Christina Hoff Sommers' reply to charges disseminated by the left wing media watchdog group FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting)

Mr. Jim Naureckas
FAIR Editorial Office
130 W. 25th Street
New York, N.Y. 10001                         March 15, 1995
Dear Mr. Naureckas,

FAIR's September/October '94 newsletter EXTRA! carried a cover story by Laura Flanders called "The 'Stolen Feminism' Hoax" purporting to be an expose of "error-filled anecdotes" in Who Stole Feminism? Ms. Flander's charges and my comments follow:

  1. The Anorexia Hoax: In Revolution from Within Gloria Steinem reported that 150,000 young women die each year of anorexia nervosa. Naomi Wolf gave the same figure in The Beauty Myth where she speaks of a "holocaust" and calls anorexia a disease "caused not by nature but by men." The 150,000 death toll is in college textbooks, and Ann Landers credits this in her column. But it is wildly false. According to the Center for Disease Control there were 101 deaths from anorexia in 1983, 67 in 1988 and 54 in 1991.

    Ms. Flanders does concede that the 150,000 figure is wrong. But she says the figures I cite from the CDC are "highly dubious." Well how dubious? Without giving her source she states: "Anorexia deaths are usually listed as heart failure or suicide."

    Ms. Flanders should have called the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) to learn just how many women between 15 and 24 (the prime anorexia years) are dying of heart failure. For 1991 the figure is 19. As for suicide, the 1991 figure is 649. Of these young women, how many are likely to have been dangerously emaciated and have had doctors who mistakenly reported the cause of death as suicide rather than anorexia? It would be astonishing if the number were as much as ten percent of the total. That would add about 70 fatalities to the official CDC figure.

    Ms.Flanders or someone at FAIR should have corrected the inflammatory and preposterous 150,000 figure when it first came out. Instead she is now hard at work seeking to discredit me for having blown the whistle a bit too hard. Ms. Flanders would be well advised to keep out the anorexia fatality discussion until she has thought through and understood what the experts are saying.

  2. National Endowment of the Humanities: Ms. Flanders faults me for failing to mention that three members of the conservative National Association of Scholars sit on the "eight-seat board of the National Council on the Humanities." That would make the NCH almost half NAS. But the National Council has twenty-six members, not eight as Flanders claims.

  3. Rule of Thumb: In Who Stole Feminism? I deny that the phrase "rule of thumb" originated in the common law giving a husband the right to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb. Ms. Flanders, however, believed that the phrase did originate in wife beating. She excitedly reported her "finding" in a draft of her EXTRA! piece that she circulated to journalists last summer. In that July 94 version she wrote:

    [Sommers] argues that the "rule of thumb," which is understood to refer to old common law that permitted a husband to punish his wife, is a feminist fiction. It's not.

    Yes it is. And by now Ms. Flanders knows it. But rather than withdraw from a debate she was clearly unprepared to enter, she now quietly drops her accusation that I was wrong about the origin of the phrase, but then goes on to accuse me of covering up the fact that William Blackstone said that the common law sanctioned wife-beating. But I quoted Blackstone on this (p.205): "The husband by the old law might give his wife moderate chastisement." It is Flanders who covers up the fact that Blackstone cites the old law only to point out that it had been superseded in his own "politer day." According to Blackstone, "A wife may now have security of the peace against her husband."

  4. The Super Bowl Hoax: When will Ms. Flanders and her colleagues at FAIR learn that it is self-defeating to keep reminding everyone of FAIR's discreditable role in the Super Bowl hoax. There they were, an organization allegedly dedicated to "Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting," and they not only failed to quash the baseless, male-bashing report that battery rises 40 percent on Super Bowl Sunday, but actively helped to promote it.

    On January 28, 1993 FAIR, along with several women's groups, called a press conference in Pasadena, California, to announce that NBC would be running a 30-second public service announcement on domestic violence during the Super Bowl. At the news conference, FAIR's associate Linda Mitchell said, "Many women's shelters report as much as a 40 percent increase in calls for help on Super Bowl Sunday" (AP Wire 1/28/93). FAIR had earlier sent out a mailing to its activists which stated "women's shelters report a 40 percent increase in calls for help during Super Bowl Sunday" (reported in American Journalism Review, 5/93). Newspapers around the country carried the bleak tidings. The Boston Globe, for example, told of the 40% increase. When later asked for the source the reporter Lynda Gorov said she got it from FAIR.

