Women's Magazines: A Liberal Pipeline to Soccer Moms
Part 1: Calling for a Village
"Soccer Moms." This term struck as much fear into the hearts of conservatives during the 1996 election campaign as "Angry White Men" did in liberals in 1994. Conventional wisdom has it that the limited-government policies of the GOP just did not resonate with these suburban housewives, creating a gender gap that cost Bob Dole dearly at the polls.
Why the apparent skepticism among women towards smaller government, especially since in some polls they strongly favor reducing taxes and cutting wasteful spending? Perhaps at least part of the reason can be found in a joint Consumer Alert/Media Research Center study of the publications that Soccer Moms read. Each month, as they perused the pages of their favorite magazines, women were not merely learning new recipes, the latest diet ideas, and how to have better relationships with their husbands or boyfriends; they were also often being told that government was the solution to most of society's problems, and they were being urged to lobby for its expansion.
For the study, Consumer Alert and the Media Research Center analyzed the October 1995 through September 1996 issues of thirteen family and women's publications -- Better Homes & Gardens, Family Circle, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Ladies' Home Journal, Mademoiselle, McCall's, Parents, Prevention, Redbook, Weight Watchers, Woman's Day, and Working Woman.
Overall, there were 115 positive portrayals of government intervention in the market and/or calls for such intervention during the study period. There were only 18 negative portrayals of government intervention and/or calls for cutbacks in government spending or regulation. There were five balanced portrayals of policy issues.
Working Woman and Glamour were the most biased in favor of expanding government. Each had 24 positive portrayals of government activism compared to four negative portrayals. Good Housekeeping was next with 15 stories promoting bigger government and only three stories promoting smaller government.
Ladies' Home Journal was the most politically balanced magazine in the study. Although the monthly ran ten stories promoting bigger government, it also ran six promoting limited government and ran four balanced stories. Two of the magazines, Better Homes & Gardens and Prevention, almost completely avoided public policy issues during the study period.
Health Care. Health-related issues brought forth the most calls for government intervention. There were 28 such stories. Seven focused on "drive-through deliveries," in which insurance companies didn't pay for women to stay in the hospital for longer than one day after giving birth. Good Housekeeping warned that "tiny lives are at risk" and advised readers on "how you can help stop this shocking practice." The magazine provided a form readers could send to Congress to demand regulations extending hospital stays.
Seventeen stories demanded increased federal funding for medical research into everything from AIDS to obesity to breast cancer, with no mention of how this new spending would be paid for. It didn't seem to matter because, according to Woman's Day, women had a "right" to quality health care. Liberal journalist Margaret Carlson, writing for Glamour, argued that families did too. Republican Medicare reform efforts, she wrote, would hurt the party with women: "If Granny gets booted out of the nursing home for lack of Medicare funds, it will be the woman of the house who picks her up."
Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs), and managed care in general, took a beating in family publications. There were nine stories about the horrors people had faced at the hands of heartless health care bureaucracies. None of these stories discussed the health care reform option many market-oriented reformers promote -- Medical Savings Accounts (MSAs). MSA advocates argue that such accounts would put health care dollars in the hands of consumers, giving them an incentive to find bargains and employ preventive medicine. A search of the EBSCO Publishing database found that there were no mentions of MSAs in these magazines during the study period; other magazines mentioned MSAs in 121 articles.
Instead of discussing the problems of systems relying on third-party payers, women's and family magazines often proposed expanding such systems. In the September Glamour freelance writer Tessa DeCarlo urged readers not to "give up on universal coverage...No reform of managed care can be completely successful as long as more than 40 million Americans don't have any health coverage at all." She also wrote that laws should be changed to encourage more medical lawsuits.
Urging Readers to Lobby. Twenty- three stories went beyond merely promoting bigger government as the solution to problems; they also asked readers to contact Congressmen or other government officials to lobby on behalf of bigger government. Good Housekeeping provided form letters ("Join the Good Housekeeping Lobby") that merely needed a signature. After a June, 1996 story about Christopher Reeve and his life since his equestrian accident, for instance, Good Housekeeping provided a letter to Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations. The letter told Sen. Specter: "Please add my name to the list of supporters of increased funding for spinal cord injury (SCI) research during fiscal year 1997."
