Jul
01
2005

Opinion Omission

Women hard to find on op-ed pages, TV panels

When Susan Estrich launched a public attack in February on Los Angeles Times op-ed page editor Michael Kinsley for not including enough women on his pages, it made a brief stir in certain (mostly female) circles of the media. But the problem runs deeper than the op-ed pages of prominent newspapers; female opinions are muted across the media, and progress in recent years has slowed to a crawl.

Estrich’s ire was provoked by a Times op-ed (2/13/05) by Charlotte Allen of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum headlined, “Feminist Fatale: Where Are the Great Women Thinkers? Thinking So Much About Women Has Shrunk Their Minds.” In the piece, Allen attacked contemporary feminists for being too “parochial”—i.e., too feminist—and claimed that their adherence to feminism disqualifies them as public intellectuals.

Estrich’s salvos against Kinsley at times crossed the line into personal abuse, as when she questioned whether Kinsley’s Parkinson’s disease had “affected [his] brain” (Washington Examiner, 2/18/05). But her critique of his failure to give women their due on the op-ed page cannot be dismissed. In the first two months of this year, women wrote only 19.5 percent of op-ed pieces at the Los Angeles Times, 16.9 percent at the New York Times and 10.4 percent at the Washington Post (Washington Post, 3/7/05). Each paper had one regular female columnist amidst several men.

Kinsley claimed (L.A. Times, 3/11/05) he “was on the case already. . . . And now you feel a little queasy about pushing for more women because you think you are being used and you are giving this jerk a victory. I have to force myself to sort of look beyond that and do what we were doing anyway.”

If Kinsley was indeed already “on the case” before Estrich’s campaign, he wasn’t making much progress: According to research on Estrich’s website (LATimesBias.org), the Los Angeles Times averaged 18 percent female bylines on its op-ed page from 2000-03. In other words, Kinsley’s tenure, begun June 2004, raised women’s numbers by a whopping 1.5 percentage points.

A stacked deck?

Newspaper editors mostly plead that the deck is stacked against them: The New York Times’ Gail Collins argued that “the pool of available people doing opinion writing is still tilted toward men,” and the Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt said 80 to 90 percent of their unsolicited op-ed submissions come from men (Washington Post, 3/7/05).

But Marianne Goldstein, editorial director at United Media (which syndicates 15 columns, about half of them female-authored), said she receives “almost as many unsolicited submissions from women as men who want to do general-interest or harder political columns” (Editor & Publisher, 3/15/05).

In a discussion on a listserv created at the 2005 Women and the Media conference, Shirley Ragsdale, former editorial page editor at various Gannett newspapers, said that under her watch, “the number of women writers rose to 50 percent of letters to the editor and guest columnists. The more you print, the more who write.” Greater visibility paves the way for greater participation.

Even if the pool is more heavily stocked with men, though, that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of women—it just means a little more work to fish them out. Kinsley did attempt to recruit Barbara Ehrenreich as a regular columnist for the L.A. Times; she had penned pieces on an ad hoc basis for the paper in the past, and last summer she filled in temporarily for vacationing New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. Ehrenreich told Extra! that the financial incentive was not great enough for her to shift her focus to writing columns from writing books, where she feels she has a greater impact. “I had too much else to do,” said Ehrenreich. “I didn’t want to turn into a newspaper columnist full time.”

But skilled female writers without Ehrenreich’s level of prominence often find themselves overlooked for columnist jobs. Newsday’s Sheryl McCarthy told Women’s eNews (2/2/05) that she was working as a reporter for the newspaper when management explained to the paper’s women’s caucus that it was having trouble finding a woman or two to add to its all-male roster of columnists. Male columnists often move into their position from a reporting job, but Newsday apparently was having trouble seeing the qualified women among its own staff. McCarthy spoke up, and the paper soon gave her a column. Clearly, op-ed page editors need to look beyond the already prominent and successful women pundits in order to fill their pages.

