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P.D. Lesko

P.D. Lesko

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.”

P.D. Lesko is founder of A2Politico.com and publisher of a national higher education publishing group. She also writes about Detroit for the HuffPost’s Detroit page and has written analysis and commentary for such publications as The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe, and Salon.

December 22, 2011 · Filed under Lesko Tags: , , , ,

58 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jack Lessenberry // Dec 23, 2011 at 5:30 am

    Ms. Lesko raises some good points, but it may also be that Ballenger has more credibility in the eyes of some simply because he has vastly more experience than Demas; he was in the legislature himself, for example, a decade before she was born, and has held a variety of other state jobs.

    In my view, nobody has more credibility than Kathy Barks Hoffman, the AP Lansing bureau chief.

  • 2 Eric Freedman // Dec 23, 2011 at 8:47 am

    These observations about the situation in Michigan are consistent with studies that my MSU Journalism colleague Fred Fico and I have done into use of expert sources in coverage of U.S. Senate and gubernatorial elections nationally. Using content analysis, we found that the proportion of female experts cited in election news stories is significantly smaller than their proportion in the overall pool of such experts (such as political scientists).

  • 3 P.D. Lesko // Dec 23, 2011 at 10:07 am

    @Mr. Lessenberry first let me say that I am delighted to be able to say at our party tonight that THE Jack Lessenberry commented on something I wrote.

    Now while I may be exposing a lack of political polish, and Ms. Barks Hoffman may have AP cred ’til Tuesday, the fact remains that Mr. Ballenger is the go-to guy for one of the news sites (MLive, owned by Advance) that claims to reach 40 percent of the total population/news market in southeastern lower Michigan. So we have to ask ourselves why Ms. Barks Hoffman doesn’t get the call or email or get quoted as frequently as you. After all, as you wrote, no one as more credibility than she does.

  • 4 P.D. Lesko // Dec 23, 2011 at 10:12 am

    @Mr. Freedman, thanks for your comment. Have you published the results of your research? I researched such studies, and didn’t come across it, alas. In fact, most of the research I found had been done by non-academics, which surprised me.

  • 5 Jack Lessenberry // Dec 23, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    In part this may be because Kathy Hoffman is a straight news reporter, and while she can analyze events to some degree, she is not free to express opinions in the way Ballenger or I can.

  • 6 St.julian // Dec 23, 2011 at 6:09 pm

    Is this the same person 1) wrote an attack blog in Ann arbor under an assumed name, 2) denied she was the author , 3) ran for mayor in Ann Arbor with a campaign of misinformation, and 4) suffered a lopsided loss?

  • 7 Susan J. Demas // Dec 26, 2011 at 9:09 am

    Thank you for including me in your column, but I do not write for Capitol Confidential.

    I apologize for not being as old as my male counterparts, but it is a goal I am aspiring to one day.

  • 8 P.D. Lesko // Dec 26, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    Ms. Demas, I apologize. You write for the Michigan Capitol Chronicles (http://blog.mlive.com/capitolchronicles/news_detroit/index.html). Your pieces have been linked to by the Capitol Confidential numerous times! As for your age, keep working at it. Eventually, you’ll be as old as your male counterparts. Thanks for the comment/correction.

  • 9 Eric Freedman // Jan 3, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    As requested, here are two of the gender-sourcing research studies I referred to:
    • “Male and Female Sources in Newspaper Coverage of Male and Female Candidates in U.S. Senate Races in 2004.” (Freedman, Fico & Love). Journal of Women, Politics & Policy
    • “Gender Diversity Absent in Newspapers’ Expert Sourcing of 2006 U.S. Senate Election Coverage” (Freedman, Fico & Durisin) Newspaper Research Journal (2010)

  • 10 P.D. Lesko // Jan 3, 2012 at 6:26 pm

    Mr. Freedman thanks for providing the information on the studies you and your colleagues did on this subject.

  • 11 Liz Homer // Jan 7, 2012 at 8:06 am

    For crying out loud folks, the issue here is the lack of fair representation of women’s opinions and expertise in the Michigan media. It is by no means clear to me that the current representation is the best representation Michigan can do as far as women an miniorities are concerned. From many years of feminist advocacy I can only thank Lesko for bringing up the issue and tell her that the response is typical. However, lots of times this kind of initial back talk is surplanted by a little bit of change for the better.

  • 12 Gloria Woods // Jan 7, 2012 at 11:55 am

    Publications like Dome Magazine and others should look at their readership. What is the percentage of female readers? Do you care to have more of us? Or, maybe your readers would like a better handle on how women think about current policy and leadership? If so, find more smart, articulate women (there are lots, really guys) to write columns.

    Maxine Berman is wonderful and she is not the only woman who is bright, witty and has an informed opinion! Find more!! Susan Demas and Kathy Barks Hoffman are great but not enough!