    After Ken Ringle of the Washington Post showed that there was no legitimate source for the 40 percent factoid, a reporter from the Boston Globe asked Steve Rendall, FAIR's "Senior Analyst," about the 40 percent claim. Rendall acknowledged to the Globe, "It should not have gone out in FAIR materials" (Boston Globe 2/2/93). Where did FAIR get the figure? According to Rendall, it came from a book of photo essays called "Living with the Enemy." Not the most reliable source for a public service group dedicated to "accuracy in reporting."

    It almost goes without saying that no one has established a link between watching football and wife abuse. Even the so-called "anecdotal evidence" does not hold water. According to an Associated Press survey of police departments, hot lines and shelters, there was no significant increase in calls on Super Bowl Sunday '93 -- not even in Buffalo, whose fans had experienced a crushing and humiliating defeat.

    FAIR has continued to be active in warning the public that our country is teeming with violently misogynist males. In a February '93 Newsletter in which they boast of their Super Bowl coup, they inform readers that the Surgeon General reports that domestic battery is "the leading health hazard for women between ages of 15 and 44." As a self-proclaimed sentinel of accuracy, FAIR should have checked the source. Former Surgeon General Dr. Antonia Novello does often refer readers to an article by Dr. Jeane Ann Grisso (University of Pennsylvania) which does contain the 15-44 age range. But according to Grisso her research focussed exclusively on poor inner city women in Philadelphia and had included injuries caused by street crime: "Our results cannot be projected onto the larger society." Linda Saltzman from The Center for Disease Control complained to reporter Joe Hallinan about how difficult it was to quash the 15-44 factoid. "I spend my life trying to get it unattributed to us." So that is another item that should not have gone out in FAIR materials.

    Truth brought to public light recruits the best of us to work for change. On the other hand, even the best intentioned "noble lie" discredits the finest of causes. In playing fast and loose with the very serious issue of battery, FAIR is a failed media watchdog, who, instead of barking an alarm, trots happily along with the crooks.

  5. Ninagate: Ms. Flanders simply takes Nina Auerbach's word for it that she had no conflict of interest when she wrote a rampaging review of my book in the New York Times Book Review:

    Nina Auerbach -- who was chosen by her former student, Rebecca Sinkler, then editor of the New York Times Book Review -- to review Who Stole Feminism? asks: "Why does an author whose book was panned have more credibility than the reviewer?"

    She is referring to the fact that her review aroused the startled disapproval of such journalists as Jim Sleeper of the New York Daily News, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, and Hilton Kramer of the New York Post, among others--to an extraordinary conflict of interest.

    In arriving at her acrimonious judgment on Who Stole Feminism? ("Sisterhood is Fractious," Book Review 6/12/94), Auerbach had failed to inform readers that she was among the feminists the book singled out as more than mildly ridiculous.

    Who Stole Feminism? opens with a derisive description of a City University feminist conference at which Auerbach played a prominent role. In the middle of the book, I poke fun at the feminist zealotry of the University of Pennsylvania's English Department, in which Auerbach holds a chair. In particular (on pp. 237-238) I recount how she reprimanded my stepson Tamler Sommers -- who in 1990 was a Penn English major taking Auerbach's course in Victorian literature ---for making the "insensitive" observation that "vocational opportunities for women are wider today than they were for Jane Eyre." ("No!" was the irate expostulation on the margin, "Even today women make only 59 percent of what men make.") Because she was my son's teacher, I did not mention Auerbach by name, but I identified her uniquely by saying that "this same professor" served as a panelist at the City University conference I had parodied in Chapter One.

    Ms. Auerbach's protestations that she never realized or even suspected that she was the University of Pennsylvania English professor in question strained the credulity of the journalists she now complains about. For one thing, Auerbach was the only University of Pennsylvania panelist at that overwrought gathering. Who on earth did she think I could be referring to?

    It is altogether too late for Professor Auerbach to offer credible assurance that her rancorous review was not the product of private pique. It is not too late to insist on the principle that a hostile reviewer who is portrayed in an unflattering light in the work under review must be up front about it. Auerbach wasn't.

