Monday, February 12, 2007

Democracy Now! and the Gender Gap

Democracy Now!, the largest progressive media collaborative in the country, calls itself “The Exception to the Rulers.” But when it comes to inclusion of women as sources, DN! is not so exceptional.

A friend turned me on to Pacifica Radio’s daily newsmagazine shortly after 9/11. Since then, I have listened to it almost every day. I’m in good company. As host Amy Goodman reminds us at the end of each broadcast, they are broadcasting on over 450 radio stations in North America, including Pacifica, NPR, community, and college radio stations; on public access, PBS, and satellite television, and podcasting on the internet.

Sometime in September, as election coverage started to take over more and more of the hour, it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember when I had last heard a woman on the show other than Amy. I looked at their website, to see if my perception was correct. In fact, in the seven weekdays from September 21-29, Democracy Now! interviewed only one woman on the show. The one woman interviewed during that week, the wife of a military resister who had turned himself in, was not the main spokesperson on the issue.

Was this an aberration? I didn’t think so, but I didn’t want to jump to conclusions. I started going through the last several months’ shows and recording who was interviewed about what. Eventually, I decided to analyze the whole year.

The facts

Women were 28% of all guests on the show in 2006.[1] 38% of broadcasts did not interview any women, while 4% did not interview any men. 78% of the time, there were more men than women on the show. Most broadcasts contained 2-3 interview segments; 35% of segments included women; 82% included men.

While these numbers make it clear that women were seriously underrepresented on DN!, looking at which segments most often include women and which do not is more revealing.
“Experts” - journalists, authors, scholars, filmmakers, lawyers, and staff of major nonprofits - make up the backbone of DN, as of any news magazine. These experts were 58% of all guests in 2006, supplemented by activists and people with a personal stake in the issues (you might say “victims”). Only 22% of expert guests were women.

When only one person is interviewed on an issue, that person is most likely to be an expert, and thus most likely to be male. A majority of segments consisted of interviews with only one person, 75% of whom were men. Similarly, people who are invited onto the show regularly are mainly experts. Of 34 people interviewed at least three times during the year, 24% were women.

Women were underrepresented on almost all topics covered on DN! in 2006. I identified 272 separate topics covered. Women were never interviewed on 59% of them, while men were not interviewed on 15%. Out of the top 28 topics (ones on which at least six people were interviewed in two or more segments), women were a majority of those interviewed on only two: AIDS and “women’s issues.” Women’s issues,[2] including such topics as women in Iraq, sexual harassment, abortion and the death of Betty Friedan, were addressed by 22 speakers during the year. Only one of those “women’s issues,” sexual harassment in the military, made it into the top 28 by itself. There was no topic among the 28 on which men were not interviewed, including, obviously "women's issues."

Women were 26% of people interviewed about Iraq, 25% on Israel/Palestine, 14% on Lebanon, 39% on New Orleans, and 26% on subjects related to U.S. elections.

What it means

These statistics signal a serious lack of attention to the inclusion of women’s voices.
They are far better than those for mainstream public affairs programs, such as Fresh Air with Terry Gross, the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour or Meet the Press. In a cursory look at Fresh Air’s recent broadcasts, I had to go back nine shows to find one woman guest. In the last six months of 2006, 8 of 92 guests on Meet the Press, or less than 9%, were women.

On the other hand, a 2005 study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that in 45 different news outlets, “More than three quarters of all stories contain male sources, while only a third of stories contain even a single female.”[3] By this analysis, DN is neither better nor worse than average - 35% of its stories, or just over one-third, included women; 82%, or over three-quarters, included men.

I don’t believe Democracy Now is deliberately booking more men than women, although, since the show is hosted by a woman, she or her producers may feel their gender bases are covered. More likely, they are simply failing to rise above the social reality that men still have more power in this country than women.

