James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Bettie Page & Robin Toner: Two women who made media history

Posted by James McPherson on December 13, 2008

Two women who made media history in different ways died a day apart this week. If you’ve heard of either one, it’s probably the first, Bettie Page, who died Thursday at age 85. The iconic 1950s pinup queen-turned born-again Christian had received a second round of fame in recent years because of books, a movie and television programs about her.

Bob Thomas of the Associated Press wrote that Page’s “controversial photographs in skimpy attire or none at all helped set the stage for the 1960s sexual revolution.” She inspired Madonna and numerous other stars, was perhaps the second-most-famous sex symbol of all time behind only Marilyn Monroe, and became famous in an age before Photoshop. She also suffered from molestation as a child, two failed marriages, and schizophrenia, spending almost two years in a mental hospital.

Page’s death was followed a day later by that of Robin Toner, who died yesterday at age 54. Toner was the first national political reporter for the best newspaper in the United States, the New York Times. The daughter of a former “Rosie the Riveter,” Toner covered Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, and faced the tough choices that confront many women: “A few years later, after marriage and motherhood made long months on the campaign trail less practical for her, she became chief of correspondents on the paper’s national desk in New York.”

Toner joined the Times in 1985. That was just a few years after the newspaper agreed to settle Boylan v. New York Times and finally allow women into senior editorial and management positions. 

Perhaps the best part of Toner’s obituary from a journalistic standpoint: “In a craft in which small errors are commonplace and bigger mistakes a regular occupational hazard, Ms. Toner devised a meticulous personal method for checking and re-checking names, dates, facts and figures in her own raw copy, a step few reporters take. As a result: only half a dozen published corrections over the years, on more than 1,900 articles with her byline.”

Sadly, Toner leaves behind a husband and two 11-year-old twins. Her own daughter will face tough choices of her own, and perhaps will make some decisions she will later regret. Better news is that because of Toner and women like her, today’s girls have more options than did the girls of Page’s era–even if Jennifer Aniston, Britney Spears, Mariah Carey and innumerable other stars of today still far too often go the Bettie Page route.

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2 Responses to “Bettie Page & Robin Toner: Two women who made media history”

  1. […] of singer/storytellers Utah Phillips and Dan Seals, journalists (defining the term broadly) Robin Toner,  Tim Russert and Tony Snow, pinup queen Bettie Page, and various newspapers. Many of my posts […]

  2. […] here. Examples relevant to gender here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and […]

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