Apr 3 2008

TV’s New Diversity?

NY Times notices race, gender progress-—but little ideological shift

On April 2, the New York Times noticed a trend that, if true, would indeed be worth celebrating. Under the headline “Like the Candidates, TV’s Political Pundits Show Signs of Diversity,” reporter Felicia Lee told readers: “With campaign coverage center stage on the cable channels, producers and critics are again assessing the diversity among pundits, who talk (and talk) about things like Mr. Obama’s pastor, the Hispanic vote, Iraq and the economy.” Lee added: “Both MSNBC and CNN this election season have given new prominence to a handful of contributing commentators from varied backgrounds and perspectives: blacks, Hispanics and women.”

That sounds good–until the Times gets around to telling you more about these fresh new faces. And then you learn that diversity has a somewhat limited definition in the corporate media. In total, the Times listed 16 pundits who represent this supposedly fresh approach to political analysis. Ten were African-Americans; four of them were conservative or Republican strategists, six were Democratic strategists or progressives, but two of the latter–Juan Williams of NPR and Fox, and Democratic Leadership Council head Harold Ford–are probably best described as centrist or conservative Democrats.

Three Latino pundits were named; all three are Republicans or conservatives. Far-right columnist Michelle Malkin, who is Filipina, also made the list. Liberal radio host Rachel Maddow was mentioned for her MSNBC appearances, while right-wing talker Laura Ingraham was appearing on Fox.

In total, that’s nine conservative or Republican pundits vs. seven progressive or Democratic ones. Not counting Williams or Ford on either side, conservatives outnumber progressives by 9-to-5 among these commentators “from varied backgrounds and perspectives.”

In other words, the new media diversity is, well, a lot like the old media: It leans to the right, politically speaking. If you consider diversity only a matter of the race or sex of the commentator, then this lineup looks pretty diverse. If you factor in the ideas they share when they’re on TV–at least as important a measure–it becomes a lot less so.

The relevant context for this broadening of the pundit lineups on TV is, of course, the presidential election. But in that context of national politics, what’s really striking is that the communities that are being represented here-—blacks, Latinos and women—really aren’t being represented. All three groups tend to vote Democratic; since 1992, exit polls have shown women picking Democratic presidential candidates over Republicans by an average of 10 percentage points, Latinos choosing Democrats by 31 points and African-Americans voting Democratic by a dramatic 78 points.

The Times cheered what it calls the “more saladlike pundit mix” available to viewers. The paper also said that CNN president Jon Klein thinks the fact that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are on the cusp of the Democratic nomination translates into more women and people of color on the air. That might be true, but it really only points back at the problem: Why do the media have to wait for the slow-motion march towards political diversity at the top of the political world before giving viewers and readers even a limited glimpse at diversity in the political discussion?