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.