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In Punditland, a Little Imagination Could Yield Needed Diversity

By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, April 4, 2005; 8:59 AM

If you had tuned into NBC's "Meet the Press" last week, you would have seen six men sitting around a table talking about religion for a special show about faith in America.

Of those six men, five were white. The other was an Iranian American. In a vacuum, this would mean little. Few people are looking for a racial or gender quota system, and the men knew their subject. But it underscores a larger point that women and minorities are still too often unrepresented in the punditry class.

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The tirade last month by left-wing columnist Susan Estrich against Los Angeles Times opinion editor Michael Kinsley drew attention to the paucity of women on newspaper editorial and op-ed pages. But a new report by the left-leaning Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (prompted by Estrich's complaints) suggests that the problem doesn't end there. Surprise, surprise, female pundits and commentators -- especially minority female pundits and commentators -- are in short supply on the tube as well.

FAIR studied six months of Sunday news talk shows and concluded that the female representation -- and particularly female racial minorities -- was severely lacking.

About a quarter of the panelists on ABC's "This Week" and "Fox News Sunday" were women, according to the FAIR study. "Meet the Press" had 39 percent women, and one recent panel that consisted solely of women. That lovable-lug-of-sensitivity Chris Matthews "came out almost exactly even on gender, with 51 men and 49 women."

On the other hand, every one of the 49 women he featured on his show was white. In fact, only two African American women -- PBS's Gwen Ifill (who appeared on "Meet the Press") and Donna Brazile (who appeared on "This Week") -- appeared on any of the shows during the FAIR study.

In 2000 and 2001, the White House Project, a women's advocacy group, studied the Sunday news shows and discovered that only 11 percent of all appearances on the top Sunday talk shows were women and that only 7 percent of repeat guests were women.

The FAIR study might seem to suggest that things have actually improved somewhat in recent years, but differences in the methodologies of the studies may explain some of the discrepancy in the numbers. FAIR looked specifically at talk show discussion "panels" while the White House Project examined all Sunday television talk show guests, including politicians and other experts.

The bookers, producers and editors who control these shows and op/ed pages claim they can't find women and minorities who are qualified to offer their opinions on the news of the day. The Rolodex tab under "W" for women is slimmer, and the "M" tab for minority is slimmer still. The same minority pundits are tapped over and over again -- Ifill, Brazile, the Chicago Tribune's Clarence Page.

For those who are inclined to think this is personal, rest easy. I'm one of the few minority journalists who does a fair amount of TV. I've had contracts on and off with CNN for the last four years, and done scores of appearances on the other networks since I came to The Washington Post from the Miami Herald more than 10 years ago.

I even did NBC's Chris Matthews Show twice in 2003. I ran into Matthews at bar in New Hampshire during the primaries last winter and asked why he hadn't had me on in a while. He assured me that he liked having me on the show and thought I did well. "You know what I don't like?" he said. "It's that 'dot com' thing. Can you lose that? Can you just say Washington Post?"

I laughed and told him no, and reminded him that I worked for newspapers for a dozen years, including such high-profile jobs as covering the Bush campaign for The Post before I came over to the "dot com" side to write a column.

"Hmm, well are you the editor? Are you in charge of the whole place?" he asked. "No," I answered. "Well let me know when they put you in charge and I'll have you on again."

Matthews laughed when he said it. And I did too -- but mainly because I realized just then that Matthews's television persona is not just a persona at all. It's who he really is.

That conversation illustrates a serious point. Most of the people who make decisions about booking guests and finding writers would theoretically like to see more diversity. But the problem is that they don't cast a wide enough net. They allow themselves to get caught up in very narrow, inside-the-Beltway, old school definitions that limit the pool of guest possibilities. Because they scout primarily in the upper echelons of the networks, the two main newsmagazines and four top newspapers, The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal -- the pool of available talent naturally is going to consist almost solely of white guys over 50.

The lack of representation of women and minorities isn't based on any purposeful discrimination. There's not a cabal of racist baddies (aka "the Man") at the networks and newspaper editorial pages conspiring to keep women and people of color off the air and off the opinion pages.

But there are a growing number of people writing for Web publications, independent bloggers, journalists at smaller mainstream newspapers and at alternative news sources who are perfectly qualified to offer insights, opinions and perspective about the news of the day.

