My suspicions were aroused when I saw a headline to a July 1 Associated Press story in the hometown paper, declaring "'Sharing Chores' Moves Up On Good-Marriage List." This yawner of a finding was attributed to a Pew Research Center study just released on the "generation gap" in "values and behaviors." The article itself, by national writer David Crary of the AP, mentioned the fact that "sharing chores" had moved ahead of "children" as a factor in making for a good marriage. But you had to read over to the jump page before you knew that some family experts (two are cited) may be quite concerned about the implicit de-emphasis upon childrearing and what it tells us about the state of American marriage and family life.
Hmm, I thought. Does this ordering of the account really reflect the priorities in Pew's own presentation of the findings of its study? I looked elsewhere for the same story and found that the major media were generally running it under the title "Key to a Good Marriage? Share Housework," which you will find used in this version, as well as this, this, this, and . . . well you get the idea. And indeed, the opening sentence seemed clearly to point to the same emphasis: "The percentage of Americans who consider children 'very important' to a successful marriage has dropped sharply since 1990, and more now cite the sharing of household chores as pivotal, according to a sweeping new survey."
Skeptical as I am of all polling data, I found it hard to believe that Pew would have constructed a survey designed to show such a thing. I looked at Pew's website and found that the study itself bears a radically different headline: "As Marriage and Parenthood Drift Apart, Public Is Concerned about Social Impact." Quite different. At first I thought I must be looking at an entirely separate study. But I wasn't. Astonishingly, I found only a mention, and no discussion, of "household chores" in the Pew Executive Summary. Instead, I found bullet points such as these:
• Public Concern over the Delinking of Marriage and Parenthood.
• Marriage Remains an Ideal, Albeit a More Elusive One.
• Children Still Vital to Adult Happiness.
In other words, the AP writer, and the headline writers (who were presumably following the writer's or AP's lead), seriously distorted the meaning of the report. And the distortion was intentional. Why else would so much attention be given to the matter of "household chores," which are mentioned only in passing in the full report, and never discussed or analyzed? Why would there be so little indication of what Pew's own headline fairly shouts: that the general public itself is uneasy about many of the phenomena here being described? Why no attention to Pew's larger concern, that what we are seeing (particularly when one connects it with high rates of out-of-wedlock births) is a potentially momentous (and historically unprecedented) separation of marriage and parenthood? Why the need to reduce this fascinating, complex, and troubling trend to a "hook" built around the tiredest of 1970s feminist mantrassharing the chores?
Why indeed. Is it really too much to expect that journalists do their jobs competently and not make the rest of us share their chores? Evidently it is, if one is to judge from a refreshing if inane piece by journalist Penelope Trunk, titled (accurately) "It Doesn't Matter that Journalists Misquote Everyone." Ms. Trunk is, among other things, the author of the book Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success (honest, I am not making this up!) and a syndicated columnist for the Boston Globe, which is, of course, owned by the New York Times. So it is not some marginal voice speaking when Ms. Trunk informs us that "journalists who think they are telling 'the truth' don't understand the truth," because what we call truth is just our individual construction of reality: We each have "our own story," and "our own truth."
So . . . we'd all better get used to doing our own chores.
Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Chair of Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and is a member of the editorial board of First Things.