Skewed syndication

Newspapers’ stacked deck extends to the available syndicated columnists from which they choose. Women make up only 24.4 percent of the columnists at eight major syndicates, a number that’s barely moved since 1999, when it stood at 23.7 percent (Editor & Publisher, 3/15/05). The percentages of women at individual syndicates varies widely, from the aforementioned 50 percent at United Media to 12.5 at the New York Times News Service.

Even the women available are picked up less. The top syndicated female columnist, Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe, appears in substantially fewer papers than the top male columnist, Cal Thomas (400+ versus 600+, according to Editor & Publisher’s Dave Astor), and the top five women are outnumbered by the top five men by a similar proportion (roughly 1,200 papers to 1,750).

Four of the nine most widely distributed female columnists (published in 50 or more papers) are conservatives who frequently disparage feminism and feminist positions: Kathleen Parker, Ann Coulter, Mona Charen and Maggie Gallagher. Goodman is a mainstream liberal, while Molly Ivins and Arianna Huffington take more progressive stances, though Huffington, a former anti-feminist, seldom writes about gender issues. Froma Harrop’s distributor, Creators Syndicate, writes that “her politics often reflect the frustrations of the swing voter.” Maureen Dowd is harder to characterize politically: Her formerly frequent barbs against the left are now directed at the Bush administration.

None of the nine top female columnists are women of color. Nor are there any female columnists of color at the three top papers studied. It is possible to find newspapers with female columnists of color—Sheryl McCarthy of Newsday, Mary Mitchell of the Chicago Sun-Times—but the media’s long-noted “quota of one” is essentially a quota of one white woman.

Almost inevitably, the incomes of national media figures put them in the upper or upper-middle class, and female columnists are no exception: Dowd tells of shopping at Bergdorf’s and lunching at the Four Seasons (New York Times, 6/11/03), Goodman muses about buying a new Toyota Prius (Boston Globe, 7/11/04). Still, more female pundits tend to write about poverty and issues that face the working class. Women, especially feminists like Ivins, Goodman and Newsweek’s Anna Quindlen, are also much more likely to write about reproductive rights, pressures on working mothers, and women’s rights in Iraq and around the world.

More than a third of the New York Times op-eds written by women were about women or gender issues (reproductive rights, family policies, etc.), compared to about 8 percent of the male-authored pieces. Half of those male-authored pieces were by Nicholas Kristof, whose methods of bringing much-needed attention to abuses of women in other countries can be problematic—for his most recent crusade against sex-trafficking of women and children, he went to Cambodia and purchased two young women to “free” them. As he admitted in a later column (New York Times, 1/29/05), paying brothel owners to release such women “only makes sex trafficking more profitable,” but instead of channeling his efforts through the constructive and underfunded work local organizations already do, he chose to take the more dramatic and paternalistic route.

What’s more, Kristof chastised U.S. women’s groups for being “shamefully lackadaisical” about sex trafficking, while praising Bush and evangelical groups for having “led the way” (New York Times, 1/31/04). Of course, plenty of feminist groups have been working on those issues (and for far longer than Kristof), and they criticize the Bush administration for a moralistic approach to sex trafficking that refuses to recognize the rights and needs of sex workers (In These Times, 3/14/05). In fact, as Katha Pollitt noted in The Nation (2/12/04), both the Feminist Majority and Equality Now had spent a good deal of time giving Kristof information about their work on trafficking, making his criticism of them all the more curious.

At the Washington Post, not only were women more scarce than at the other papers, women’s issues were less discussed as well, in only 17 op-eds (roughly 6 percent). Five of those columns concerned the Larry Summers flap. (See page 23.) No writer consistently addressed women’s issues on the Post op-ed page.

No Time for women

The major news magazines proved only slightly more balanced than newspapers. Over a six-month study period (9/1/04-2/28/05), men’s columns outnumbered women’s by more than three to one at U.S. News & World Report, Time and Newsweek. U.S. News published the most women at 28 percent, Time ran the fewest at 13 percent and Newsweek had 23 percent. When non-political columns were eliminated (covering subjects like health, personal finance or humor), the share of women dropped to an average of 17 percent (21 percent at Newsweek, 18 percent at U.S. News and 10 percent at Time).

