. Thewomen who were quoted were almost inevitably ordinary citizens without poweror expertise.

“The Battle Front was for men and the Home Front was for women,” he said.

Former Congresswomen Patricia Schroeder, once the head of the House Armed Services Committee, agreed with the Tyndall findings.

“I find the worst part of the survey is that networks almost never use women experts in the military as commentators or talking heads. So women can fight but they can't talk?” she asked rhetorically.

Journalist and author Stephanie Gutmann also discussed press coverage of women in the military in her new book “The Kinder, Gentler Military: CanAmerica's Gender-Neutral Fighting Force Still Win Wars?”

But she takes a very different view. She is not worried about the image of women being distorted, but is concerned that the military has gotten bad press in general, in part because of all the stories involving women.

“The military has gotten very bad press,” she said. “The image of the pillaging male just keeps getting brought up.” She claims that coverage ofsex harassment at Tailhook and the rape at Aberdeen Proving Grounds wereunwarranted witch hunts.

She believes that all the news stories reflect social pressure on the military to become more women friendly. Her book, which is dedicated to her father and his army stories, claims “policies driven by political correctness are weakening our armed forces and threatening our nationalsecurity.”

“I don't think having women on ships pregnant into their fifth month is a good policy,” said Gutmann. “And gender-mixed boot camps lead to increased fraternization.” She also claims that the physical fitness standards werelowered to permit more women to enter.

For Gutmann, it boils down to biology. “I really believe there is a basic sex difference with regard to aggression,” she said. “Young men at 18 are a little more interested in blowing things up and killing. And you want people like that.”

Gutmann admits however, “There are some contradictions,” between the studyand her book. On the one hand, she claims the military is engaged in a social experiment to achieve gender neutrality. On the other hand, sheacknowledges that the military might need personnel.

Tyndall replies that political correctness has nothing to do with the military's recruitment and treatment of women.

“Unless it returns to the draft,” said Tyndall, “the military needs womenlining up. My argument to Gutmann would be the problem of the lack of aprepared military is a non-issue.”