Post, Undaunted

“Macho-Yokelism” and “Sexist Stomping Unfit for the Big City,” Vintage 1988

August 14, 2023

To show a Twitter colleague my labeling method for archival material, I went back into Dropbox to take a look at the titles of the folders I created back in 2019 to record what I had pulled from Max Frankel’s papers in rare books and manuscripts at the New York Public Library and Columbia University. This is a screenshot of the top of my NYPL/Columbia folder for Frankel:

See the entry at the bottom of the list? I had totally forgotten about the article Frankel (or perhaps his assistant) had clipped from a Frank Devine column dated May 16, 1888. Devine mused on the coverage of the appointment of Jane Amsterdam as editor of the New York Post, where Devine’s column appeared. Newsday engaged in macho-yokelism, a pull-quote shouted. The full sentence called it a “crotch-scratching, thigh-slapping, foot-stomping display of macho-yokelism.” Sexist stomping unfit for the big city, read another.

Amsterdam was well known in Northeast Corridor journalism circles. She had been the founding editor of Manhattan Inc. and a Washington Post section editor for “Style.” Women as top editors at major mass circulation newspapers were still considered a novelty in 1988. Rare would be more accurate. Amsterdam’s noted recent predecessors include Mary Anne Dolan as editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1981,  Sandy Mims Rowe at the Virginian Pilot and Ledger-Star in 1984, and Janet Chuzmir at The Miami Herald in 1987. All three distinguished themselves.

Okay, but this was New York. Internally, Devine reported, Post staffers had taken to calling their tabloid a “broadsheet.” The column, however, zeroed in on Newsday‘s full-page profile of Amsterdam. Its subhead asked and the profile fully answered, What kind of editor is she. However Devine only focused on the personal details the reporter included. He mentioned that The Washington Post‘s editor, Ben Bradlee, gave Amsterdam away at her wedding, and that she greeted him in the newsroom with “Benito!” There was comment on her active A-list social life, and how well she got along with men.

Devine went into the clips to see how Newsday had handled the appointment of Max Frankel two years earlier as he became editor of The New York Times. No profile, just a news article that went no further than the highlights of his resume and some set piece praise for Frankel from the publisher. Devine: “Not a smidgen of information is offered about Frankel’s wedding—nothing about what he wore, not even the identify of whoever it was who gave him away.” 

Of course Frankel, as successor to Abe Rosenthal at The New York Times, one who came to the post along the paper’s traditional path—meaning a long and distinguished Times career—did not have the news value of the first woman ever to run one of the three major dailies in the nation’s media capital. Women in what are considered unexpected positions perpetually create media interest. It’s still true, even so long after women in such  positions became commonplace. The question to ask is why this continues to seem unexpected?  

Newsday, May 11, 1988

New York Post, May 16, 1988

At the Post, Amsterdam lasted only a year of the three for which she was contracted. It was reported that the Post‘s then publisher, Peter Kalikow, complained that her less sensationalized brand of tabloid-ism was losing money. 

I wish I had remembered this clipping while I was writing Undaunted. It would have been another good example of the embedded sexism in the newspaper culture of the late 1980s that is not yet entirely gone. The examples I did use in the book came from Anna Quindlen, who retold how women on the staff of the Times during the 1984 presidential election campaign got the paper to stop including irrelevant descriptions of what Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic candidate for U.S. vice president, chose to wear on the campaign trail, but not for the man who opposed her. The managing editors of the two Washington papers of the day, the Post and the Star, issued edicts banning the use of offending adjectives. Ben Bradlee of the Post singled out words such as blond, brunette, and housewife not likely to be applied to a man. The point, however, is the same.