Time’s dismal numbers result in large part from its all-male stable of regular columnists, leaving only occasional guest slots for women. Newsweek and U.S. News have two and three regular female columnists respectively. Of those women, only U.S. News’ Gloria Borger and Newsweek’s Anna Quindlen focus on politics; very few other women’s voices on political issues appeared in the two magazines during the entire six-month period.

Quindlen provides the only consistent feminist voice in the three magazines: Four of her 14 columns in the study period focused on gender issues, two specifically in favor of reproductive rights. Fellow Newsweek writer Jane Bryant Quinn, who writes a finance column, occasionally weighs in on political economic issues, usually from the left of the spectrum—for example, her November 9 column argued strongly for a government-run universal healthcare system. U.S. News’ Borger is a centrist, quick to criticize both left and right. No women of color or conservative women write regular columns for any of the three major news magazines.

Pale male panels

FAIR also 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.)

The program’s hosts were not counted, nor were non-panelist guests. All of the hosts, who direct the discussions, are white men: NBC’s Chris Matthews and Tim Russert, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and Fox’s Chris Wallace.

Surprisingly, NBC’s Chris Matthews Show came out almost exactly even on panelist 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.

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), both African-Americans. 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.

The invisible female left

Women with strongly expressed views are largely passed over for the pundit panels as well. While a number of hard-right men are regularly featured on these shows—George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Robert Novak, Fred Barnes, Bill Kristol—most of the women tapped are political correspondents who primarily provide analysis from a less openly opinionated viewpoint. Taking controversial political stands, particularly progressive ones, would jeopardize these women’s jobs.

Fox touts Mara Liasson, Fox News Sunday’s most regular female “All-Star,” as a “liberal.” As a correspondent for NPR who has to maintain an appearance of impartiality, Liasson is not completely free to express her personal views, but it’s not clear how much those views are on the left side of the spectrum anyway. New York magazine (11/17/97) cited a Fox insider as saying that Liasson assured Fox president Roger Ailes before being hired that she was a Republican. She recently (11/14/04) called Alberto Gonzales a “good choice” for attorney general, ignoring his record of sanctioning torture.

When Liasson’s not the designated female on Fox News Sunday, the slot’s often filled by Ceci Connolly—another political reporter (for the Washington Post) who’s no liberal advocate. In fact, when George W. Bush cracked jokes at a press dinner about his failure to find WMD, Connolly found it just as amusing as her fellow Fox panelists (3/28/04): “You know, trying to be funny at these things is so difficult, and he is quite good at it. I mean, he really is very good at self-deprecating humor. The pictures were funny. I laughed at the photos. I mean, he looks goofy, and he’s got that great deadpan delivery.”

Of those female panelists who do take more opinionated positions, true liberals are virtually absent. During the six months studied, only one progressive woman made an appearance on a Sunday panel: Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation (Chris Matthews Show, 2/6/05). New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, whose analyses seem more grounded in personality than policy, appeared five times. Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker appeared four times, while fellow conservatives Mary Matalin and Kate O’Beirne made two appearances each. Centrists were particularly popular: Cokie Roberts is a regular panelist on This Week with seven appearances, and Gloria Borger of U.S. News & World Report appeared eight times on the Chris Matthews Show.

Where are the women?

It’s interesting to note that, unlike most prominent male columnists, female columnists tend not to be fixtures on the TV punditry circuit as well. And those print pundits who do appear more frequently on TV—like Maggie Gallagher and Debra Saunders—tend to fall towards the conservative end of the spectrum.

Asked in a talk at the Kennedy Library (2/29/04) why she so rarely appears on television, Ellen Goodman explained that in the typical television format, “speed trumps thoughtfulness routinely. You just have no time to say anything. You can’t think out loud anywhere nearly as well as you can when you’re writing, as you know as a writer. And I’ve never been attracted to doing it.”

