Sunday, March 27, 2005

Chicks on Politics

No, this is not about Easter and the lovely little yellow bundles of joy this time of the year (which will later on be eaten). It's about women in political programs on television. Atrios today posted on a show about religion which had no women amongst the experts who discussed the topic. As S in Mich in the Eschaton comments noted, there is good precedent for this omission, at least among the Christians:

I Cor. 14:34 and 35:

Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.

And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.

So. But of course the television screen is not a church, at least not yet. And in any case, the particular guy spouting off in the above quote was not God but an ordinary faulty human being, one who felt threatened by all the smart and uppity women amongst the congregants, one who could care less if the husbands of the said women understood anything at all themselves.

It's hard to fathom what is politics in these days of political fervor. I suspect that politics always played a big role in religion and now religion plays a big role in politics. Which is not good news for anyone who believes in progress over time as most fundamentalist religions are fairly stuck in an era at least a thousand years ago, and believe in maxims such as the one quoted above.

Even in the wider sense politics is not really a field in which women are prevalent as experts. A FAIR study that used data from 2002 came up with these findings:

While women made up only 15 percent of total sources, they represented more than double that share-- 40 percent-- of the ordinary citizens in the news. This reflects a tendency to quote men as the vast majority of authoritative voices while presenting women as non-experts; women made up only 9 percent of the professional and political voices that were presented. More than half of the women (52 percent) who appeared on the news were presented as average citizens, whereas only 14 percent of male sources were.

The balance was roughly equal among networks. NBC, with 18 percent, had slightly more female sources (of whom 53 percent were non-authorities), while ABC and CBS both presented 14 percent (of whom 48 percent and 55 percent, respectively, were ordinary citizens).

Even in coverage of gender-related policies (which made up 0.2 percent of coverage), women made up only 43 percent of the sources. On such issues as equal opportunity, gender equality and discrimination, partisan sources made up 24 percent of the total; 71 percent of these were Republicans and 29 percent Democrats. All of these partisan sources were men. Women were presented as non-expert citizens 77 percent of the time in gender stories. Men, by contrast, spoke as experts in their fields 100 percent of the time in such stories.

One might argue that these numbers just reflect the way our society is: most experts, after all, are still men. But are the actual gender breakdowns of experts the same as those revealed by these numbers? I doubt it, especially as even on gender-related politics it is mostly men that get the expert perches, while the "ordinary people", the ones that are assumed to be affected by the topic under discussion, were here overwhelmingly seen as women (77%).

It's funny, isn't it? How gender politics are really politics about women, not about gender at all. This is because of the way things are set in hierarchies in our minds. Like there is an "average human being" in our minds, and that tends to be a picture of a man, so when we talk about gender politics our minds interpret that as meaning anything which differs from the "average", anything which is on some side-ladder. Or this is my theory, anyway.

A more recent FAIR study looked at women's participation in Sunday morning talkshow panels:

FAIR looked at Sunday morning talkshow panels, where two to four journalists (political reporters as well as columnists) often join the shows' hosts to discuss the week's big political stories. The study examined six months (9/1/04-2/28/05) of NBC's Chris Matthews Show and Meet the Press, ABC's This Week and Fox News Sunday. (CBS had no consistent panel feature on analogous shows.)

Surprisingly, NBC's Chris Matthews Show came out almost exactly even on gender, with 51 men and 49 women. Unfortunately, the show is unique in its gender balance: This Week and Fox News Sunday hewed more closely to the print media's unspoken "quota of one" for female pundits, featuring 22 percent and 25 percent women respectively. Meet the Press—which occasionally included more than one woman per panel and once (2/20/05) even filled its panel with four—had 39 percent women.

All of the program hosts, who direct the discussions, are white men: NBC's Chris Matthews and Tim Russert, ABC's George Stephanopoulos and Fox's Chris Wallace.

But which women get to speak? Certainly not women of color. While the Chris Matthews Show did well on gender parity, every one of its 49 female panelists was white. The only two appearances by non-white women in the six months studied were PBS's Gwen Ifill (Meet the Press, 10/24/04) and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile (This Week, 2/27/05). And Brazile falls into a somewhat different category—unlike the other shows, This Week's pundit roundtable sometimes includes newsmakers like her in addition to journalists.

Male pundits showed more ethnic diversity. Most of the shows have either a regular or semi-regular non-white male panelist (Juan Williams on Fox News Sunday, Fareed Zakaria on This Week, Clarence Page on the Chris Matthews Show)—once again, essentially a quota of one. That unspoken quota system works against women of color: One "woman" is generally interpreted as one white woman, and one "person of color" as one man of color; once those quotas are filled, there's no room left for any more diversity.

If there is such an unspoken quota system, it's because of the hierarchy view I argued above. If white men correspond to our views of what is "average" then adding a pinch of women and a dab of blacks and so on seems sufficient to brew a diverse stew of opinions. If, on the other hand, we looked at actual population percentages of various groups these pinches and dabs are totally inadequate.

But should we base the argument on population percentages? Many argue that this is not fair because the real problem is in the lack of women and minorities among the groups from which guests on these shows are drawn. If, for example, there are very few black women in journalism then shows that invite journalists to speak can't have very many black women on. This would move the responsibility for change one step backwards, to those institutions that gatekeep journalism. - The crucial question here is to find out the numbers of black female journalists, in general, and then to compare them to the data presented above.

Should we care about the underrepresentation of certain groups in political tv debates? The answer depends on ones values and on what one thinks such debates contribute. My values argue that everybody should have a say in how we govern our shared matters. I also believe that women or minorities might come up with points that men or whites might not think of as important, just because, on average, our racial and gender makeups do affect what we experience in this life. This doesn't mean that, say, a woman should somehow be invited to a talkshow to give the "women's point of view", because there is no such thing, just as there is no such thing as "the black's point of view". But if we had true diversity in these shows we'd ultimately learn more viewpoints than we do if most of those contributing had exactly the same sort of lives.

For example, assume that the religion show that Atrios mentioned had included me as a minor goddess in its invitations. Surely my presence would have changed the debate somewhat, don't you think?

There are those who argue that women don't care about politics in the same numbers as men do and that therefore we shouldn't expect as many women's faces or voices in political media. Maybe. I'm not convinced by this argument until we define politics as the care of common matters and ask women if they are uninterested in this shared endeavor. Too often politics is defined as fighting and power-grabbing, and then we wonder why women, usually trained not to come across as interested in such activities, might state that they dislike politics.

Now, I love politics of both types. A good fight is great and I'll grab all the power I can because I can use it better than most politicans you could mention, but I'm also seriously interested in the way we take care of this planet and its inhabitants, and I suspect that the majority of other women are, too. And I'd really like to hear more ideas on how to do these chores, more ideas from whites and blacks, from men and women, from all of us, in fact.