Who’s Asking? Women and Questioning Power

Campaigns in America are an excruciatingly long job interview, through which the media is supposed to represent the public in vetting the candidates for office. Now, as Andy Lewandowski commented in his last blog post, often that media system is deeply flawed. People in the news media do not always embody the principles of some angelically designed “Fourth Estate,” but instead easily fall victim to cynicism and horse race politics. And despite the rising importance of social media for both spreading news and asking serious questions of our politics and policies, the traditional, mainstream press still plays a leading role in providing information and examining those in power. Who makes up the body of the press, then, is vitally important.

The “bodies” in the press, and bodies/persons/topics covered by the press, shape our knowledge and understanding of the world. If those bodies are all of one type—say white, and male—then the perspectives and worldview they offer to the public can often be narrow.

While all realms of diversity are equally important, this post focuses on gender issues in the media. It is not news that the mainstream press has a male bias problem. For example, The 4th Estate, a research group that examines the press and how it covers issues, found that men are quoted about five times more in news stories than women on issues that are socially referred to as “women’s issues.” In examining news coverage of all election topics, men were still more likely to be quoted than women. What I am concerned with here is the make-up of the press itself—how its own internal gender makeup can also lead to a sort of silence on issues important to women.

This current election cycle has been curious, not only for the way in which attention paid to women’s issues toward the end of the campaigns has played out as women have been increasingly seen as vital voters, but also for the roles particular women have played in covering the campaign. Three quarters of all presidential campaign coverage is written by men, according to a report by the Women’s Media Center, which used information from The 4th Estate. However, milestones were still achieved by women in media.

Gwen Ifill, managing editor and moderator of Washington Week on PBS, and Judy Woodruff, senior correspondent with PBS’ Newshour,became the first all-female team in history to cover both political parties’ conventions. Martha Raddatz, senior foreign affairs correspondent for ABC News, moderated the 2012 vice-presidential debate. Candy Crowley, chief international correspondent for CNN, was the first woman in 20 years to moderate a presidential debate (she moderated the second debate of 2012). Interestingly, Crowley took strong control over the town-hall style debate, a format where questions largely come from the audience, and are not normally chosen under the discretion of the moderator. It is the same style of debate that was given to the first female moderator of a presidential debate, Carol Simpson, who saw the role as designed to be “the lady with the microphone,” with no specific agency to direct questions to the candidates and to push back against their answers. Crowley, by all accounts, went above and beyond that role—and even caused a stir by stating prior to the debate that she planned to ask her own follow-up questions. She and Raddatz performed their roles well by asking tough questions and following up after the candidates responded. This stands in strong contrast to Jim Leher’s universally-panned performance as moderator of the first presidential debate of the 2012 election. But the debates are only a few nights in a long, long campaign process—and only a sliver of gender diversity issues in media and politics.

The question I am concerned with is this: beyond the 2012 campaign, who will be asking questions of those in power? Can the media ensure the full chorus of voices gets to ask pertinent questions regarding how policies, philosophies and actions could affect those similarly embodied? To assume that any journalist can act as an “everyman” is a flawed, outdated view. Men might be able to inquire into a politician’s record on birth control; they might even see it as a very important issue that deserves coverage, or have issues with it in their own lives. But, they do not—they cannot—know what it is like to live in a woman’s body and to have the concerns that women have on a day-to-day basis regarding their own health and needs.

While this campaign season saw women playing a prominent role in asking questions directly to the candidates and their parties, I do not see a similar picture emerging beyond Nov. 6th. Looking at the news media as a whole, according to statistics found in the Women's Media Center's "The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2012 Report", women make up 37% of newspaper newsrooms and 40% of those working in TV news.  Furthermore, only one of the three major network newscasts is currently anchored by a woman: Diane Sawyer of ABC’s World News. None of the major Sunday talk shows such as Meet the Press, This Week or Face the Nation are anchored by a woman.[1] Even our satirical news programs, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, which do often feature major policy leaders as guests, are both anchored by men. When the next iteration of David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel or Valarie Jarrett—all senior advisors to President Obama, both past and present—stop by to do an interview on any one of those programs, they will most likely be questioned by men. Women’s issues might be discussed in these interviews, but by and large, those questions will not be spoken by women.

As this fiercely fought election season draws to a close, and we look ahead to either four more years under an Obama administration or a switch to a Romney presidency, it is a good time to reflect on what comes after Nov. 6th not only for our presidential politics, but for the future of our media’s interactions with the body politic.

Campaign coverage can be dizzying, a nonstop barrage of information and analysis from road stops, conventions and debates. What comes after the election is the serious work of policy craft, and the watchful eye of the press is just as needed there as it is during the campaigns. The question of whether the particular gendered embodiment of the press has any real or lasting impact on the formation of policies related to gender is not one for which I have an answer. In fact, there might not be an easy or simple answer. I do believe, however, that who is asking questions of those in power should be as representative to the country’s diverse makeup as possible, and that those representations can imbue those questions with new shades of meaning.

Given the continued debates and discussions on issues traditionally labeled as “women’s issues,” let’s all keep an eye out for who is asking the questions.


[1] On a historical note, I would like to point out that Meet the Press was co-created by a female journalist: Martha Rountree. Her impact on what is now the longest running television series in American history sometimes feels forgotten. The Newseum has no items dedicated to her on exhibit; meanwhile, Tim Russet’s entire desk and a portion of his office are enshrined there.

Infographic: The 4th Estate

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Jennifer Young is an alumnus of the Communication, Culture, and Technology program at Georgetown University. In her research, she investigates the ways new media is transforming citizenship, political identity, and political culture. Her master’s thesis, for which she developed a novel methodology, explored the practices of political conversations on Facebook. She is a 2010 graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, with degrees in Government and Politics and Communication