Goodman’s sentiment doesn’t appear to be unique; as Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick wrote (3/16/05), “I know an awful lot of smart, accomplished women who avoid both the op-ed pages and the Crossfire-style ‘screaming shows’ because that is simply not the type of discourse they seek out or value.” Georgetown professor Deborah Tannen suggested in a Los Angeles Times op-ed (3/15/05) that the sort of attack-dog punditry that men tend to practice isn’t generally favored by women, and that media should question their format and expectations in order to address their gender diversity imbalance.

The dearth of women (and particularly women of color) in punditry can also be traced in part to the overall underrepresentation of women in the newsroom. In a 2004 survey, women made up only 37 percent of the staff at newspapers across the country (and only 34 percent of supervisors); women of color represented a paltry 6 percent. Since 1999, the first year studied, women have seen virtually no increase in their numbers, and their ranks have gotten only slightly more diverse, as women of color increased by 0.7 percent (American Society of Newspaper Editors, 4/20/04).

Television news is little different. There, women are 39 percent of the workforce and 25 percent of news directors—numbers that again stand virtually unchanged since 1999. While a breakdown of women of color was not available, minorities still make up less than 22 percent of the broadcast television news workforce and less than 13 percent of TV news directors, an increase of less than 4 percent in 10 years, which failed to even keep pace with the increase in the minority population of the country (RTNDA/Ball State University, 7/14/04).

Columnists tend to move into their positions from reporting jobs, and most of the women appearing on the Sunday shows are prominent journalists from leading news outlets. And the even greater dominance of white men in top editor spots means it’s mostly white men making the decisions about which voices will have a chance to be heard.

As Esther Wu, columnist for the Dallas Morning News and president of the Asian American Journalists Association, put it (Journal-isms, 3/16/05), “It’s not that we don’t have anything important to say or that women of color are not deep-thinkers. But I believe that women of color are not taken seriously in the newsroom. We are not contenders for ‘important jobs.’”

White male math

The L.A. Times’ Kinsley unwittingly revealed a major cause of the “quota of one” while trying to defend his page’s lack of diversity (L. A. Times, 3/20/05):

If pressure for more women succeeds—as it will—there will be fewer black voices, fewer Latinos, and so on. Why should this be so? Aren’t there black women and conservative Latinos? Of course there are. There may even be a wonderfully articulate disabled Latina lesbian conservative who is undiscovered because she is outside the comfortable old-boy network. But there probably aren’t two. It’s not a question of effort, it’s mathematics. Each variable added to the equation subverts efforts to maximize all the other variables.

Of course, the only way that increasing the number of women would decrease the number of minorities would be if Kinsley swapped op-eds by men of color with op-eds by white women, leaving women of color shut out and white men untouched by the whole ordeal. But Kinsley’s apparently unconscious assumption that the 80 percent of his columnists who are white males are irreplaceable is a revealing insight into the mind of a white male op-ed page editor and the biases that work against women and people of color.

Not that simply putting women in positions of power leads inevitably to more female voices on the op-ed page: Gail Collins, editor of the New York Times op-ed page, presides over a roster of seven men (all but one of whom are white) and one white woman. When longtime columnist William Safire retired recently, Collins promptly filled his slot with another conservative white male, Times staffer John Tierney.

And the Chris Matthews Show’s gender balance proves that adding women’s voices in itself isn’t enough; a true effort to broaden public discussion needs to involve racial diversity and true feminist and progressive female voices as well.

Beyond “girlie topics”

Several of those who weighed in on the Estrich/Kinsley debate argued that the number of women shouldn’t matter; as Wall Street Journal editorial page associate editor Melanie Kirkpatrick wrote (3/21/05): “How gender is relevant when the subject is Social Security reform and the author is Martin Feldstein or Caroline Hoxby, both Harvard economists who write for the Journal, is anyone’s guess. As a former op-ed editor, I always thought it was the intellectual content that mattered.”

The Washington Post’s sole female op-ed columnist, Anne Applebaum, took Estrich’s attack personally, writing (3/16/05) that Estrich had “launched a conversation that is seriously bad for female columnists and writers” because “now, thanks to Estrich, every woman who gets her article accepted will have to wonder whether it was her knowledge of Irish politics, her willingness to court controversy or just her gender that won the editor over.” (Realistically, a “willingness to court controversy” is less likely to get you a job on the Post op-ed page than a facility for defending the status quo.)

