By my conservative count, a dozen or more female colleagues shaped my media career in ways I can never repay. I’d love to list them here. But such roll calls smack of Oscar acceptance speeches. It does no good if I make you scratch your head because you don’t know the person behind the name.
But I’ll share one brief story. I started my career at the Philadelphia Inquirer, working my way from rookie to the very top of the freelance writer ranks in three years. I did things no other stringer was allowed to do. I covered a New Jersey gubernatorial race. I served as a night rewrite editor for other freelancers at municipal meetings. I aced scoop after scoop following a major teachers’ strike, in part because I knew so many teachers in the district. I went to school there.
Still, the gulf between that and a staff job might as well have spanned “student body president” and “president of the United States.” I was despondent and ready to throw in the towel. Until Arlene Morgan came along. The Inquirer’s czarina of hiring could not take me on — the rules were strict then — but she told me, in no uncertain terms, “I’m not going to allow you to quit.” She snuck me into a journo jobs conference I wasn’t authorized to attend as her “assistant.” And there I met another incredible woman: Sheila Wolfe of the Chicago Tribune. A few months later, Sheila recruited me and I went on to 16 wonderful years that changed my professional and personal life.
We’re in better stead today than ever before in recognizing the contributions of female newspaper/magazine journalists who raised the bar and cleared it by a good distance. For Women’s History Month, I wanted to spotlight five women whose efforts you need to know about. Here’s the thing: You may know their work exceedingly well. But whereas radio and TV reporters become easy to recognize by voice and face, the print world is another story entirely. The best in class often get just a byline.
Graham ranks as one of my all-time heroines. No one expected such journalistic greatness from her when she took over publishing the Washington Post in 1963 after her unfaithful and deeply disturbed husband Philip committed suicide with a shotgun. The first woman to hold such a role, Graham had to blaze her own trail. She recounts her life-and-work story in a riveting 1997 autobiography, “Personal History.” I read it cover to cover in less than a week as a cub reporter and still feel its impact. In it Graham recounts, among other subjects, how she led the Post during its historic coverage of the Watergate scandal, which led to the downfall of President Richard M. Nixon. Graham’s book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998.
As a syndicated political columnist and humorist based out of Texas, Ivins wielded a wit sharper than Bowie knife. A frequent target of her cuts to the quick was President George W. Bush, whom she referred to as “Shrub.” Yet even Bush had to concede after Ivins’ death in 2007 that he “respected her convictions, her passionate belief in the power of words. … Her quick wit and commitment will be missed.” Speaking of knife-wit, Ivins wrote a legendary piece of satire in 1993 about America’s infatuation with guns. It began: “Let me start this discussion by pointing out that I am not anti-gun. I’m pro-knife. Consider the merits of the knife. In the first place, you have to catch up with someone in order to stab him. A general substitution of knives for guns would promote physical fitness.”
Megan Towhey and Jodi Kantor
Around the Chicago Tribune newsroom, we knew Megan Towhey as the talented daughter of John Towhey, a well-loved and respected editor. Megan and I briefly crossed paths at the paper. Now I got laid off in 2009 and settled for writing content marketing pieces about cockroach abatement. But Towhey, I’m delighted to say, went on to professional greatness. In 2017, Towhey and fellow New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor broke the news of detailed film mogul Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual abuse. You can read their remarkable work here. Prior to this, Weinstein was viewed as untouchable and invincible, allowed to indulge his barbarous lusts with impunity. So feared was he that even after the Times story broke, Quentin Tarantino went curiously silent. Oliver Stone defended him. Woody Allen equivocated. All men. Despite their infuriating, collective lack of male backbone, Towhey and Kantor tipped the first domino that led to a) 80 women coming forward with rape and sexual harassment allegations against Weinstein; b) a shared Pulitzer for Towhey and Kantor in 2018; c) Weinstein’s rape conviction and imprisonment; and d) the launching of the #MeToo movement. For any journalist, these are the accomplishments of a career times two — as in two fearless reporters.
Just as Towhey and Kantor toppled a Hollywood tyrant, McClean unearthed the evils that permeated this Houston-based energy company, now known as ground zero for one of the biggest scandals in corporate history. At a time when publications couldn’t stop heaping praise on Enron, McLean got behind the slick façade in her Fortune coverage, which led to the 2003 book and eventual film “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.” Read the book and her groundbreaking Fortune story. Enron’s sliminess led the company to cook its books to the boiling point and create artificial power blackouts that brought the state of California to its knees, even as Enron sold back badly needed power at hyper-inflated prices. Fraud, fraud and more fraud, with CEO Jeffrey Skilling attacking McClean’s coverage as “unethical.” Skilling would later wind up in prison for his crimes, while founder Kenneth Lay reportedly died in 2006. The location of Lay’s passing, Snowmass, Colo., was so small (pop. 2,800) and remote that some believe Lay faked his death to escape prosecution and imprisonment.