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National NOW Times >> Spring 2002 >> Article

Viewpoint: News Shows Leave Women's Voices Out of the Discussion

Millions of people gathered around their televisions on September 11. Some listened to radios, some went on the Internet, but mostly they watched TV. For days the networks and cable news channels ran no commercials, entertainment programs or sports — only news. When people wanted up-to-date information they could rely on, they tuned to ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and, yes, even the Fox News Channel.

Now that primetime TV is back to normal, the Sunday morning political shows — like NBC's "Meet the Press" and CBS's "Face the Nation" — have again become the most visible place for critical talk on U.S. and world affairs. These shows are where government leaders and issue experts tell us what we need to know. Or rather, what they want us to know.

And who's doing the telling? According to a new report by The White House Project — an organization committed to moving more women into positions of leadership, including the U.S. presidency — it's mostly white males. "Who's Talking? An Analysis of Sunday Morning Talk Shows" looked at the guests who appeared on the Sunday public affairs shows on the five networks noted above. Here are some of the findings:

  • From January 1, 2000 to June 30, 2001, women represented only 11 percent of all guest appearances on the Sunday political talk shows, even excluding all of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Of all the guests who appeared more than once, women made up only 7 percent

  • In every category of speaker and on every topic, women were under-represented in terms of speakers, experts and elected officials. This was especially true for guests invited more than once. For example, male senators enjoyed 245 total repeat appearances (that's an average of nearly three times for each of the male senators), while female senators were asked back only eight times (an average of less than one repeat per female senator).

  • Not a single woman senator of either party was a repeat guest on the ABC or NBC shows. On CBS, every woman repeater was Republican, as well as on FOX, with the sole exception of Donna Shalala.

  • Women guests got 10 percent less air time than men and were slightly more likely to appear in the later, less prominent segments of the shows
After the events of Sept. 11, the situation worsened. Women's appearances dropped from 11 to 9 percent. In fact, there were so few women guests that when the six appearances by Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan's Ambassador to the U.S., are excluded from the data and only U.S. women guests are counted, the number falls to seven percent. This is a drop of 39 percent in the appearances of U.S. women from the preceding 18 months.

The shows' hosts and producers quickly excused themselves from any responsibility. The reason that they invite so few women on these shows, they say, is that so few women occupy high positions. The producers look to the important people, most of whom are still white men.

It's true that women are under-represented in our government, making up only 13 percent of the Senate and 14 percent of the House. But women officeholders are even more under-represented when it comes to political talking heads. Further, when the study looked at guests who appeared as private professionals, an area where women are considered to have made great strides, they were only 19 percent of the total.

Why is this so important? Because these political talk shows don't just reflect reality, they help shape it. "These shows actually confer leadership; they bestow authority," said Marie Wilson, president of The White House Project, at the Dec. 5 release of the report on Capitol Hill.

A number of women members of the House attended the briefing. These representatives struggle every day against institutionalized sexism and the Old Boys Club. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., pointed out women in the room who serve on prominent committees and would bring a wealth of knowledge to the talk shows. "The media define the players," said DeLauro. "When I was first running for office, as soon as my ads went on TV, people knew who I was. Because they watch."

This is where a vicious cycle comes into play. Feminists are working to get more women elected. The women themselves are working hard to get into office. But the less visible they are, the less likely they are to reach potential voters. And their absence on TV as experts and leaders serves to reinforce the notion that women are not strong leaders. One of the reasons we still have so few women governors and mayors is the old-fashioned and deeply-rooted concept that women are not cut out to lead cities, states and countries. Women will never be able to move ahead in these arenas until these gender stereotypes are shattered — and the media are slowing our progress.

"In order to engage young women in the political process, they must see women leaders," said DeLauro.

The same can be said for women in the military, science and rescue fields. Girls are encouraged to move into these occupations when they see women who are already there. The media had, and blew, a golden opportunity to include women in its coverage of the nationís response to September 11. When the U.S. retaliated in Afghanistan, the media needed experts to talk about military strategy. They turned to doctors to talk about Anthrax and other health risks. They called on Middle East experts to talk about the country and the people, and on economists to talk about needed stimulus. And they covered the efforts of fire fighters, rescue workers and police responding to the attacks and threats. But still no women.

Despite the fact that there are many female experts in these fields in the real world, women were virtually absent from the coverage of those and other issues that consumed the country in the months after September 11.

It's true the TV world is not the real world, and the media are not charged with helping women break the glass ceiling. Television is nothing if not a money-making business, and the way the money is made is by selling advertising to deep-pocketed business interests.

And it's here that we uncover a large part of the problem. Women still make up a very small part of the people at the top of this exchange — the CEOs and Presidents of the advertisers and the top executives and decision-makers at the media outlets.

While a great number of women work in the advertising industry overall, the vast majority of decision-makers are men. According to Catalyst, a research organization, women are CEOs of just five of the Fortune 500 companies and nine of the Fortune 1000. Twenty-five percent of the Fortune 500 don't have a single female corporate officer.

And who are they doing business with? With media corporations that are equally dominated by men. Earlier in the year the Annenberg Public Policy Center released a study, "Progress or No Room at the Top? The Role of Women in Telecommunications, Broadcast, Cable and E-Companies." Among their findings:

  • Women make up only 13 percent of the top executives of media, telecom and e-companies, and only 9 percent of their boards of directors. Women are 10 percent of the executives in media/entertainment companies, and 20 percent of top executives at the major news networks.

  • Women are 10 percent of telecom and cable executives and 10 percent of their board members; they are 16 percent of the executives in Fortune's top e-companies and only four percent of their boards.

  • Women make up 26 percent of local TV news directors and 17 percent of local TV general managers; they are only 13 percent of the general managers of radio stations The only promising number in the report is that 38 percent of the network news bureau chiefs are women. These women need to hear from us. But the men need to hear from us too — from the local news director right up to the CEO of the big conglomerates that now own most of the media. Especially at a time like this, when information is so important, women cannot be excluded from the public discussion.

    The media and the public benefit when women's voices are included — and our daughters benefit from female role models. But this is not about putting women forward just on principle — it has real value. Women still experience the world differently than men — more are caregivers of the young and old, more have experienced poverty — and women generally empathize different issues of concern to them. On average, women still live longer and are paid less than men. Health care, child care, social security, education and the economy are important issues to women. And if these issues are important to half our population, they need to be getting more air time on the political talk shows.

    NOW is conducting our own media study. For the third year in a row, NOW will issue a Watch Out, Listen Up! report in Summer 2002. This time, in addition to analyzing entertainment programming, we will also look at the news, with a focus on local newscasts around the country. For information on how to sign up to help review television programming, click here.

    Through the Watch Out, Listen Up! campaign NOW is educating women and girls and encouraging them to speak out about the mediaís power to affect womenís issues. We need the media to advance our efforts, but we cannot allow them to continue to disregard our interests and our lives. At a time when we are cheering the beginning of liberation for Afghan women, we should be able to turn on our TVs and see our own women leaders.

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