Sunday shows offer excuses, not reasons, for male-dominated guest lists

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

On Sunday, Politico reported a finding by American University's Women & Politics Institute that "female lawmakers have composed 13.5 percent of the total Sunday show appearances by all representatives and senators this year." (That finding was consistent with a 2007 Media Matters study that examined all Sunday show guests -- not just lawmakers -- in 2005 and 2006, finding that about 80 percent of guests were men and roughly 90 percent were white.)

The reason for this disparity is simple: the Sunday shows do not prioritize the diversity of their guest lists. This is true of gender diversity, racial and ethnic diversity, and, too often, diversity of viewpoints and policy positions. (In the run-up to the Iraq war, for example, Meet the Press hosted nearly three times as many Democrats who supported the Congressional measure authorizing the use of force as Democrats who opposed it -- despite the fact that a majority of Congressional Democrats opposed the measure.)

But the people responsible for producing Sunday shows don't want to say that they don't prioritize the diversity of their guest lists (maybe they don't even realize that they don't prioritize diversity.) So they come up with other explanations. If the Politico article is any indication, their current approach seems to be to blame women:

The shows' producers bridle at the criticism, saying that, despite their strong interest in booking more women, the shows must be topical and reflect the reality that men still hold more of the most influential and newsmaking positions in Congress.

And they say some congressional women — Nancy Pelosi chief among them — do not help the cause by making themselves so difficult to book. Most producers say they try to recruit female lawmakers nearly every weekend but receive a steady stream of rejection slips.

"I've probably asked her 25 times. She is just unwilling to do it," Betsy Fischer, executive producer of NBC's "Meet the Press," said of Pelosi. "Literally, I have our booker e-mail her every Monday, but she's not available. She does not seem to be making herself accessible."

Other Sunday show producers agreed that some leading female politicians need to make a more concerted effort to make themselves available when the shows call, which the producers assert is often.

It is, I think, quite revealing that a Sunday show producer defends her team's efforts to book women by saying they've tried 25 times to book one woman, rather than saying they've tried to book 25 women.

If you were trying to increase the number of women who appear on your Sunday show, would you A) keep inviting the same woman over and over again, despite the fact that she has declined 25 invitations and despite the fact that you think she is "just unwilling" to be your guest, or B) Find other women to invite?

Nancy Pelosi is not the only woman who could be a thoughtful and engaging guest on a Sunday show. If you know she's going to reject an invitation -- and a 25 consecutive declined invitations is a pretty good hint that she will -- then time spent each week wooing her is time that could be better spent seeking a woman who will accept the invitation. If, that is, the goal is to increase the number of women who appear on the show. But clearly that isn't the goal; the goal is booking Nancy Pelosi -- or, perhaps, being able to say they tried.

The simple fact is that if Sunday shows wanted to book women, they could. There are plenty of women available -- in Congress, in the Obama administration, in think tanks and advocacy organizations, writers, pundits, etc -- to appear on television.* Just as there were plenty of Democrats who opposed the authorization for the use of force in Iraq. Booking them just wasn't a priority.

Some defenders of Sunday show booking practices will, at this point, object that, as Politico paraphrased them, "the shows must be topical and reflect the reality that men still hold the most influential and newsmaking positions in Congress."

Baloney.

If that's sufficient reason to exclude Hypothetical Congresswoman X from consideration, how to you explain the fact that John McCain -- who holds no leadership position, chairs no relevant committee, and had basically no involvement in the health care debate at the time -- was booked to discuss health care reform?

So, again, the stated reasons for the lack of women on the Sunday shows don't hold water. The only reason that does make sense is that the shows simply haven't prioritized booking women (or minorities.) Now, that may be defensible -- the shows do, and should, have priorities other than diversity. There could be a useful discussion to be had about the relative weight that is, and should be, given to those priorities. But the people responsible for the Sunday shows apparently don't want to have that discussion; they'd rather pretend that they're doing everything they can to book women and blame the small handful of women they reach out to for not accepting their invitations.

* Note that I wrote that there are plenty of women available to appear on television, which does not mean there are "plenty" of women in Congress or think tanks or news organizations, all of which could benefit from greater gender diversity.

Posted In
Diversity & Discrimination, Gender
Network/Outlet
CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN
Show/Publication
Meet the Press, This Week, Face the Nation, State of the Union With Candy Crowley
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