Other publications, while not going to such elaborate lengths, nonetheless prodded readers into lobbying for bigger government. Three stories highlighted the "These Children Have Faces" campaign. Under the headline "Has Congress Put Children in Danger?" the May Glamour told readers that the group's founders "devised a plan to let politicians know that children's allies are watching: They're collecting photos of young people, with notes about their parents' fears and hopes, and will deliver the pictures to Congress next month." Glamour advised its readers on how to participate.
In a November 1, 1995 Woman's Day story about osteoporosis, Woman's Day told readers to "urge your members of Congress to work for more women's health research funding." Woman's Day's Dr. Loraine Stern, who writes the "Your Child's Health" column, wrote: "If you agree that immunizations should be fully covered for all children in need, tell your insurance company and your representatives in Washington." In March, Weight Watchers alerted readers to a new advocacy group, the American Obesity Association, whose "first priority is to lobby the federal government to spend more money on obesity research." The magazine then told readers how to get in touch with the group to help.
The September Mademoiselle explained the nuts and bolts of writing a letter to Congress, using the example of a group called 20/20 Vision, which claims to have halted an "environmentally disastrous" plutonium-processing plant through a letter-writing campaign. The October, 1995 Mademoiselle urged 20-somethings to vote, strongly implying that they should support a liberal agenda. "The Contract with America, tax breaks for the rich, the end of public TV -- was this what my fellow Gen-Xers wanted? It's impossible to know, because most of us didn't vote," wrote freelance writer Esther Gabara.
Promoting Liberal Activists. Well-known liberal activists and political figures were profiled or prominently mentioned 18 times by these magazines. Marian Wright Edelman was the clear favorite, being promoted in Family Circle, Good Housekeeping, Mademoiselle Parents, and Working Woman. Family Circle seemed particularly enamored with the Children's Defense Fund (CDF) founder, mentioning her on four different occasions. The November 1, 1995 "From the Editor" section featured a prayer drawn from Edelman's latest book; the May 14 issue gave Edelman the magazine's "Lifetime Achievement Award" for such accomplishments as increasing Head Start funding; the June 4 issue promoted Edelman's "Stand for Children" march in Washington. And when the editors of Family Circle picked the 25 best-selling books "that can change your life," a recent Edelman book made the list.
Good Housekeeping also promoted Edelman's "Stand for Children" march on Washington; Parents editor Ann Pleshette Murphy pointed out with pride that Edelman won that magazine's first "As They Grow Award," and Mademoiselle, in a sidebar to a September article about poverty, urged readers to send a check to the CDF and provided the group's address. At no point did any of these publications question Edelman's policy prescriptions. They could have pointed out, for example, that Census Bureau statistics show that child poverty went down every year between 1983 and 1989, when Ronald Reagan's policies, which Edelman opposed, were in effect. But no critic or criticism of Edelman was mentioned.
Some magazines had regular features to highlight liberals. Glamour's "Women in Washington" column, for instance, reported on the work of female representatives and senators -- but usually only the ones who were working to expand the role of government. One month, the column praised a host of female legislators for increasing funding for child care "during last year's bitter welfare debate." Another column expressed relief that "while members of Congress were slashing funding for almost all federally funded programs last fall and winter, Congresswomen from both parties managed to engineer a triumph for breast-cancer programs." In July, 1996, the column praised Sen. Nancy Kassebaum and Rep. Louise Slaughter for expanding regulation in health care.
The magazines also promoted the liberal agenda by quoting "authorities" from liberal activist groups. Weight Watchers for instance, promoted the views of the Ralph Nader-founded Public Citizen Health Research Group in a May story warning about databases of medical records maintained by insurance companies to evaluate risk. No other counter-source was quoted. Woman's Day gave kudos to the World Wildlife Fund for protecting rhinos from poachers in Nepal, yet didn't mention private property approaches to wildlife preservation that, for instance, have increased elephant herds dramatically in Zimbabwe, where hunting is permitted as a property right and villagers have incentives to protect their property.
Liberal activists themselves often wrote stories for these magazines. Edelman wrote an essay for Parents to promote her Stand for Children march. Representative Pat Schroeder explained to Glamour readers why she was leaving Congress, even though she was "proud to be the sponsor of many bills that helped women and children, including the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Women's Health Equity Act, the Violence Against Women Act, and the Women's Economic Equity Act."
