AJR  Books
From AJR,   April 1992

Crashing the Boys’ Club at The New York Times   

The Girls in the Balcony:
Women, Men and the New York Times
By Nan Robertson
Random House

Book review by Edwin Diamond
Edwin Diamond writes on the media for New York magazine, where his column has appeared since 1985. He is also the author of 10 books on media and politics.      

The Girls in the Balcony:
Women, Men and the New York Times
By Nan Robertson
Random House
275 pages; $22

When Nan Robertson first applied for a job at the New York Times, she was a 28-year-old journalism school graduate with seven years of reporting overseas under her belt. Her friends on staff had warned her that she would be asked why she wanted to work for the paper, so she was prepared when the stuffy assistant in charge of hiring popped the question. "My eyes gleamed with sincerity..," Robertson writes in her new book. " 'Because, Mr. Burritt,' I gushed, 'it's the best newspaper in the world.' "

Robertson was offered a six-week post on a special fashion section for $100 a week. She remonstrated with Mr. Burritt. Her overseas work had been for some very good papers, including the Paris Herald Tribune, and Vogue was offering her $150 a week to be a staffer, not a temp. But the Timesman was adamant: This was the New York Times, not a lady's magazine, and invariably, temporary jobs turn into permanent ones. "People neverleave the New York Times," he told her.

The year was 1955, and true to form, Robertson stayed for more than three decades. Along the way, she won a Pulitzer Prize but lost her youthful enthusiasm for the "best newspaper in the world." Her book is a hard-eyed, devastating look at how the ladies – later, women – fared at the Times during the social upheaval of the late 1960s and '70s. When Robertson left in 1988, she along with many other "good girls" of the generation that came after World War II had been radicalized, feminized and, above all, wise-ized.

The best part of "Girls in the Balcony" comes more than halfway through Robertson's account when a band of exasperated Times women files a federal sex discrimination suit against the newspaper in November 1974. (The socially conscious Times, the Women's Caucus reminded the publisher, was like any other business subject to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.) Before the story of the suit, however, Robertson tarries to give biographies of some of the grand old women reporters of the Times, including Anne O'Hare McCormick, Kathleen McLaughlin, Eileen Shanahan, Lucy Freeman and Flora Lewis. Adequate as history for a journalism quarterly, they distract from her main story line. A tougher editor would have urged the author to cut the chatter and get to the narrative. In any case, the sketches quickly fade into the background once Robertson starts on the women's lawsuit.

No one is likely to forget that crackling action, or her reprises of management hypocricy, as thick as the pastrami served up in the luncheonette of the déclassé Edison Hotel, a favorite hangout for Times reporters. Among the grievances of the Women's Caucus:

•Of the 21 names on the masthead in the early 1970s – encompassing both the editors and business-side executives – not one belonged to a woman;

•The average salary of male reporters was $59 a week higher than the average salary of women reporters;

•The Newspaper Guild shop steward in the Washington bureau tacked up a "roughly accurate" list of salaries of 32 bureau reporters on an office bulletin board. No names were given next to the salaries; but all six of the women in the bureau, including the estimable Shanahan, quickly figured out that they were in the bottom half. The lone black woman journalist in the bureau, Nancy Hicks, ranked last.

Bad as the record was, the management's response was disingenuous. It blandly denied any discrimination while privately totting up the $2 million that paying the women their "comparable worth" would add to its annual newsroom budget. Management tried co-option – the less "militant" reporters among the Women's Caucus suddenly found themselves being offered editing jobs. Before the caucus was organized, two out of 29 hires over a two-year period were women. In the year after, nine out of 19 hires were women.

"Don't think of this company as the liberal New York Times," the law-yer for the plaintiffs, Harriet Rabb, advised her clients. "Think of it as the Georgia Power Company. They don't treat their women any differently."

The women and the newspaper's attorneys finally agreed on an out-of-court settlement. Both sides felt there was too much office dirty laundry that would have been aired otherwise. "We knew vile things and they knew vile things," Rabb told Robertson. Privately, newsroom staffers found a metaphor for the disasters ahead if the suit came to trial: It would be like a messy divorce, but both sides still had to live with each other.

Robertson gives a more detailed accounting of the settlement than the opaque few paragraphs in the Times' coverage. The paper paid $350,000 to settle the suit; 550 women represented in the class action immediately received $233,500 of it in back pay (the Times insisted the payouts were "annuities"). The Times' lawyers pronounced the settlement a "total vindication" and pointed to language in the final decree to the effect that "no determination" was made that the paper violated any law. However, because the Times agreed to an affirmative action hiring plan, monitored by the court, Robertson concludes that it was all spin control. The Times was saying: "We didn't do it and we won't do it anymore."

Robertson gives a back-pat to Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger – the amiable "Punch" – for promoting the idea of a settlement. If she had interviewed the Times' chief legal beagle, James Goodale, she would have learned the fuller and more intriguing story. By 1974, the Times' legal staff had been sufficiently integrated so that the younger women lawyers in Goodale's office were pressuring him to heed the caucus. Those women deserve some of the credit. In her treatment of Sulzberger and the other Times' worthies, such as Editor Max Frankel, Robertson unfortunately comes close to the argument, "boys will be boys." Perhaps she has just succumbed to a common ailment among former Timespeople, male and female. It's called Talese's Disease, after fabulist-journalist Gay Talese; writers smitten with terminal T.D. can't believe the godly Times would ever act like the Georgia Power Company.

The title of Robertson's book, like the biographies within, is somewhat tangential. The "balcony" she's referring to was the balcony of the National Press Club, where until 1971 women reporters had to stay upstairs while covering newsmaker luncheons. Washington women have now integrated the club top to bottom, just as Times-women have integrated the masthead of their newspaper. And both places are the better for their presence.