    And while you’re at it, keep adding diverse voices to reach a diverse audience. All women (and men) are not white or straight, and a diversity of representation usually guarantees a diversity of thought and opinion.

    Many thanks to Ms. Lesko for her piece and to Dome Magazine for publishing it.

  • 13 Gail Trill // Jan 7, 2012 at 5:12 pm

    Reminds me of when Gov. Granholm was elected & made a point to say that we should make sure parents read to their kids. The white male press went head over heels to point out how the female gov was wasting time on such unimportant stuff. Now all the male pols are saying it, so it’s big news. We need diversity in every walk of life, especially the press.

  • 14 Liz Homer // Jan 9, 2012 at 10:10 am

    I wonder how many pundits will lend their support to Senator Whitmer’s op ed in the Free Press today. I hope a lot.

  • 15 P.D. Lesko // Jan 10, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    @Liz, thanks for sharing this link. Looks like it got lots of comments (kind of typical Freep discussion) and lots of shares of Facebook.

    When President Andrew Jackson ran for office, his opponents called his wife a whore (there is speculation that her divorce was not final before she became involved with Jackson, then married to him).

    Senator Whitmer is one of a handful of female legislators in Lansing—kinda like a woman in a barber shop. She might be surprised by her colleagues’ sexist comments, but no woman who works in a traditionally male-dominated field would read her piece and come away shocked. Disgusted, perhaps, but shocked? Nope.

    It’s an election year. Instead of an op-ed, she should bring forth a formal resolution to sanction Jones for his comments/behavior and make every man in the Senate go on the record voting either for or against the “boys will be boys” excuse.

    It wouldn’t be politic, of course, but it would be hardball.

  • 16 Greg Thrasher // Jan 11, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    Super commentary..For the record DOME does not have a Black pundit on staff.

    For the record I was the first Black Guest Pundit for DOME only after I had to convince him DOME’s exclusionary practices was not good for the state nor the credibility of DOME.

    For the record DOME made a series of excuses why I would not be allowed to published on a regular basis..

    Presently DOME continues in this myopic policy of no Black staff ot Black pundits being published .

  • 17 Editor // Jan 11, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    For the record, Dome does not have a white, black, pink, green or purple pundit on staff. Dome has no staff. None. And among our regular columnists, I’m sure Bill Johnson would be surprised to hear that he’s not African American.

  • 18 Greg Thrasher // Jan 12, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    For the record, DOME did not publish the commentary of any Black authors until May 16, 2010!!!

    I had to compel him to publish my commentary (The legacy of racism makes minorities distrustful of U.S. Census) I rejected the one time token opportunity and pursued a regular column.

    I am not surprised at all that after my efforts to become a regular DOME columnist and my concerns about the zero presence of Black pundits on Dome it could create a conduit for the efforts of Bill Johnson.

    For the record Bill is a friend of mine .

    Greg Thrasher
    First Black Columnist on DOME Magazine

  • 19 P.D. Lesko // Jan 13, 2012 at 8:53 am

    @Greg, thanks for the kind words. I would agree that in Michigan’s media, at large, the number of expert sources quoted who are people of color is miniscule. The number of featured columnists of color who write for the Detroit newspapers is equally miniscule. The NY Times just appointed its first female head editor (the paper was founded in 1851).

    As a higher ed publisher, I am always on the lookout for writers with unique voices. That means I read loads every day. I find that because I read widely, it’s more likely I’ll stumble on different kinds of writers who are not writing for the mainstream media, but who are singularly talented. I snap ‘em up when I’m able and they’re willing!

  • 20 Greg Thrasher // Jan 13, 2012 at 3:10 pm


    I echo your observations it is simply foolish and unproductive to just mine the fields with the usual suspects harvesting the same tired themes and insights etc.

    I look forward to augmenting your publications with my threshold commentaries. My body of work provides a diverse perspective backed by a diverse person which as you noted is a miniscule presence in far to many media outets and forums.

  • 21 Kyle Melinn // Jan 13, 2012 at 9:41 pm

    I’m proud to have Susan J. Demas as the full-time deputy editor of the MIRS political newsletter.

  • 22 Greg Thrasher // Jan 14, 2012 at 10:12 am


    Are you proud of your lack of people of color @MIRS?

    It is a fine publication but it also suffers from the same cultural blindspot as P.D and I have commented on.

    We are now into 2012 the absence of diversity @ MIRS really does not enhance the publication on many levels.

    Perhaps I can help.

  • 23 P.D. Lesko // Jan 15, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    @Kyle, great to see your web site. You might give Susan credit for the title you say she has on your own web site, where she is listed as the Senate Reporter, not a “deputy editor.” (http://www.mirsnews.com/staff.php) @Greg’s observation that there are no regulars of color also seems to be accurate.

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