Networks to Women: “Never on Sunday”

Female legislators are conspicuously absent on Sunday morning talks shows, observes Eric Alterman.

Part of a Series
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has not appeared on any Sunday morning talk shows this year. (AP/Denis Poroy)
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has not appeared on any Sunday morning talk shows this year. (AP/Denis Poroy)

In a column this past Sunday entitled “No Mystique About Feminism,” New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat observes, “When historians set out to date the moment when the women’s movement of the 1970s officially consolidated its gains, they could do worse than settle on last Tuesday’s primaries.” Douthat notes that the female victors won largely running as conservative Republicans, and he offers ambivalent support for Sarah Palin’s claim in her now infamous “mama grizzlies” speech that these new candidates were forging an “emerging, conservative, feminist identity.” Douthat argues that “whether or not Palin or Fiorina or Haley can legitimately claim the label feminist, their rise is a testament to the overall triumph of the women’s movement.” In doing so, he could not resist taking a swipe at what he termed “the peculiar left-wing misogyny that greeted Palin’s candidacy.”

One of those misogynists, one assumes, would be Amanda Marcotte, author of It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments, who usually writes on the Pandagon blog. She finds Douthat decidedly off base. Responding to his (and Palin’s) claim that right-wing women who do not support a women’s right to choose or equality in the workplace have the right to call themselves “feminist,” Marcotte writes that “Real feminists find themselves unimpressed with the notion that there can be a feminism based around rich, powerful women passing policies that destroy the possibility of equality for all other women in the country. Nowhere in the centuries-old definition of feminism is there a phrase explaining that equality is only for rich, white, straight, married mothers with conservative politics.”

And indeed, if Carly Fiorina thought of dipping into the feminist supply depot, she should not have begun her campaign with one of the cattiest remarks ever made by a newly minted Senate candidate in recent history.

Women will have an awfully long way to go before reaching political equivalency with males in the electoral arena, regardless of how many of them run in this election cycle. Though women are a majority in the United States—and of late, have vastly overtaken men in educational achievement—they make up just 17 percent of House and Senate membership. This is obviously something likely to change over time, but it will take a long time, as politics has historically been almost as much a boys’ club as, say, boxing. After all, the arc of history bends toward justice—but awfully slowly.

One area where this gender imbalance could be corrected with greater alacrity is in the media. The most influential perches for opinion making in American politics are the Sunday morning talk shows, and yet it is there, surprisingly, that women are even worse represented than they are in the House and the Senate.

According to research by American University’s Women and Politics Institute—and written up in Politico and elsewhere—women legislators accounted for just 13.5 percent of the total Sunday show appearances by all representatives and senators this year, which means they have even fewer opportunities to shape debate than their meager numbers in both houses would imply.

One hundred and forty-eight congressional lawmakers have so far been interviewed this year on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “Fox News Sunday,” CBS’s “Face the Nation,” ABC’s “This Week,” and CNN’s “State of the Union.” Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman, Joe Lieberman (I-CT), has already shown up five times, just like Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ). House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) has gotten on the shows four times, with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Paul Ryan (R-WI) three times each.

In decided contrast, such influential figures as Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman, Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee Chairwoman, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, have earned a grand total of zero appearances between them. Politico quoted one press secretary to a significant female member, who declined to be identified, insisting, “There aren’t a lot of people calling us to do Sunday shows… They largely go back to the same people, week after week. They’ve done a poor job of tapping into prominent female leaders, and that’s not just a problem for women on the Hill; it’s a problem for Americans because they are rarely hearing the women’s perspective.”

It is perhaps no coincidence that so many in the media are so eager to celebrate the so-called “Year of the Women” when the female candidates in question are so oddly out of sync with the views of most women in America, who, as is well known, trend far more liberal and Democratic than do men. The fact that Democratic and liberal women are so meagerly represented on Sunday morning is consistent with a pattern of conservative domination on those programs that has been visible now for decades, with one relatively recent study by Media Matters in 2006 on the guest lists of these programs between 1997 and 2005 clearly demonstrating the trend.

One might expect such patterns to change with the election of Barack Obama and two Democratic houses of Congress. But the change, if visible at all, does little to affect the larger pattern.

According to a more recent study published earlier this year on The Daily Kos, between January 2009 and April 2010, “six Sunday television talk shows [remain] dominated by men, whites and Republicans, particularly right-wing Republicans, with a geographical bias for the East and Midwest. This was true of the guests, reporters and pundits.”

The bias is partially establishment-driven. Bookers and producers demonstrate a weakness for the safe, predictable, and familiar. “The folks at Politico appear multiple times but nobody from TPM. You hear from the Washington Examiner, but nothing from the Washington Independent.”

During this 16-month period, “one independent Senator, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, made nine appearances, while the other independent, Bernie Sanders, made a single appearance.” The top invitees among politicians were: Republican Mitch McConnell, 25 appearances, Republican John McCain (21), Republican John Kyl (18), Republican Lindsey Graham (18), and Republican Mike Huckabee (13), who tied with the top Democrat Charles Schumer. Newt Gingrich, who doesn’t even have a current position in government, came in next, with 12 appearances.

Among pundits, Fox’s Juan Willams (56), Bill Kristol (56), and Mara Liasson (51) led the way, followed by ABC’s conservative George Will (44), Brit Hume (28), another Foxite and New York Times conservative David Brooks (20). The first liberal to make it into the mix was The New York Times’ Paul Krugman (16).

Bookers and producers questioned by Politico about their alleged inability to book liberal women representatives offered a whole host of excuses that purport to have nothing to do with politics. Perhaps they are telling the truth. But the numbers tell another story, and it’s one in which women, liberalism, and the country at large are the losers.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals . His “Altercation” blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

Explore The Series