The media pioneer shares how she’s turned her experience running lauded magazines into championing women’s rights.
By Anne Slowey.
“People tend to respond to storytelling,” says Tina Brown, the founder of Tina Brown Media. She should know. Prior to forming her own media empire, she served as editor-in-chief for two of the most lauded magazine titles in publishing history—The New Yorker and Vanity Fair—before jumping from print to digital with the launch of The Daily Beast in 2010, at least a decade before the rest of the print publishing world made the leap.
At a time when fake news has infiltrated the digital ecosystem and cable news reporting has become more about opinionated talking heads than objective or even factual reporting of the news itself, it should be no surprise that Brown is trying to reinvent how we access the stories that will inform and inspire us.
In 2010, while still editor of The Daily Beast, Brown began to think about the gender bias of the mainstream media. She partnered with Diane von Furstenberg, Vital Voices, and the UN Foundation for the first annual Women in the World Summit. The summit brought together some of the world’s most inspiring female leaders, such as then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Meryl Streep, and Madeleine Albright, and focused on the global challenges facing women—from equal rights and education to human slavery, literacy, and the power of the media and technology to effect change in women’s lives. “I think there’s a feeling that globally women felt no one was listening to them and they didn’t have a platform,” Brown says.
The Women in the World Summit may not have been born with a feminist agenda, but it has served as a platform for a wide and powerful network of both male and female voices. Together they support many causes that compose a feminist agenda that extends its concerns to include discrimination, gender bias, and the need for equal rights for all. Once again sensing a seismic shift in the way women wanted to empower themselves through education and affirmation, Brown left The Daily Beast in September 2013 to devote herself full-time to the Women in the World Summit and the launch of Tina Brown Live Media.
“It’s a tender framing of the importance of changing the world and how important that is to women,” she says.
Past summit panels have included Oprah Winfrey, Angelina Jolie, Pussy Riot, Melinda Gates, the late Nora Ephron, Samantha Power, Gloria Steinem, and Sheryl Sandberg. In 2014, Brown launched the American Justice Summit, which featured panels on the need for justice and prison-system reform.
This year’s summit, on the heels of the Million Women March, drew an impassioned crowd, many still wearing their “I’m With Her” Clinton campaign buttons.
It was Brown’s eighth since she began producing the summits seven years ago. It featured panels such as: How to Raise a Feminist, featuring Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood; author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, moderated by Katie Couric; former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson talking about sexual harassment; Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discussing gender equality and Hillary Clinton, who gave her first interview since the presidential election. Such an impressive list of headliners tapped into the urgent “if not now, when?” need for active reform on women’s issues, but also highlighted the concern women have about violence and brutality, regardless of class, race, or gender. Speakers like Felicia Sanders, a survivor of the Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston, and poet Iasia Sweeting, who was held captive for four years and almost starved to death by a cult leader, told personal stories of perseverance and fortitude in the face of unimaginable, horrific experiences.
“One of the most powerful parts of the summit, I think, are the women who bring these incredible stories of strength and love and inspiration,” Brown says. “We work really hard to curate extraordinary subjects and narratives, like the panel on white supremacy and life after hate,” she explains. “How do you get through that? How do you survive that?”
One of the more compelling panels featured women doctors and nurses working on the frontlines in Syria, who enlightened the audience on not only the horrors of the targeted attacks by the Assad regime on local hospitals but also the loss of life incurred by more than 800 medical volunteers serving those particular war-torn communities. Another comprised whistle-blowers from Australia, including advocacy lawyers, human rights activists, and medical practitioners, who stood to lose their licenses if they broke their silence. They told of the harrowing conditions refugees face in the country’s detention centers on a remote offshore island and the dangers faced by those who came forward to bring the refugees’ stories to light.
“We really do regard our mission to be the eyes on not only America but what’s happening in the world and behind the lines,” she adds.
Brown doesn’t praise the importance of one panel’s appeal over another. For her, it’s important that equal value is given to all the issues deserving careful examination—whether it’s sexual harassment, Scarlett Johansson speaking out about female empowerment, or what many considered to be a journalistic coup, Hillary Clinton’s first interview after the 2016 presidential election. “Seeing Hillary where she felt free to so clearly speak her mind about all the issues she cares about was such an inspiration,” Brown says. In her onstage interview with The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof, Clinton told the audience that she believed what cost her the election was recently fired FBI director James Comey’s October 28 letter stating his decision to reopen the email investigation, in addition to a healthy dose of sexism. She also announced her decision to write an investigative book about what happened to her so there is full transparency about the state of politics, and vowed to dedicate her time to seeing more women elected to government offices.
Parity in power and access to information is something that Brown remains committed to making a central part of her programming at Tina Brown Media, which also runs a digital news feed that reaches a younger audience of women. “I do think we’ve had a lot of impact in changing the hearts and minds of many of the women who attend the summit,” she says. “It’s crucial that we enlarge the prism, which is why on our sexual harassment panel, for example, we included not only Gretchen Carlson, who days before the conference filed a lawsuit against Fox News, but also Patricia Tomasello, a firefighter from Fairfax, Virginia,” Brown says. “We want to make it clear that women across all demographics are being harassed. I thought Madonna Badger’s video about calling for the end of the objectification of women in advertising spoke to this as well.
“As a news entity, we want to engage in whatever area we can. I want to make an activist of everyone in the audience.”