If you've spent any length of time watching the Sunday morning political talk shows, as I once, regrettably, did, you've probably noticed that the on-air proceedings are -- how to put this? Let's say, a bit of a sausage-fest. (You know, just the wurst, ha ha.) Male guests consistently outnumber their female counterparts.
But on last Sunday's "Meet The Press," three of the District of Columbia's highest-ranking public officials appeared -- all women. It was a bit of drastic, if temporary, change, and precipitated political scientist Gail Baitinger's post on The Washington Post's (excellent) "Monkey Cage" blog. In the post, Baitinger delves into the question: "Why are there so few women on the Sunday morning talk shows?"
I find that women tend to appear infrequently on the shows because of journalistic norms – such as the desire by the networks to create balance and conflict or to interview the sources they believe possess political power. Because women are less likely than men to possess these characteristics, they are less likely to appear on the Sunday shows.
In other words, it's not that the Sunday show producers are acting from some bias against women underpinned by structural sexism, they're acting from a bias toward perceived power. Which is also ... uhm, underpinned by structural sexism?
Right, I know that at first blush, this seems like it maybe is something that comes from a recent issue of the Journal Of Obvious Studies, but this is all worth talking about.
Baitinger took an inventory of all of the guests who found their way onto the sets of "This Week," "Face The Nation," "Meet The Press," "Fox News Sunday," and "State Of The Nation" from January 2009 to December 2011. "After accounting for repeated appearances," she writes, "women comprise approximately one-quarter of the guests." That propotion was fairly consistent for the five shows broken down individually.
She concludes that "journalistic norms, not sexism, appear to determine which political actors appear on these programs." Those norms are, essentially, a preference for perceived "expertise and credibility" and high ranks on the pecking order of parties and committees. Women, as Baitinger notes, tend to run for office less often than men, retire sooner in their careers, and for a variety of reasons, not ascend to the heights of this pecking order during their careers.
"This does not mean that sex is irrelevant," she writes. "Instead, it highlights the fact that women in the pool of potential guests are less likely than men to have the attributes and experiences that make them seem newsworthy."
Right, well, this is still sexism, it's just a sexism that the Sunday shows have decided lies outside their responsibility to respond to or correct.
Anyone who's examined the issue of basic workplace diversity recognizes the phenomenon depicted above: There is a pipeline that brings personnel or talent to your doorstep, and out of that pipeline comes mainly men. The person manning the delivery end of the pipeline might prefer a more diverse mix of people, but what can they do, other than point back down the pipe and lament that there is some problem at the source? If only that problem could be corrected, then the pipeline would function in a more equitable way. "Someone should really get on that," the person at the spigot end says.
And that, my friends, is simply a pernicious little shrug. Because if your bathroom sink was pouring out nothing but cold water, you would do something about it. You would formulate a plan of action, and you would act upon it. You would not sit back passively and hope that the balance you'd prefer arrives one day.
So, you have to take some chances, leave your comfort zone, dip into unfamiliar networks and miss the bar you've raised again and again and again and again until you get over it the first time. It is, as Buzzfeed's Shani Hilton recently put it on a related topic, "work." Work at which you will often fail. But that pipeline won't be fixed if you just sit there, waiting.
To move on to a second point, here's some potential good news for the Sunday shows. If the networks corrected the bias that Baitinger identifies -- in which only the most highly-proclaimed elites with the most perceived merit are favored over people who lack the shallow decorations and trappings that the ersatz eyeball tells us constitute "power" -- they'd go a long way toward resolving the gender diversity problem and make for a better Sunday show in general. Because I have to tell you, I watched those shows from 2009 to 2011 too, and the dirty little secret about the overwhelming majority of those guests during that time is that they really weren't that interesting. I know this might sound radical in some circles, but the fact of the matter is that the McCains and Durbins and Grahams and Schumers ... they just aren't that great. They're predictable talking points dispensers who bring all of the vigorous perspective of a tape recorder.
What's the point of five Sunday shows booking a similar array of bland-but-high-ranking guests when the end result is something that could have just been summarized by a reporter in a three-paragraph news brief? (Which, by the way, is precisely how most Americans these days are finding out about what transpires on the Sunday shows.)
This favoritism toward elite power also structurally deforms the way the Sunday shows cover the news, sabotaging their supposed role as concerned chronicles of public affairs. This is the very bias that undermined the talk shows' ability to properly grapple with America's various financial crises, instead rendering "the economy" as something that primarily impacted affluent political celebrities, as opposed to normal human Americans. In the confines of the Sunday salons, the 2008 downturn was never properly depicted as a thing that caused people to lose jobs, homes, health and wealth. Instead, what was at stake was that one permanently well-to-do politician or another might be forced to give up their electoral seat and, you know ... become a gainfully employed lobbyist instead.
So, for a number of fairly compelling reasons, not the least of which would be altering the male-female ratio of the guests, it would be worth undertaking the effort to redefine things like "expertise" and "power" and -- good Lord -- "credibility."
Why does this bias toward the perceived-to-be-powerful (and thus a bias toward men) persist? In all likelihood, it's because the producers of the Sunday shows fear that not having the proclaimed top dogs of the Beltway scene on their shows on a regular basis would imperil their ratings. From there comes the subsequent admission that actually challenging these guests would result in their refusal to appear on these shows -- which would also imperil their ratings.
I guess I've got to drop another bit of secret knowledge here, for the benefit of the Sunday shows. Guys? You are well past the point where your ratings might be imperiled. As I've pointed out before, your ratings are garbage right now. The thing in your hand that you think is a life preserver is actually the dead weight that's sinking you. You should go ahead and challenge your powerful guests. You should go ahead and book more interesting people. Maybe this is a thing that more people would like to watch. Trust me when I tell you that you have very little currency to risk in this gamble.
Read the whole thing on The Monkey Cage at The Washington Post: Why are there so few women on the Sunday morning talk shows?
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