In this country, men are a majority of college professors (72%), reporters (63%) and bestselling nonfiction authors (68%).[4] So a list of expert sources on most subjects is likely to be top-heavy with men. Women were 42% percent of lawyers interviewed on DN! last year, but only 21% of public officials, closely reflecting the proportion of women in those professions nationwide.
If, though, Democracy Now! and other progressive media want to have gender parity, there are a number of things they could do to improve their chances:

1) Stop privileging experts over activists, and rethink who is an expert. Rather than acting as gatekeepers to make sure that only those with the right credentials get on their show, the producers of a program called Democracy Now! might think of their mission as democratizing the airwaves by giving a voice to people who don’t have access to other media.

KPFA Pacifica’s daily talk show Against the Grain has a policy against interviewing anyone more than once a year. Their goal, says former producer Sasha Lilly, is not to create movement stars but to air a diversity of perspectives. Seymour Hirsch and Robert Scheer, both smart and interesting guys, don’t actually need Democracy Now! to get their ideas out; they both write regularly for major U.S. newspapers and magazines. By giving more air time to ordinary people who are doing things to increase democracy in their own communities, DN! would do more to foster democracy now.

2) Cover a broader range of issues. Of the 609 segments produced in 2006, 309 (51%) were devoted to 24 topics. Only two segments all year dealt with India, one with China, none with Romania, El Salvador, Guatemala, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, or Rwanda.

Stories that DN! did not cover at all in 2006 include:
· National Coming Out Day
· Women’s History month
· the burgeoning feminist protest movement in Iran
· welfare
· the arrest of all six progressive members of the Philippine Congress on sedition charges
· the first major United Nations report on violence against women
· organizing by restaurant workers, hotel workers or exotic dancers
· the coming out stories of WNBA MVP Sheryl Swoopes and Wimbledon champion Amelie Mauresmo
· the arrest and trial of Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho for exposing a child sexual abuse ring
· the approval of the morning after pill for over-the-counter use
· the ongoing women’s peace camp outside a U.S. air base in Scotland

3) Cultivate women as sources on issues that are covered frequently. Katha Pollitt, Urvashi Vaid and Cynthia Cockburn, none of whom were on DN! last year even once, are as knowledgeable and articulate as Seymour Hirsch, Dahr Jamail and Noam Chomsky, each of whom was on at least 3 times. There is no subject on which there are no women experts, from nuclear physics to the nuclear family. If at least half of the people on your list of sources are women, there’s a good chance of achieving close to parity.

4) Don’t assume that women need men to restate what they’re saying or put it into a broader context. In activist circles we joke that if a woman has a good idea, a man should repeat it and take credit for it. The media version of this is that women are interviewed as victims or activists and men are interviewed, often more at length, for political analysis. But women, given the chance and encouragement, are usually more than competent to provide their own analysis.

Some years ago, when Helen Mirren burst into the limelight as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennyson, a reporter asked her if she was going to fight for better roles for women on television. She said no, she was going to fight for better roles for women in the world, that television mirrors society.
Democracy Now! did not create male supremacy; it simply reflects it. Alternative media, however, should not just mirror society but critique it. Will Democracy Now! live up to this challenge or will women be left asking, "Democracy When?"

Postscript:  After publishing this article in 2007, I invited Amy Goodman, along with Katha Pollit, onto my radio show, Women's Magazine.  As gently as possible, I pointed out to Amy the show's lack of gender parity.  She seemed pretty surprised and took the critique seriously.  Two years ago, I decided to do the analysis again, to see if the numbers had improved at all.  To my disappointment, the statistics for 2008 were a little bit worse than those for 2006, both in terms of overall percentage of women guests - 26% down from 28, and broadcasts with no women guests - 40% up from 38.  That year, I also surveyed The Nation, probably the leading progressive weekly print magazine.  It did not fare any better:  Women made up about 27% of contributors and 25% of sources.

[1] This data counts only people who were actually interviewed on the show (either recorded or live), not people whose voices were heard in features, clips of movies or radio documentaries, brief news stories, Congressional hearings, or vox pops (audio collages).
[2] In fact, all issues are women’s issues, but not, as we have seen, according to the media.
[4] Interestingly, women are 57% of best-selling fiction authors