Thursday, March 24, 2005

Gender and Opinion

There's been a simmering debate of late in op-ed pages and the blogosphere about the prepoderance of men in the political opinion biz. As an old white guy with no significant influence over who gets to say what in any venue, I figured there was no reason this side of masochism for weighing in, but as a final Lenten discipline, I'll offer a few scattered thoughts.

There are at least three separate issues being kicked around. One is the small number of women represented on the op-ed pages of Big Opinion Leading newspapers like the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. A second is the male domination of influential but seletively read political magazines like The New Republic, The Nation, The Washington Monthly, etc. And the third is the decisively masculine cast of well-linked and well-supported political blogs.

The first two issues, in reality, have to do with the ancient canons of the traditional journalism profession.

Op-ed columns in all but the largest circulation newspapers have often served as the Pot of Gold at the End of the Rainbow for that hearty, underpaid tribe of political reporters. (I learned this personally when I tried to make a lateral transfer from government policy work into editorial writing, and was informed that giving me a job would screw up the entire career ladder). Thus, today's columnists are yesterday's ink-stained wretches, which means that the Editorial side of the business should eventually catch up with the growing gender balance of the News side.

For the Big Papers, though, the problem is that there are so few editorial spots available, and, unlike their smaller competitors, no real market pressure to turn things over. I don't want to name names, but in my judgment, nearly half of the columnists in the Big Papers, most of them white men, are just filling up space with Left-Right CW that could be, and for all I know, may be written by a computer.

That's why I think an aggressive affirmative action program for Big and Small Paper editorial staffs makes sense, so long as some care is taken to give some protection to those relatively few White Guys, regardless of seniority or connections, who have actually expressed an original thought now and then. It shouldn't be that hard to find them. Perhaps we can have a Survivor-type contest.

Political magazines are a different matter, partially because of ideological factors that complicate the usual "professional" issues about bylines. But as Katha Pollit of The Nation points out, some magazines have selection criteria that tend to discriminate against women. Of course, one magazine she fingers, The New Republic, has a reputation for discrimimating against anybody who didn't get an Ivy League education (which doesn't keep Un-Ivied me from reading every line). And many magazines discriminate against writers who doesn't tow the party line, which gives the white guys who've been towing this or that party line since adolescence yet another advantage. The only quick way I can imagine to loosen up the magazines is to encourage them to keep losing money, which might in turn encourage them to diversify their voices, in many cases by tapping the more diverse voices they already feature in online editions.

And then, ah yes, there's the blogosphere, where the gender bias can't exactly be blamed on Old Guys like me, since the median age of notable bloggers is about 25. And here there is a chicken-and-egg dilemma, since the demographic of inveterate blog readers seems to echo the smart-ass-white-boy demographic of blog writers.

But the good thing about blogs is that for all the complaining about sponsors and back-scratching links and mainstream infestation, any woman can get out there and compete, and the recent effort to get more notice for female bloggers is an example of healthy market-based initiative.

Personally, I'm paralyzed by ignorance and inertia from providing blogroll links to much of anybody I didn't know about when I started this thing last fall. If that means I'm paying less attention to wo-bloggers than I should it's certainly not a matter of bias; I've long considered myself a lesbian trapped in a man's body. So I'm more than happy to discover and link to women who share my general point of view, and/or have something distinctive to say.

In the end, the best way for women to get their fair share of the bloviating biz is for us all to push for a meritocracy that elevates talent and a distinctive voice over "representantive" versions of the same old Left-Right CV. And unfairly but inevitably, women will earn those prized high-profile journalistic gigs by performing at a level that makes bias or tokenism or role-playing irrelevant. It will require, in the words of Lucinda Williams, "real live bloody fingers and broken guitar strings."

UPDATE: I have been reliably informed that The New Republic's staff isn't any more Ivycentric than any other publication in Washington, which goes to show how stereotypes persist even when they are wrong. I should have known that, since I work at a place reputed to be the stomping grounds of Southern White Men, which is in fact led by a Hoosier and an Idahoan and is loaded with Californians. I regret the error.
-- Posted at 11:58 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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