Since we’ve touched on the topic of the media celebrating women’s "independence" from men, there’s also this. On Monday’s Today, in the 8:00 am hour, NBC aired a story and a debate segment on a hot trend of mothers who choose to have fatherless children, "no man required." But this wasn’t merely a news story, but a cheerleading report, complete with supportive music bubbling underneath (including "Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves," the 1980s feminist pop song by the Eurythmics with Aretha Franklin.) When they allowed a few seconds of dissent, all the music stopped. In the debate segment, co-host Meredith Vieira’s questions were fairly tough, but the feminist guest walked all over the defender of fatherhood with strange arguments: "I think selfish gets a bad rap. Every parent, to be a good parent, has to be selfish."
Vieira began: "In the old days, women who had children out of wedlock were few and far between. But now a record number of single women are having children on their own, no man required. More now from NBC’s Janet Shamlian."
This being a show that can’t do any social trend without mentioning celebrities, Shamlian began:
"Madonna did it, Katie [Holmes], too. Toting babies before tying the knot. And not just in Hollywood... Across the country, 37 percent of children are now born to unmarried moms, an all-time high." The graphic throughout the segment was "Choice Moms," matching the feminist lingo. But "choice moms" who choose to have a child are better than "pro-choice moms," who don't.
Shamlian chronicled their prototypical "Choice Mom," a happy working woman: "Having spent years focused on her career, when she wasn't in love at 39, Stacy Madison went shopping at a Boston sperm bank and came home with twins." Madison then says her children are her "whole life."
Then came the liberal academic expert, sociologist Rosanna Hertz of Wellesley College, to explain supportively: "When they couldn't find someone to marry them, they had to think long and hard about whether or not they were willing to turn to plan B and reverse that sequence, which is to have the baby before marriage and then to search for a partner." Nowhere in the piece did NBC have the rudeness to consider that women either (A) waited far too long to think about marriage and children, until desperation kicks in at 39, or (B) women might be too picky about finding the perfect man. NBC’s example was a very nice-looking woman, so it seems mysterious she’d have trouble getting the attention of suitors.
What if the "choice mom" never gets married? Shamlian explained that they’ve bonded together into networks: "Single parents are forging extended families by involving friends and at outings like this in Minnesota, other single moms." Darla Rainford explained: "My son gets to see that there's all kinds of families out there and that they're not all the traditional family, other families that are like ours." (This is where "Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves" sings underneath.)
Then the pop songs came to an abrupt halt, so the critics could have a brief say. (Today does a lot of segments with musical accompaniment for a News Lite touch, but in segments like this, the music certainly suggests a social trend is "cool" and the trendy subjects are markers of social progress.)
Shamlian proclaimed: "Critics argue putting motherhood before marriage is selfish and can stack the odds against a child." NBC turned to David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values (group not identified on screen), who argued: "Children who grow up without a father in their life are just at greater risk for all the social problems, failure in school to juvenile delinquency, to depression and emotional problems." NBC listed those on screen.
The music returned, and Shamlian then brought up how we’ve come a long way since a 1992 controversy, and the "wrath" of Vice President Dan Quayle:
"Times have changed since fictional TV character Murphy Brown became an unwed mom and incurred the wrath of a vice president."
Quayle [music drops out again]: "It doesn't help matters when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice."
Shamlian [back to music]: "But not first choice, at least not for Madison."
Madison: "I would have loved to have started a family the traditional way, met somebody, fallen in love, been younger. Unfortunately, it doesn't always happen that way."
Shamlian: "Untraditional, no longer unusual, as society redefines what constitutes a family. For Today, Janet Shamlian, NBC News, Chicago."