These kinds of arguments have long been used to fight racial affirmative action policies; like Kinsley’s argument, they contain an unspoken assumption that female inferiority rather than structural barriers and sexism are responsible for the dearth of women in the media.

Quite simply, men and women often do place different priorities on issues, and they often have different perspectives within the same issue (yes, even Social Security). The relatively limited amount of space given to female pundits forces them to make difficult choices between addressing underreported women’s issues and injecting their perspective into the most prominent political discussions du jour—and editors’ expectations further reinforce this dilemma.

Barbara Ehrenreich noted that although she has plenty to say on subjects like the Iraq War or economic policy, she is often called to write on lighter “girlie topics” (as Kinsley once termed them), such as musings on Teresa Heinz Kerry. “There’s a lot of that kind of stereotyping,” Ehrenreich said. “I’m there to get people to take seriously women’s issues, but on the other hand as a woman I want to be taken seriously enough to write about the more general issues.”

Diversifying debate

Adding a diversity of women to opinion pages and pundit panels would help bring women’s issues more forcefully into public debate, and at the same time, it would create space for women to discuss much more than just those narrower issues.

A strong female presence on op-ed pages in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, for example, might have made a difference in the public debate. In the three weeks following the attacks, only 8 percent of op-eds appearing in the New York Times and the Washington Post were written by women (FAIR Action Alert, 11/2/01). At that time, voices echoing the administration’s call for a military response overwhelmed those stressing non-military solutions (44 columns to two). Also during that time, polls showed that while a majority of both genders favored military action, women were considerably less supportive than men, especially when factors like potentially high U.S. casualties were considered. Adding more women to the op-ed page would likely have brought this difference, and more questioning of the impending war, into public debate.

Gwen Ifill, who moderated the 2004 vice-presidential debate, asked the candidates what they planned to do about the climbing rate of HIV infection among African-American women. “As a black woman who had some familiarity with and concern about the rising rate of HIV infection,” Ifill told the Charlotte Observer (3/20/05), “I was in a unique position to ask the question that no one else would ask. I realized everyone would ask about Iraq. Everyone would ask about taxes. But no one would ask about this except me.”

And in her one appearance on a Sunday show during the period studied (Meet the Press, 10/24/04), Ifill brought up the discussions happening on black radio about the election and the intensity of their get-out-the-vote effort, a subject that’s unlikely to have come up in her absence.

An issue of inclusion

But beyond the different perspectives that women might bring to the fore, ultimately, bringing more women’s opinions to the media is an issue of fairness and inclusion. As just over half the population of the country, there is no reason why women should be heard on issues of public importance less often than men.

And women and media activists will continue to push the issue. The Journalism & Women Symposium, a national organization of more than 250 women working in print, broadcast, new media and academia, has launched a renewed effort to increase women’s voices on op-ed pages. “We are recruiting women opinion writers, dispensing tips on how to write and submit articles and letting editorial editors know where they can find authoritative female voices on a variety of topics,” said JAWS president Rosemary Armao (Women’s eNews, 3/23/05).

That renewed effort stemmed in part from the most recent annual Women and the Media conference in March 2005, which brought together hundreds of women in journalism, activism and academia to discuss ways to increase women’s influence in media.

As media outlets struggle to find new ways to increase their flagging readership numbers, they would do well to increase the gender and racial diversity of the voices they include. Denver Post columnist Cindy Rodriguez (3/17/05) pointed out that “the overwhelming majority of voices come from middle-aged white men. And then newspaper executives wonder why readership is lower among women, young people and minorities.” Rodriguez notes that diversifying the newsroom is not primarily about getting female and minority journalists better jobs: “It’s about challenging you, the reader, entertaining you, offering you a different take on issues.”

Research assistance by Jessica Wakeman.

Please also see the sidebar to this article: Stand by Your Man