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Sun-Times women on the beat lead, inspire

 
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Governor PQuinn  interviewed by Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed Governor's MansiSpringfield. | Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

Governor Pat Quinn interviewed by Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed at the Governor's Mansion in Springfield. | Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

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Sun-Times writers recall their early days in a male-dominated field and talk about what still needs to change, at tv.suntimes.com.

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Updated: June 23, 2014 11:10AM



Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic was explaining a construction project to a room full of journalists.

It was the late 1970s, and all but one were men.

Searching for a metaphor that he felt might help a young Fran Spielman understand such a brutish and masculine endeavor, the late, snow-doomed mayor told the then-WIND radio station city hall reporter that building the crosstown expressway was similar to, “when you, like, bake a cake.”

The next morning, Spielman handed him a packet of Twinkies.

“I don’t bake,” she told him.

Decades later, it’s a funny anecdote — one of many war stories Spielman, a longtime Chicago Sun-Times reporter, and other pioneering women who fought through journalism’s misogynistic era can recall with a mixture of horror and amusement.

Today, the Sun-Times can boast that it has amazing female journalists in most of its key beats, including the “hard news” spots, which traditionally are held by men at other media outlets.

Fran Spielman is still the unrivaled queen of city hall; Lynn Sweet covers Washington; Natasha Korecki has the scoop on Illinois politics; Rummana Hussain on the courts; Lauren FitzPatrick on the schools and Rosalind Rossi is relentless on the transportation beat. Plus we have Michael Sneed, Mary Mitchell and Carol Marin as three of Chicago’s top columnists.

Then there’s Toni Ginnetti, a longtime reporter who recently retired from her sports beat, and Hedy Weiss, theater critic.

And that’s just a few of the many women covering the news here day in and day out.

No major U.S. newspaper has more women’s bylines, according to a recent study by the Women’s Media Center. Nearly half — 46 percent — of all stories in this paper are written by women.

It’s an exciting environment for a young woman to work in. Six years ago, as a green intern, I made the rookie mistake of trying to sit shotgun in the mayoral press corps van — “Fran’s seat,” as it’s known.

Now she’s not just an inspiration but also my trusted and thoughtful co-worker.

Yet for all the progress, there is much to be done.

My bosses who asked me to write this (hi, guys!), are mostly men. The relatively high number of female reporters reflects well on the Sun-Times’ efforts to promote female voices, but it’s a sad manifestation of the slow pace of change that the country’s most female-written newspaper is filled with stories written by men more than half the time.

Just this week, The New York Times (31 percent female-written) announced its first female executive editor, Jill Abramson was being replaced — by a man.

Reports suggested Abramson was considered “pushy,” a phrase rarely used to describe assertive men.

Abramson also reportedly ruffled feathers by questioning why her male predecessor got paid more to do the same job. (Company officials denied that assertion.)

In a more equitable society, Abramson’s dismissal might be discussed purely in terms of her performance. Women can and do screw up, just like men. In the real world, it’s a sobering reminder of the challenges we still face.

But as I look to the future and my career, I’m inspired by the stories of Sun-Times women.

Like Sneed, who wanted to go to Northern Ireland to cover the Troubles.

Women weren’t foreign correspondents then, and nobody asked her to go. “I sent myself,” she remembers.

As a cub reporter in the 1960s, Sneed had gone to her first assignment — what turned out to be a bloody stabbing at a Near North Side police station — wearing “a little Saks Fifth Avenue dress and heels and carrying a purse. And I think I even wore gloves,” she said.

Sneed didn’t wear a dress to an assignment like that ever again. Now she has the longest-running column in Chicago.

Korecki was a week from giving birth and sitting behind Patti Blagojevich during former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s sentencing. Things were going bad for him, and his wife turned around and said to Korecki, “I hope your water breaks today.”

But when she needed support, Korecki knew she could count on Spielman.

“I remember asking her: ‘How in the world can I keep up with the long hours of reporting and still raise kids?’ ” Korecki said. “She encouraged me to let her ‘coach you through it.’ And she did. She showed day after day she could crank out copy, break major stories and still get out of work in time to coach Little League.”

Journalists of my generation won’t face the same hurdles as Spielman, who endured unwelcome propositions by aldermen and senior cops alike as a young reporter.

These days, it’s a sign of weakness when male authority figures use sexist language. As a SouthtownStar reporter, whenever a defensive Country Club Hills Mayor Dwight Welch called me “honey” in a patronizing tone, for example, I knew I was on the right track.

It’s not just politicians, crusty old editors and wolf-whistling cavemen who have and will continue to underestimate women.

As a 5-foot-1-inch, baby-faced 29-year-old, I take solace in the words that Joan Didion, the brilliant author, wrote in her introduction to her 1968 masterpiece “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” She wrote, “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests.

“And it always does.”

Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Email: bschlikerman@suntimes.com

Twitter: @schlikerman



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