The image of fathers and fatherhood has taken a beating over the past several decades, and the media has been part of the problem. While there has been some improvement in the past few years, fathers are still frequently unfairly stereotyped. For example, in April the Council on Contemporary Families issued a report on men and housework. CNN’s headline to the story was typical of most media– “Report: Men still not pulling weight on chores.”
In reality, studies which account for the total amount of work that husbands and wives contribute to their households–including housework, child care, and employment–confirm that men contribute at least as much to their families as women do. What the CCF study actually said was that the amount of child care fathers provide has tripled over the past four decades, and the amount of housework men do has doubled. Moreover, men have accomplished this in an era where the average workweek has significantly expanded. The papers reporting the story barely noticed.
Ex–NBA Player Jason Caffey was widely vilified in April for being behind in his child support. Caffey had paid over 90% of what he was ordered to pay, but fell behind when his post–career income dropped, and was threatened with jail. Neither CNN commentator Nancy Grace nor Caffey’s other critics stopped to ponder the absurdity of calling a father who had already paid millions of dollars in child support a “deadbeat dad.”
Similarly, in April Chandra Myers made national headlines when she took the unusual step of suing New York bakery worker Robert Sean Myers’ employers Sara Lee Bakeries and Bimbo Bakeries for allegedly failing to garnish his wages. Yet while Robert was labeled a “deadbeat dad,” the media didn’t even notice that a court had obligated Myers to pay $2,000 a month in child support for one child–on an income of only $1,600 a month.
USA Today financial columnist Sandra Block recently explained that widows receive significantly more social security benefits if their husbands delay retirement. She could have written, “Men, we know your wives and children appreciate the sacrifices you’ve made as family breadwinner, and delaying retirement will help ensure your loved ones are provided for.” Instead, Block wrote:
“If you want to make up for all the times you came home with beer on your breath, left your socks on the bathroom floor or gave your wife a DustBuster for Valentine’s Day, hold off on filing for your Social Security benefits.”
She then adds, with some understatement, “Many men who are eager to retire may chafe at this suggestion.” You think?
In 2002, Clara Harris repeatedly ran over her husband David as his daughter begged Clara not to kill her father. She recently filed a suit against her former attorney, triggering a round of media reports on her case. Media outlets consistently referred to David simply as “Cheating Husband” or “Cheating Spouse.” At one point, 233 of the 354 news stories indexed on Google News, referred to David Harris as Clara Harris’ “cheating husband.” If an unfaithful woman was murdered by her husband, it’s doubtful that newspapers would disparage this victim of domestic violence by referring to her simply as “cheating wife.”
The reporting of the Britney Spears–Kevin Federline child custody battle also had some low points. Many headlines were similar to Yahoo News’ “Court awards Spears’ kids to K–Fed.” Funny, we thought “Spears’ kids” had two parents, not just one.
Research shows that dads matter. The rates of the four major youth pathologies–teen pregnancy, teen drug abuse, school dropouts and juvenile crime–are tightly correlated with fatherlessness, often more so than with any other socioeconomic factor.
The public portrayal of fathers is fairer now than it was a few years ago, and much fairer than it was during the 1980s and 1990s. Still, too much of the media reflexively buys into unfair, destructive stereotypes of dads as slackers, deadbeats, deserters, and louts.