Prevention, which usually shied away from outright political stances, nonetheless allowed space in its October, 1995 issue for Hillary Clinton to tout government-run health care. "Taking steps to protect our children's health is one of the soundest investments our nation can make," the first lady opined. "President Clinton has initiated a campaign to improve immunization services, lower costs, reach out to families and ensure that all young children receive the vaccinations they need. In addition, Medicaid has provided millions of young children with important preventive health services."
Two staffers at the magazines even became liberal activists for a time, attending the United Nations' World Conference on Women in Beijing. "What hit me...was the passionate belief shared by women everywhere that we have a right to good health care," wrote Dr. Marie Savard, who penned the "Your Health" section of Woman's Day, Ladies' Home Journal editor-in-chief Myrna Blyth also attended, writing that the evening after Hillary Rodham Clinton's speech, the American delegation "got into a large circle, held hands and sang some sixties-style folk songs."
There were some conservative and/or Republican women profiled by these magazines, but their political views were often challenged instead of celebrated. Liberal journalist Eleanor Clift, for instance, profiled New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman for the November, 1995 Working Woman. While the story was generally upbeat, Clift took a shot at Whitman's tax-cutting policies: "In order to cut income taxes by 30 percent, she has increased long-term borrowing, reduced payments to public pension funds and cut state aid to local governments. The ripple effect of those steps is yet to be fully realized."
Republican women would often be praised...when they worked to expand the role of government. Senator Nancy Kassebaum, for example, was chosen as one of Glamour's "Women of the Year" for working to ban assault weapons, for expanding regulation of health care, and for, in general, not being "extreme."
On a more balanced note, Good Housekeeping devoted the back page of each issue to an essay by former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan. But Noonan rarely mentioned public policy issues in her essays.
Lost Opportunities. There were numerous stories in which the case that big-government policies hurt consumers, families, and women could have been made, but wasn't. Many articles eagerly announced that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had just approved a new drug or medical device. The November 1, 1995 Family Circle reported that "the FDA has approved the drug Caverject, which treats impotence, a condition affecting as many as 20 million men." This, the headline declared, was "good news for couples." While it may indeed have been good news for couples at the time, Family Circle didn't mention those who had been suffering before the FDA had gotten around to approving the treatment.
Only Good Housekeeping condemned FDA policy. The magazine's February, 1996 issue took the agency to task for not allowing the breast cancer Sensor Pad onto the market. "Women are not stupid," writer Laura Muha declared. "They ought to be able to decide whether this is something they want." But Good Housekeeping didn't ask if other life-saving products were being held up by the FDA.
Another lost opportunity: taxes. There were nine major stories about financially strapped families and the stress this caused family members. Parents, for instance, labeled the dilemma: "Mommy guilt vs. economic reality." Only one of these stories mentioned the rising tax burden on families. Even that one didn't point out what the Tax Foundation found: that taxes take more from a family than food, clothing, and housing costs combined. No story urged readers to lobby Congress for tax cuts, as these magazines had done for more liberal policies which allegedly would help families.
These magazines also ignored the regulatory burden on women. Only one article, in Ladies' Home Journal, pointed out that regulations hurt small business owners, many of whom are women. The September issue of that magazine profiled a woman who had owned a garbage-hauling and recycling business, but was forced out of business because of the high costs of government regulation. No story all year pointed out that, according to the Small Business Administration, government regulations cost almost $7,000 per American household, or how such regulations raise the prices of the products women and families buy.
And stories about safety didn't point out that often government policies undermine the safety of consumers. The April, 1996 Better Homes & Gardens, for instance, reported that "the larger your car, the less likely you are to be hurt if involved in an accident. That's the not-so-shocking conclusion of an insurance claim analysis for 1992-1994 models." But the magazine didn't then point out that federal fuel economy regulations encourage smaller, and therefore more dangerous, cars.
"Redbook Strategy." The Clinton campaign understood what an asset it had in family and women's magazines. It pursued, according to U.S News & World Report, a "Redbook strategy" aimed at courting the demographic group to which most of the readers of women's and family magazines belong. Redbook editor Kate White, in an article about "Why you're the White House's secret weapon," wrote that she was "flattered." But the magazines themselves, by promoting big government, had laid the groundwork for such a strategy to be successful. In doing so, they often misled their readers -- or didn't give them the whole story -- about the downside of government activism for women and families.