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Look Who's Not Talking: Women

by Jennifer L. Pozner

Published in the Chicago Tribune, Dec. 12, 2001; Section: Woman News, pg. 1

If the major networks' Sunday morning talk shows seem frozen on white men in dark suits, there's nothing wrong with your television. It's the programming that's the problem, according to a new study.

Since Sept. 11, TV news debates have been dominated by questions about terrorism and war, such as where the FBI and CIA were when the hijackers were plotting the attacks, whether America can guard against assaults while protecting constitutional freedoms, and how Congress is responding to the economic downturn and the anthrax scare. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Democratic Whip and ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, might seem a natural choice for journalistic grilling on these issues. But for six weeks following the World Trade Center attacks, Pelosi did not appear once on NBC's "Meet the Press," ABC's "This Week," CBS' "Face the Nation," CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer" and "Fox News Sunday."

Neither did Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Subcommittee on International Operations and Terrorism, nor Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Terrorism and Government Information.

This omission of women -- even those on the political A-list -- from the media's main stage is not unusual, according to a new study released last Wednesday by the White House Project, a non-partisan women's leadership group. Called "Who's Talking? An Analysis of Sunday Morning Talk Shows," the study found that women were just 11 percent of all guests on these network programs between Jan. 1, 2000 , and June 30, 2001 .

This underrepresentation was exacerbated in the aftermath of Sept. 11th: An addendum to the study showed that women were just 9 percent of guests for six weeks after the attacks; when foreign officials were excluded, that number fell to 7 percent.

Blink and you'll miss her

Speaking at a congressional briefing in Washington, D.C., last Wednesday, University of Missouri journalism professor and former Washington Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser called the "Who's Talking" study "terribly important," saying that it is crucial for people living in a democracy to be well represented in the print and broadcast media.

The study indicates this may not be happening. When a woman does appear on a Sunday morning talk show, she is rarely invited back. Women were only 7 percent of all repeat guests during the general survey period, and after Sept. 11 the few female guests appearing on these shows showed up only once each on every network except CNN.

ACLU President Nadine Strossen and Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal, for instance, each made one appearance on the talk shows in 18 months, while former Christian Coalition president Pat Robertson and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume appeared 11 and 5 times, respectively.

The women guests also spoke fewer words on the shows and were placed in later segments of the broadcasts than their male counterparts.

Setting a male agenda?

Shows like "Meet the Press" and "Face the Nation" often lead the weekly news cycle, helping to determine which issues will be considered important and whose opinions will shape the national debate and influence public policy.

Discussing the findings, White House Project President Marie Wilson explained that the more these agenda-setting talk shows ignore powerful female leaders the harder it becomes for girls to find role models, for the public to consider women as credible authority figures, and for women to get elected to public office.

"We want women's leadership to be seen as normal. But if these valuable shows ... do not trust women to provide invaluable information, insight and analysis," Wilson asked, "how do we get there?"

The "Who's Talking?" findings could have broad implications for public perceptions of social policy. "It has been my experience that women hold differences of opinion with their male counterparts," said Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.), who spoke at the briefing along with Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.). The two are co-chairwomen of the Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues.

By sidelining or ignoring women's perspectives on health care, child care, Social Security, family violence and other issues, Millender-McDonald said, these shows give "a skewed impression of what our public opinion is on many issues" and do "a disservice to political discourse in the nation."

"These agenda-setting talk shows are often setting a male agenda," Millender-McDonald said.

The dearth of female voices may have reduced awareness of shadings of support for the war on terrorism. A Washington Post poll released Sept. 29 showed that while the great majority of the country said they supported military retaliation, women "were significantly less likely to support a long and costly war." Though 44 percent of women would support a broad war, 48 percent wanted "a limited strike or no military action at all," the poll showed. Separate Gallup polling data showed similar results, but both polls received little attention among commentators, who generally asserted that the gender gap doesn't exist in this "new kind of war."

Senior and executive producers for these shows--many of whom are women (and Cokie Roberts is co-host of "This Week")--say there's no intent to set a male agenda.

Carin Pratt, executive producer of CBS' "Face the Nation," said political supply simply isn't meeting diversity's demand.

Where the former administration had Madeleine Albright as the secretary of state, in the current administration, that post and the bulk of other Cabinet positions are filled by men. National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice is a great guest, Pratt said, but she can't be booked every week.

"Right now there aren't the number of women in the types of high positions we usually put on TV, which I don't really consider our fault," Pratt said.

Although women have not achieved parity in many professions and in politics, they have made strides that aren't reflected by their representation on Sunday talk TV, according to the study. For example, women hold 21 percent of Cabinet seats, and 19 percent of Cabinet-rank positions. However, after Sept. 11, women were just 10 percent of the government officials interviewed, and just 3 percent of elected officials. In the entire survey period, women were only 6 percent of elected officials who appeared as guests, although they make up 13 percent of the Senate and 14 percent of the House.

Of the private professionals who were guests on the shows, 19 percent were women. Of media commentators, 12 percent were women.

'We can't have on everyone'

Asked why women elected officials like Nancy Pelosi have rarely been guests, Pratt pointed to time limits and priorities. "First of all, we're a half-hour show; we can't have on everyone," she said. "Next, listen, this is a war situation. We like to have on someone from the administration. [Last] week we had on the chairman of the Joint Chiefs [of Staff], and, guess what, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is a man."

Nancy Nathan, executive producer of NBC's "Meet the Press," says that, in general, she doesn't think gender is that relevant to viewpoints, whether speaking of guests on the shows or viewers.

"Our mission is to deliver the newsmakers. Our audience is more than half women. That audience does not want to see people who aren't making the news any more than anyone else does," she said. "When you are delivering the news you take the players where you find them -- you don't try to manipulate that."

But because most guests on the talk shows during the 18-month period were not at the level of Secretary of State Colin Powell, such reactions ring hollow for Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.).

"No one is asking people to skew the news," DeLauro said in a phone interview. If powerful politicians are what the networks want, she said, "there are very competent women who they could feature over the course of more than a year," like Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) on economic stimulus proposals or Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), chairwoman of the Ways and Means health subcommittee.

Women might have unique perspectives to add to discussions of the delivery of health benefits or the availability of reproductive services, Nathan said, and with those sorts of stories the talk shows might be able to book people who are not high-level officeholders. But, she said, "Programs like 'Meet the Press' are not having long discussions about issues that are not at the forefront ... of the agenda, and those usually do require spokesmen from the administration and leading members of Congress. It doesn't matter if it is wartime or not, the players are largely males whether you're talking about the budget or taxes."

More than just an issue of gender parity, DeLauro sees equitable media representation as a way to "introduce" female leaders to America. "Women are more than half the population," she said. "Their voices should be heard to help frame the debate and shape public policy."

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