White Men Are Everywhere

White males dominate Sunday political talk shows. But the overrepresentation does not end there.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA) on 'Meet the Press' at NBC studios March 8, 2009 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Matt Berman
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Matt Berman
Jan. 31, 2014, midnight

White dudes are all over your tele­vi­sion. Their faces stare up at you from news­pa­pers and homepages. They abound in U.S. polit­ics. They are le­gion.

And they’re def­in­itely on all of your Sunday morn­ing polit­ic­al talk shows. Ac­cord­ing to a new study from Me­dia Mat­ters, white men made up the ma­jor­ity of guests on every ma­jor Sunday show in 2013.

They made up 60 per­cent of guests on This Week, 67 per­cent on Face the Na­tion, 67 per­cent on Fox News Sunday, 62 per­cent on Meet the Press, and 54 per­cent on State of the Uni­on. On MS­N­BC’s two Sunday morn­ing shows, Up and Melissa Har­ris-Perry, white men wer­en’t a ma­jor­ity, but still a plur­al­ity of all guests (42 per­cent and 27 per­cent of guests, re­spect­ively).

That’s a lot of white guys, and it’s not at all rep­res­ent­at­ive of the over­all U.S. pop­u­la­tion, of which white men make up just 31 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent Census data. But this massive overrep­res­ent­a­tion isn’t just on TV. It’s the bed­rock of the U.S. polit­ic­al class.

Wo­men make up about half (50.8 per­cent) of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent census data, yet they com­prise just 18.5 per­cent of the vot­ing seats in the cur­rent Con­gress. That’s a total of 20 sen­at­ors, 79 vot­ing mem­bers of in the House, and three non­vot­ing del­eg­ates.

Minor­it­ies in the U.S. are also sig­ni­fic­antly un­der­rep­res­en­ted in polit­ics. Minor­it­ies make up about 37 per­cent of Amer­ica’s pop­u­la­tion, based on the most re­cent census data. Con­gress — sur­prise, sur­prise — isn’t nearly that di­verse. At the be­gin­ning of the 113th Con­gress, 15.5 per­cent of mem­bers were minor­it­ies (78 serving in the House and five in the Sen­ate).

This un­der­rep­res­ent­a­tion ex­ists in­side Amer­ica’s news­rooms, too. Ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey from the Amer­ic­an So­ci­ety of News Ed­it­ors, the per­cent­age of wo­men in news­rooms has barely budged in over a dec­ade, nev­er rising above 38 per­cent. Minor­it­ies, mean­while, have com­prised only between 12 and 13 per­cent of news­rooms in the last dec­ade.

So what’s hap­pen­ing here? A few years back, Jonath­an Chait, then of The New Re­pub­lic, at­temp­ted to tackle the ques­tion of fe­male scarcity in magazine mastheads in a let­ter to Jezebel. Here’s some of that let­ter, which is ab­so­lutely worth read­ing — and is much more nu­anced — in full:

My ex­plan­a­tion, which I can’t prove, is so­cial­iz­a­tion pre­dis­poses boys to be more in­ter­ested both in pro­du­cing and con­sum­ing opin­ion journ­al­ism. Con­fid­ence in one’s opin­ions and a will­ing­ness to en­gage in in­tel­lec­tu­al com­bat are dis­pro­por­tion­ately (though not, of course, ex­clus­ively) male traits. I’ve come across sev­er­al writers in my ca­reer who are good at writ­ing in the ar­gu­ment­at­ive style but lack con­fid­ence in their abil­ity. They are all fe­male.

I want to be clear that I am not de­fin­ing this as a non-prob­lem. It is a prob­lem. I have a young daugh­ter who, through my ad­mit­tedly biased eyes, has dis­played a curi­ous, mor­ally pas­sion­ate, and deeply ana­lyt­ic­al mind at a pre­co­cious age. I want her to grow up a fear­lessly opin­ion­ated wo­man. I would be very happy if she de­cides to enter opin­ion journ­al­ism. And I fear that some­where along the way she will re­ceive sig­nals that hold her back. That is the primary thing that I think needs to change.

This kind of so­cial­iz­a­tion is also a prob­lem for ra­cial minor­it­ies. And hav­ing a high con­fid­ence in your own opin­ion isn’t just an im­port­ant qual­ity for opin­ion journ­al­ists and pun­dits. It’s cru­cial for suc­cess­ful politi­cians, too. 

Vir­tu­ally every­one, every­where has giv­en their take on the pro­fes­sion­al fe­male con­fid­ence prob­lem since Face­book’s Sheryl Sand­berg pub­lished Lean In last year. The book ad­dressed the “im­poster syn­drome,” in which high-achiev­ing wo­men — and men, par­tic­u­larly from minor­ity groups — “can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a mat­ter of time un­til they are found out for who they really are — im­post­ors with lim­ited skills or abil­it­ies.” Im­post­or­ism is a feel­ing that can be in­cred­ibly tough to over­come in polit­ic­al pun­ditry, or polit­ics prop­er. It’s hard to be a Thought Lead­er™ but still feel like an im­post­or.

It’s not just a lack of con­fid­ence among wo­men and minor­it­ies that helps keep them un­der­rep­res­en­ted in polit­ics. Men, stud­ies have shown, of­ten ex­hib­it more over­con­fid­ence and ar­rog­ance than wo­men — the kind of per­son­al­ity traits that make it easi­er to enter the polit­ic­al class, but may also make it easi­er to be a worse mem­ber of it.

You won’t be see­ing many of the im­post­ors on your tele­vi­sion. The most com­mon Sunday show guests in 2013 were journ­al­ists, pun­dits, and politi­cians. So it should not come as a sur­prise that the guests were pre­dom­in­antly white and male. They come from a white, male world.

Han­nah Groch-Begley, a re­search fel­low at Me­dia Mat­ters who wrote Thursday on gender di­versity on Sunday shows, doesn’t think this is an ex­cuse.

“We do ob­vi­ously have a sys­tem in which white men are clearly more rep­res­en­ted in polit­ics, more rep­res­en­ted in me­dia,” she says. But book­ers on the polit­ic­al talk shows could still be mak­ing dif­fer­ent choices. She points spe­cific­ally to MS­N­BC’s Up and Melissa Har­ris-Perry, which stand out for their di­verse roster of pan­el­ists. “They’re put­ting ef­fort in­to mak­ing sure their shows re­flect the di­versity of the Amer­ic­an pub­lic, which journ­al­ists are sup­posed to serve,” Groch-Begley says.

A solu­tion would re­quire a chain re­ac­tion. Fea­tur­ing more wo­men and minor­it­ies on talk shows means em­ploy­ing more wo­men and minor­it­ies in polit­ics, which means, at least in part, tack­ling so­cial­iz­a­tion ste­reo­types and out­comes. In oth­er words, we still have a ways to go un­til our Sunday morn­ing tele­vi­sion, and our polit­ics, look a little less white-washed and a little more Amer­ic­an.

Full dis­clos­ure: The au­thor is a white man. As a child, he was a white boy. As such, he has been af­forded the lux­ur­ies as­so­ci­ated with be­ing white and male over the course of his life. He also works in the pre­dom­in­antly white, pre­dom­in­antly male field of journ­al­ism. He does, however, suf­fer from fre­quent bouts of im­poster syn­drome.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4695) }}

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