  6. Homely Women's Studies professors: In an effort to present me as an anti-feminist, Flanders repeats the falsehood that I told an Esquire reporter that "There are a lot of homely women in Women's Studies...." I said nothing of the kind. I have publicly disavowed this in several newspapers. When a reporter for the Washington Post questioned the Esquire reporter about this quotation, he stuck to his recollection, but when she asked for his notes he said he had lost them. (See "The Feminist Mistake" Washington Post, July 7, 1994.) I teach in the Women's Studies program at Clark University, so any unflattering generalization would be self-referential. Had Ms. Flanders read Who Stole Feminism? with anything but an eye to finding fault, she would have noted my sardonic observation (p.34) that from the very beginning of the American feminist movement back in 1848, feminist leaders were unfairly subjected to vulgar descriptions of their appearance.

  7. Goya's Naked Maja: As an example of the censorious power wielded by many feminist academics, I cited the story of Penn State Professor Nancy Stumhofer, who had demanded that Goya's Naked Maja be removed from her classroom. I reported that Ms. Stumhofer and the campus harassment officer at Penn State argued that the painting "created a chilling environment," that they formally complained to the administration and to faculty committees, and that they succeeded in having the Goya removed from the classroom.

    Not true, says Flanders. "The Professor says she never objected to the painting, but to male student comments about it while she tried to teach." Flanders source is an article by the professor herself in a newsletter called Democratic Culture. But it may be that Ms. Flanders did not read the article.

    Never objected to the painting? Here is what Professor Stumhofer says:

    I felt as though I were standing there naked, exposed and vulnerable....After my initial embarrassment passed, I became angry because I knew none of my male colleagues would ever find themselves in a similar situation, nor would the male students in the class. (Democratic Culture, Spring 1994)

    Feeling as she did, Stumhofer was not content to have her room changed. Why? "[Because] every female student in every class scheduled in that room would have to be subjected to the chill...."

    Stumhofer proceeded with her complaint:

    At an October meeting of the University Women's Commission the response of the participants seemed unanimous. They agreed that the painting created a chilly climate for women and should be displayed elsewhere than in a classroom. The University affirmative action officer was at that meeting and supported my position....She later called to tell me there were legal precedents that would indicate this case could be considered sexual harassment....As a member of the Liaison Committee of the Penn State Commission for women, I expressed a concern about classroom climate to the campus CEO. This concern was shared by a considerable number of faculty, staff, students and administrators. The concern was delivered to the CEO by the committee, and the CEO responded to our request."

    When Stumhofer says "I never filed a formal complaint with the affirmative action officer claiming I was a victim of sexual harassment," Flanders takes her to be saying she never filed any harassment complaint of any kind and she accuses me of exaggerating by saying she did. But Stumhofer quite clearly is saying that the complaint "delivered to the CE0" was not that she was personally harassed by the Goya painting, but that all women were its victims---"every female student in every class scheduled in that room would have to be subjected to the chill." She was formally making use of the "chilled classroom climate" argument and the university agreed with her and removed the painting.

Conclusion: It is remarkable that after all the effort to come up with mistakes Flanders has produced only a few minor ones--none of which have any bearing on my argument. I dated the Super Bowl on the 30th instead of the 31st, I identified Dobisky Associates as FAIR'S publicist when they represented another party to the Super Bowl hoax. I referred to NOW as "the National Organization of Women"; it's 'for' not 'of.' These errors were caught within weeks of the book's publication and were corrected by the second printing last summer. Who Stole Feminism? documents a widespread ongoing campaign of mean-spirited and socially divisive (Ms)information. Much of the misinformation is relentlessly misandrist. Feminists ideologues have falsely accused men of being wildly abusive to women on Super Bowl Sunday. They have held men responsible for 150,000 anorexia deaths each year. They have called men the primary cause of birth defects. These falsehoods were repeated over and over again in newspaper stories, in book after book. About these errors FAIR has very little to say. By contrast it has been extraordinarily diligent in scanning my book for infractions in alerting the public to my "errors." Where was Ms. Flanders and the other concerned lovers of truth and accuracy when all the male-bashing untruths were being disseminated to the media and credited by them? If FAIR is to live up to its name and noble purpose it will have to put truth above ideology.

Christina Hoff Sommers
Associate Professor of Philosophy