This controversy is just old enough that NBC will forget to tell people that many people eventually concluded that Dan Quayle was right about the importance of fathers. In December of 1993, President Clinton told, of all networks, NBC, he’d changed his mind. From our December 1993 MediaWatch newsletter:
So when President Clinton changed his tune in early December in interviews with NBC and Newsweek and said "I thought there were a lot of very good things in that speech," including "it's certainly true that this country would be much better off if our babies were born into two-parent families," the rest of the media jumped on the flip-flop, right? Wrong. There wasn't a word of it in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, or The Washington Post. ABC's Charles Gibson asked Dan Quayle about it on Good Morning America December 6, but CBS totally ignored it.
NBC’s Monday interview segment on "Choice Moms" featured Dr. Brenda Wade, an African-American therapist from San Francisco making the feminist "no man required" argument, and Elizabeth Marquardt of the Institute for American Values making the children-want-dads argument (wrongly listed by NBC on screen as the "Institute for American Families"). It began like this:
Vieira: "Why would women choose to go it alone?"
Dr. Wade: "You know, I think many women today are seeing that society is not supporting relationships and marriage and families in the way that we used to have, this way that you had extended family, you had somebody there. It's just not that easy. If you're in the workplace and you have a career that you're very dedicated to, it is hard to find the time or the energy or someone who is available and wants to marry you."
Vieira: "So why go down the path at all?"
Dr. Wade: "It's so important. I think women are hard-wired for bonding, for love, for nurturing. I think many women just feel that deep, deep urge to have children and are saying, `You know, am I going to forego motherhood because there's no partner? No, this is an experience I want in my life. It's a way that I want to grow. It's a way that I want to learn as a human being.'"
Vieira then turned to Marquardt: "Elizabeth, I know that you are opposed to these so-called "choice moms" in part because you believe children who grow up without a father are at greater risk for all sorts of social problems. What evidence do you have to back that up?"
Marquardt: "Well, the studies are extensive showing how children suffer when they don't grow up in a home with their father. But frankly, at this point, we're all familiar with those studies. What I think is clear is that any of us who is sensitive can look around in our own families, in our own communities, and see the emotional, spiritual suffering of children when they grow up without their fathers. You know, these children, I'm talking to many young people nowadays who had sperm donor dads, and they're grown up, and they say, `Yeah, I love my mom. I love the family I was raised in, but when I look in the mirror, I see a big question mark. I don't know who my father was.' And they, like all children, say they wanted to know and be in relationship with and be loved by their fathers."
Vieira: "Well, Brenda, what about that? Are these women being selfish by not taking into consideration the needs of the child?"
Dr. Wade: Well, first of all--yeah, they are being selfish, and I think selfish gets a bad rap. Every parent, to be a good parent, has to be selfish. But I want to just clarify one thing. The studies on single moms and the kids being at risk, those studies are muddy. Those studies are not just about choice moms. Those are studies about moms who are divorced, moms who are widowed, parents who very young found themselves pregnant, out of wedlock. Choice moms are in a different category and we really need to be careful not to blur this. You know, I'm a trained scientist and I'm about clean data, clean research. So we need to sort out who's in those studies. Choice moms tend to be older women, like the woman who's our subject here. They tend to be women with careers, women with education, and women who very intentionally make what I call a power choice, which is a choice where they are quite clear what they're getting into and why, and they are willing to commit themselves fully to that choice."
Vieira: "But is that a substitute for giving your child a father?"
Marquardt: "Well, I...."
Wade interrupted: "It's not a substitute, but one of the things that a choice mom does do by being very, very clear is she says, `I know what the risks are, and I am willing to get a male role model for my children. I am willing to do the things that will make it possible for that child to have the best.' Now, it is absolutely foolish to think that we can control every variable when we have a child and when we get married."
Marquardt answered that children aren’t looking for a "father figure," they want a father, and they want to know why a father didn’t stay around for them.
Vieira should have been a tougher time referee in this interview, which is hard to do when one guest (Dr. Wade) is in the studio and the other (Marquardt) is at a remote location, and doesn’t want to barge in as much as the other guest. But if the interview’s time wasn’t balanced, certainly, the interview segment gave more time to the traditional viewpoint, and less music for the feminist point of view.