Monday, May 07, 2007

Cable News Programs And Diversity

Media Matters for America has an interesting little survey of the gender and race balance on various cable news programs:

During the recent controversy over former radio and television host Don Imus' remarks about the Rutgers women's basketball team, some cable-news viewers may have noticed something unusual: the presence of significantly more African-Americans. The nature of the controversy led the cable networks to seek comment from a far more diverse group of people than they ordinarily do, which begs the question: To the extent these cable programs included a more diverse guest lineup during the Imus controversy, why do they provide such diversity only when issues of race are in the news cycle? Do cable-news producers view the guests added to the lineup during the Imus controversy as qualified to talk only about issues of race, and not other issues of national and political significance?

And did these guests have any lasting effect on the networks' booking practices, or did they return to their old ways as soon as the Imus issue disappeared? To begin to answer these questions, Media Matters for America analyzed the race/ethnicity and gender of the hosts and guests on the major prime-time cable-news programs. This study looks at the guests who appeared on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC during the weeknights before the Imus controversy (Monday, April 2, through Friday, April 6), the weeknights of the Imus controversy (Monday, April 9, through Friday, April 13), and the weeknights following the Imus controversy (Monday, April 23, through Friday, April 27). (We omitted the week immediately after the Imus controversy because it was consumed almost entirely by a single issue -- the Virginia Tech shootings -- and thus was atypical). Each guest appearing on the prime-time shows of the top three cable-news networks was recorded and categorized by race/ethnicity and gender.

I'm sure you can predict most of the findings of the survey, though there were some surprises, too, at least for me:

CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC did not fare particularly well when it came to gender diversity in any of the three weeks. Among the individual programs, there was more variation. The most gender-diverse program was The O'Reilly Factor, with a nearly even split between male and female guests during all three weeks, increasing Fox News' overall proportion of female guests. Despite the fact that the remarks that touched off the controversy were not only racist but misogynistic, only Paula Zahn Now and The Situation Room increased their proportion of female guests substantially from the first week to the second. And three others, all of which air on MSNBC -- Scarborough Country, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, and Hardball -- all hosted fewer women during the week of the Imus controversy than the week before.

The surprises are the O'Reilly Factor and the overall obliviousness of the MSNBC shows.

Writing about diversity is not fun. "Diversity" in itself is one of those euphemisms which were selected because fairness and equality didn't test well in a world where the Rush Limbaughs have been allowed to get away with defining those concepts as thought control and political correctness. But diversity is too vague a concept for practical purposes. One can have "diversity" by hiring one woman or one black man, for example. A better concept would be representativeness, although defining it properly would require a whole post.

As I was saying, I don't like to write about diversity. It isn't clear-cut and it is still vulnerable to all the same counterarguments as the more rigorous measures of inclusiveness. In particular, it has been tainted with the smell of diversity-for-its-own-sake; as if nothing is lost by not having diversity but diversity itself. That is of course exactly the wingnut argument: that the cream rises to the top and if it happens to be white, Christian and male, well, that's how it is. Of course scum also rises to the top, but that, too, is another post.

The Imus case is a good example of a treatment of news where something pretty obvious is lost if the people discussing Imus's slurs are all white guys. That the MSNBC shows didn't try to have more women talking about the slurs means that their coverage was weakened. As a minimum, when the debate is about something having to do with racial minorities or with women it would be just good manners to have a few from those groups participating in the pontificating.

But in a wider sense this is pitifully inadequate. It says that the only things women and blacks, say, can be experts in are being women and/or blacks. That is pretty insulting, isn't it?