Commentary Magazine


Team Media: Identity Police

It’s always nice to start the day with a good chuckle, and a good chuckle—perhaps a throaty ho ho is nearer the mark—is just what hit me when I picked up the Style section of the Washington Post the other day. Above the lead story was the headline and subhead: “Obama media pool lacks racial depth: White reporters still dominate major beat, but does it really matter?”

It’s the last clause that got me. How could it really matter? The premise seems to be that an influx of black reporters would provide the White House press pool with a sensitivity to the subtle modulations of a black president, and to racial matters in general, now lacking in the bodies already slumped in the seats of the briefing room. But the premise is silly. You’d be hard-pressed to gather another band of reporters more supportive of the president’s interests than today’s White House press corps, notwithstanding their Mormon-like monochrome. Fill the seats with Sasha, Malia, and all their classmates from Sidwell Friends, and Jay Carney, the president’s spokesman, couldn’t have an easier time of it than he already does. Why do they call it a “media pool”? They’re all in the tank! Ho ho ho.

Buried in the headline writer’s premise is another premise, one far more insidious and pervasive. This is the racial and sexual determinism of our progressive establishment, which has absorbed the unexamined belief that how an individual man or woman thinks and what he or she does are controlled by biology—by their sex and race. It is an idea with a long and unhappy pedigree, of course, but it accounts for the obsession with a bogus definition of diversity that has become a crippling feature of life in American business, government, and education. The American media’s monomania about their own racial and sexual composition is just one example, but a telling and inescapable one. Endless conferences are held, exhausting studies are undertaken to record the melanin counts and enumerate the genital profiles of American newsrooms. Meanwhile, no one notices that the kind of diversity that truly enriches the reporting of news—a wide variety of cultural ideas, political views, and religious beliefs—is the kind of diversity that’s lacking from almost all mainstream news outlets.

The obsession with sex and race is a particular project of the Poynter Institute, a journalism school that sends missionaries to newsrooms around the world from its mother church in St. Petersburg, Florida, to indoctrinate journalists in what it calls the “power of diversity.” Its unsleeping work includes a bizarre analysis released this summer by a pair of graduate students in journalism. Poynter commissioned the students and their academic adviser, a journalism professor named Alicia Shepard, to note the sex of every source or expert cited on the front page of the New York Times over the first two months of this year. (Whenever you question whether America remains an unimaginably rich country, remember that we can still afford to give graduate degrees in journalism to young people who count the chromosomes behind the news.) They reported their findings with church-lady huffiness: “The New York Times is one of the world’s leading news organizations,” they wrote on the Poynter website. “But there’s room for improvement—especially when it comes to diversity.” In the 352 front-page stories they studied—give those kids a graduate degree!—they found that “Times reporters quoted 3.4 times as many male sources as female sources.” The source ratio fell or rose across types of articles, from soft features to foreign news, but men were always on top. And female reporters were almost as bad as the Timesmen.

I say the Poynter study was bizarre, but that doesn’t mean it was unprecedented, certainly not in the funhouse world of the mainstream media and the professional kibitzers who study them. A couple of years ago, a similar study was performed by the then ombudsman for NPR—Alicia Shepard again, who is apparently the mainstream media’s multi-platform gender cop. Over the course of eight months, Shepard found that only 26 percent of sources cited by NPR were women. During the last national election, a group calling itself the 4th Estate issued a report with the ominous title “Silenced.” It came complete with “infographics” for those activists unaccustomed to reading. Even on such subjects as abortion, the group found, reporters were more likely to quote men than women by as much as seven to one. “The gender gap undermines the media’s credibility,” the researchers concluded.

There’s no evidence that any normal readers have noticed this “gender gap”—those readers, I mean, who don’t get paid to notice it. Perhaps they haven’t noticed it because its effects are so obscure, which is to say, impossible to find. The American Society of Newspaper Editors never tires of reminding its members that only a little more than a third of their editors and reporters are female, and less than 10 percent are “minority”—figures that are roughly repeated elsewhere in the news media. Yet the ASNE has yet to tell its members how this injustice shows up in their news judgment or any other aspect of news coverage. The sexual and racial “imbalances” did nothing to prevent mainstream reporters from eagerly making “the Republican war on women” a major news story in 2012, never mind its inherent implausibility; and they didn’t prevent editors from turning the otherwise obscure killing of an African-American teenager in Florida into a morality tale about race relations in the United States.

The diversity lobby—which, in the news business, includes both the lobbyists and those being lobbied—operates under the creative logic of “disparate impact.” Any practice that produces a racial composition different from the general population is discriminatory on its face. We can’t underestimate how deeply this shabby reasoning has settled into the mind of progressive America. None of the accounts of the gender gap—neither the studies themselves nor the tut-tutting commentary—even makes an attempt to prove that it is the result of discrimination or low intent, or that it has affected coverage for the worse. Discrimination on the basis of race or sex in order to bias the news would be a genuine problem. But the obsessions of contemporary progressives yank them right past any genuine problems into a cul de sac of their own devising, into a world of pure ideology. As one editor wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review: “Tackling the infamous problem of a ‘lack of diversity’ is a lot more complicated than just hiring a more diverse staff.” Even becoming diverse doesn’t solve the problem of diversity!

It is in the nature of ideologues not only to ignore problems that truly exist but also to invent elaborate ways to solve problems that don’t exist. The gender gap in news sources is no exception. Several organizations have built online clearinghouses of expert women (whole binders full, as Mitt Romney might have said). These can be consulted by any reporter on deadline who’s lately got the evil eye from a managing editor because of all the men she’s been quoting. The most prominent is SheSource, “the go-to resource for journalists, bookers, and producers seeking women experts to appear on TV and quote in print media.”

I spent a couple of hours surfing the SheSource website one afternoon, Googling the women listed as experts in everything from social justice to entertainment. Maybe I missed one here or there, but I couldn’t find a Republican in the bunch. Instead I found the executive director of feminist.com, and a professor of peacebuilding in Washington D.C., and the publisher of Ms. magazine, and the co-founder of the American Islamic Congress.

And Alicia Shepard.

About the Author

Andrew Ferguson, who appears monthly in this space, is the author of Crazy U, now out in paperback and on the Kindle.