As Politics Evolves, Punditry Stalls

Christmas came early last week for progressives across the nation. As I watched the press conference where President-Elect Barack Obama officially announced his security team, I was giddy to count the number of women that he'd chosen (1-2-3) and the first African American to head the Justice Department -- as if they were long-awaited gifts under the tree.

But like that kid on Christmas, I found that getting a few gifts only made me want more. Especially when I heard Obama say the following during the press grilling that followed:

"I assembled this team because I'm a strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions. I think that's how the best decisions are made. One of the dangers in the White House, based on my reading of history, is that you get wrapped up in group think and everybody agrees with everything and there's no discussion and there are no dissenting views. So I'm going to be welcoming a vigorous debate inside the White House."

But what about outside the White House?

As your civics teacher first told you in an overcrowded classroom on some never-ending afternoon, there are many facets to a healthy democracy. The appointment of Senator Hillary Clinton, Governor Janet Napolitano, Susan Rice, and Eric Holder is thrilling because it means that the executive branch is going to be more representative of the American people, and in line with Obama's philosophy, the best ideas will emerge from a process of vigorous debate among diverse thinkers.

But what about that other critical ingredient to a democracy that doesn't just function, but flourishes: a public debate that draws on all of the best resources and wisdom that the country has to offer? Doesn't Obama crave the same kind of representation, the same meeting of dissimilar minds, the same chance to see the most worthwhile policy ideas, opinions, and strategic thinking rise to the top? He certainly can't appoint media owners or pundits, but he has -- thus far -- missed an opportunity to express his dismay at the still overwhelmingly white, male make-up of American media, home of our anemic public conversation.

Let's start at the top. Kristal Brent Zook, author of I See Black People: The Rise and Fall of African American-Owned Television and Radio, reports, "Women of all races own just 5 percent of the 1,400 commercial broadcast television stations in America. People of color, who make up 33 percent of the national population (and will be more than 50 percent by 2050), own just 3.6 percent." But what about radio, favored medium of so many sharp-tongued and strong-willed politicos? Brent Zook also reports those abysmal numbers: "Women and minorities own just 6 and 7.7 percent of all broadcast radio stations in the country respectively. This means that listeners in an average radio market have 16 white male-owned stations to choose from, but just one woman-owned and two minority owned alternatives." Check out Out of the Picture and Off the Dial, two reports put out by Free Press, a D.C.-based media reform organization, for even more inexcusable statistics.

Think it doesn't matter? Think again. According to Free Press, having a minority- or female-owned station in a market is significantly correlated with a market airing both conservative and progressive programming. More diversity means more vigorous debate means a more enlightened democracy.

Media Matters did a two-year study of the four major Sunday talk shows and found that out of over 2,000 guests, 77 percent were men and 82 percent were white. Latinos, despite comprising 14 percent of the population and rising, were just one percent of the guests.

The op-ed pages of the major newspapers, certainly a site for public dissent if there ever was one, are also overwhelmingly white and male. Most studies have found that somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of newspaper op-ed pieces are written by women. Bob Sommer, who researches public policy at Rutgers University, recently found that men wrote 82 percent of the op-eds by academics in the New York Times and 97 percent of those in the Wall Street Journal.

And if you think new media is immune, you're wrong. Jessica Wakeman, former employee of The Huffington Post, reports in Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) this month that despite its liberal political bend, HuffPo is not so affectionate toward women. It is the most linked-to blog, yet only 23 percent of the featured posts in a nine-month period were written by female pundits.

This may seem disconnected from the changing tide of government that so many of us are happily swept up in this winter, but in fact, the quality of public debate and the quality of our government's performance are intimately connected. Political leaders read the op-ed pages, watch the Sunday morning talk shows, and listen to political radio to keep their finger on the pulse of the American people. They are influenced by folks like Tom Friedman and Bill O'Reilly, whether they like to admit it or not, when shaping new policy, shedding old systems, and expending precious energy and political clout.

We waited too long for real diversity in government. But it's beyond time we saw that same diversity on the nation's airwaves, in its newsprint, and online. The American public, who consumes this overwhelmingly white-and-male media, must speak out -- write letters to network owners and television producers demanding more diversity on the shows that you watch and listen to, and the newspapers and websites you read. Threaten to withdraw your support if you don't see real results. Start to consider what you might contribute to public debate -- whether in the form of an op-ed for your local newspaper or starting a neighborhood blog. It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a whole nation to truly enliven and enlighten a president.

One of the biggest problems on the op-ed pages is undoubtedly a supply-side issue. The New York Times reports that many opinion editors at major newspapers attest that only about a quarter of unsolicited op-eds that they receive are penned by women. Organizations like the Op-Ed Project (which I, full disclosure, have ties to), are teaching women and people of color how to write op-eds and navigate the submissions system so that editors won't have that excuse any longer. Trust your own outrage and pen your own commentaries.

If you're not comfortable opining as an expert, at least opine as a consumer. Promote op-eds by women and people of color when they make it into your local or national paper of choice by emailing the link around to your friends and colleagues, commenting on the piece, and/or writing a letter to the editor supporting the inclusion. Let opinion editors and television producers know that you're ready for fresh voices. Celebrate them when they take the leap -- as has MSNBC by giving the brilliant Rachel Maddow her own show.

Organizations like those quoted above -- the Women's Media Center (another organization I am connected to) Free Press, Media Matters, FAIR etc. -- must be supported and grown. These groups are keeping an eye on the networks and newspapers to make sure that they include the whole range of faces and ideas that will influence the next eight years of national leadership to be better than the last. (Added bonus: We finally have a president whose philosophy of governance actually includes listening and reflecting!)

I hope that Obama will recognize the link between public debate and quality governance, but some of the responsibility is in the hands of the people. As we celebrate the dawn of a new era in American politics, it's important that we remain steadfast about seeing the same kind of revolution take place in the world of public discourse.