The White, Male Face
of Political Punditry
December 23, 2011
Dome contributor Tim Skubick posted a piece recently which began, tongue firmly in cheek, “Men are smarter than women.” The piece included a link to a 13-question test of one’s political news I.Q. devised by the online PewResearchCenterInteractive. Skubick commented on why men had scored better than women on every one of the questions.
Skubick’s piece caught my eye because I’d been emailing with a contributor to my Michigan news site A2Politico.com. My question: “Why are most of Michigan’s mainstream media political pundits and analysts white men?”
Search the term “Michigan politics” online and four names pop up repeatedly: Jack Lessenberry, Tim Skubick, Bill Ballenger and Nolan Finley. These four middle-aged, white men are quoted, re-quoted and block quoted by newspapers and news sites throughout Michigan.
Bill Ballenger edits his own political newsletter Inside Michigan Politics and is the MLive.com go-to guy for a comment on state politics; Finley writes for The Detroit News; Messers Lessenberry and Skubick both have multiple gigs as “political analysts” and columnists, including Dome.
Just about now you’re yelling Susan J. Demas’s name.
Demas is a syndicated columnist who writes for Michigan Capitol Confidential and MLive.com and has been a regular contributor and columnist for Dome. Her work reaches some 5,000,000 or 3,000,000 readers, depending on which of her bios you happen across. However, Demas is not quoted as substantively or as frequently as the four male political analysts mentioned above.
Research suggests this is because she’s a woman.
In 2005, The White House Project released the results of a study that revealed women experts were included as guests on national television news programs only 14 percent of the time. Five years later, NPR’s ombudsman turned a cold eye on the company’s own use of female experts. The results were damning. On “Morning Edition,” for instance, 75 percent of the sources interviewed and experts quoted were men.
NPR is not alone. Most of Michigan’s mainstream media political experts and analysts are not only male, but white. Perhaps it’s because the majority of top editors at newspapers in Michigan are white men.
The three large companies that own most all of the state’s newspapers (Advance/Booth, Heritage and Ogden) are all headed/owned by white men. The majority of the 148 Michigan legislators are men. The state chairs of the Michigan GOP and Michigan Dems are white men.
Let me recognize that both politics and the mainstream media have seen women rise to top positions. Michigan just saw its first female governor leave office, and the first female editors-in-chief took control of major newspapers in the U.S., South Africa and the U.K. over the past 24 months. Be that as it may, both politics and the news business are still essentially men’s clubs.
Obviously, political punditry and analysis of Michigan politics are not gender-specific activities. Be that as it may, Susan J. Demas’s syndicated columns for MLive might reach millions, but the fact is that Bill Ballenger is the MLive go-to guy for a quote, the expert. He has more cred as an “expert” in political analysis than Susan J. Demas, and not because his opinions and analysis are more astute.
So what’s the answer? That depends on whether Michigan’s news consumers, newspaper, radio, and news site owners, editors and producers care that much of their political analysis is generated by a pool of journalists the size of a teacup.
Michele Weldon might ask whether Michigan’s news producers care about producing what she refers to as “deeper content.”
Michele Weldon is an assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern University. She explains: “Inclusiveness is required in good journalism. When we think of diversity of sources, the notion is not limited to race, ethnicity or gender. It is also about age, socioeconomic status, ability, geography, ideology, education, religion, sexual orientation, everything.”
She continues, “Why bother trying to find sources that reflect the diversity of society? Because it makes the journalism better. Because, as I wrote in my last book, Everyman News, diversity of thought changes content. Just by asking the same question of a different type of source, you will yield different responses and ultimately deeper content.”