Op-ed page editors and television bookers show incredibly limited imaginations in their search for non-journalism commentators. Is Donna Brazile really the only black person in America qualified to go on TV to analyze politics?

There are plenty of women and racial minorities who would be excellent, authoritative guests on TV. Baltimore Sun editorial writer Marjorie Valbrun is an award-winning Haitian American journalist, fluent in three languages and with expertise on immigration issues. The Washington Post's Michelle Singletary is eloquent on business issues and knows how to make complicated topics understandable and interesting for lay people. Time Magazine's Desa Philadelphia is whip smart, funny and knowledgeable. ABC smartly hired up-and-comer Liz Marlantis and, hopefully, will help develop her into a star. The New York Post's Deborah Orin offers insights from the right. The New Republic's Michelle Cottle is full of wry observations and spouts more than the conventional wisdom.

This is not meant to be a complete listing, but just to say, there are people out there if bookers and producers would only look a little harder and beyond the usual places.

"The commentary on this issue has blithely ignored the simple fact that male columnists at the major papers do not spring whole from the womb; they are in fact often 'nurtured,' a word that when applied to women is considered affirmative action and when applied to men is considered grooming," wrote Kirsten A. Powers, a former Clinton administration official who now writes a blog called PowersOnPolitics.

Conservative columnists and bloggers have been buzzing about this subject as well. They've delighted in particular at watching the debate between Estrich and Kinsley, two liberals. But they eschew diversity as a silly left-wing buzzword.

"These diversity grievances follow the usual logic: Victim-group X is not proportionally represented in some field; therefore the field's gatekeepers are discriminating against X's members," wrote Heather MacDonald in the conservative National Review Online. "The argument presumes that there are large numbers of qualified Xs out there who, absent discrimination, would be proportionally represented in the challenged field."

Conservative columnist and blogger Michelle Malkin told me that the whole debate was silly, and that what was more important was ideological diversity.

"It's ideological diversity that's the huge problem," Malkin said. "And when it comes to conservative women on the op-ed pages, these liberal women don't consider them diverse -- they treat us as if we are men. The insults that I have gotten over the years from a lot of liberal women . . . . You know a lot of conservative women politicians get the same kind of thing, so I don't really give it much chuck."

The despised meanies of the dredded MSM (main stream media) probably agree more with conservative bloggers than they know. Upon ascending to his new perch as anchor of "NBC Nightly News" last year, Brian Williams suggested that there are more important priorities.

"We have bigger problems," the 45-year-old anchor told United Airlines' Hemispheres magazine. "There are no black members of the U.S. Senate. We should keep some perspective on this. Nevertheless, I am constantly interested to hear of examples in our coverage where viewers think we got it wrong in one way or another because of a skewed viewpoint."

While Williams backed off of that somewhat and hailed the importance of newsroom diversity, that was probably one of those rare instances of someone slipping up and telling you what he really thinks.

Conservatives often argue that the only things that should matter in hiring are qualifications, competence and ability. But those standards are not so easily applied to commentary.

"I often hear this question, why should there be more women, what difference would it make?" said FAIR communications director Julie Hollar, author of the report. "But I think it's the wrong question. Shouldn't the question be turned around? Why should we have nine men for every woman who writes an opinion column? Why should there be three men's opinion for every woman's opinion on TV?"

It's fair to turn the question around. But it still doesn't answer the question of why it matters.

"That's complicated," Hollar acknowledges.

It certainly is. Many women and minorities in journalism fear being pigeonholed or typecast on op-ed pages and television talk shows as "the woman perspective" or the "black perspective." So if women and minorities fear playing up to gender or race roles, why should gender or race even be an issue?

Either race and gender matter or they don't. The left often seems to want it both ways.

The White House Project says why it is important: "The Sunday political talk shows have the potential to confer power and authority upon those chosen as speakers on national issues. When women are only 10 percent of the national 'experts' on these shows, and only 6 percent to 7 percent of the 'repeat guests,' the public perception that men have greater knowledge or ability to address political topics persists. Additionally, many of the guests are themselves political leaders trying to connect with a constituency. By not appearing on these shows, women miss the opportunity to be viewed as leaders and candidates."

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