Aug 21 2000

Gender Gap at the National Press Club

The speakers lists for two high-profile lecture series at the National PressClub in Washington, D.C. raise serious questions about who the organizationconsiders “newsworthy.”

The Press Club’s regular “Luncheon Speakers” and “Newsmakers” events forWashington-area journalists give various luminaries a platform to influencethe weekly news cycle. Yet of more than 100 individuals invited to addressthese NPC audiences since January 2000, only 13 have been women.

According to the Press Club’s web site, the Luncheon Speakers seriespresents “high-level decision-makers or extremely influential policy andtrend-setters,” while the Newsmakers events “are topical and are intended togive reporters hard news stories early in the day” by providing workingjournalists with “access to decision-makers and program implementers from avery broad spectrum of public life.”

But the Press Club’s “very broad spectrum” of guests is not broad enough.From January 1 through August 8, 2000, just four of the NPC’s 40 LuncheonSpeakers have been women– a mere 10 percent. Women fare only slightlybetter as Newsmakers, making up nine of more than 60 program presenters, or15 percent. Several female Newsmakers were included not as stand-alonespeakers but as members of panels and roundtables.

To determine its guest list, the Press Club speakers committee examines both”newsworthiness– how relevant is the individual to the issues of the day,”and “national or international stature– how much influence does theindividual have over current events in a particular sphere.” The PressClub’s website explains that its Luncheons serve as “a forum for the viewsof presidents, prime ministers, potentates, business and cultural leaders,members of the Cabinet and Congress.” Similarly, Newsmakers events “providea special venue for business leaders, diplomats and officials, includingmany visiting foreign diplomats and heads of state or government.”

These criteria are limiting to a gender-equitable speakers list, as theyspotlight segments of society that too often exclude women from their ranks.A speaking roster full of potentates, diplomats and business leaderspresents a narrow definition of “news,” one that discounts academics,activists, public interest leaders and others crucial to the issues of theday. Women affect political change, public policy and social reformthroughout the world every day. Broadening the criteria for speaking eventswould likely result in more equitable representation of women at the PressClub.

Commercial media have long used the fact that women do not have an equalshare of political or economic power as an excuse for sidelining or ignoringwomen in news coverage. Yet these rationalizations do not explain thescarcity of female speakers at the Press Club: Even if the criteria were notbroadened, the Press Club could make a better effort to find influentialfemale speakers.

Indeed, of the handful of women who have spoken this year at NPC Luncheons,only former UPI reporter Helen Thomas was not either an entertainer– likeDolly Parton or Marie Osmond– or a beauty contest winner, like former MissAmerica Heather Renee French. (The women in the Newsmakers series, whichincludes more panel discussions and fewer celebrities, generally representedmore substantive roles.)

C-SPAN broadcasts the Luncheon and Newsmaker series, while the Luncheons areaired on NPR. Viewers who tune in to these lectures are given the impressionthat the Press Club rarely considers women qualified to make news, or tocomment on it.

The National Press Club prides itself as “one of the world’s premierjournalistic organizations.” By under-representing half the world’spopulation at its highly visible events, by employing a restrictivedefinition of newsworthiness and by limiting female Luncheon speakersprimarily to singers and beauty contest winners, the Press Club does adisservice to the public– and to the journalists who report back to us.

ACTION: Please write the National Press Club and urge them to provide a morebalanced guest list for their speaking events. You might suggest femalespeakers you’d like to see behind the podium, or alternate definitions ofwhat it means to be “newsworthy.”

Leigh Ann Macklin, Assistant to the President: