THE BLOG
10/18/2012 03:52 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2012

Why Media Diversity Matters

Despite that there is a "war on women," the topic of women was absent in last week's presidential debate. To some extent this is surprising considering their stance on women is one of the biggest differences between the two candidates. But it's also not so surprising. When it comes to women in the U.S. government and media, the numbers are pretty pitiful and, as in the case of the debates, sometimes women are simply invisible. This scenario puts women in a position to have their interests exclusively represented by men where men decide whether or not women's issues make the cut. But even when women's issues are the topic of conversation will men really be able to accurately represent them? Will the media ever truly be a good vehicle for women and their stories? Not unless women have the option to run the show, ask the questions, and answer them in their own voices. For when women are invisible, their voices are not just lost, their victories are as well.

While many issues were not discussed in last week's presidential debates, one of the particularly unsettling aspects of women's invisibility was the fact that there had been some effort made to change this. Three high school girls created a petition noting that it had been 20 years since the last time this country has had a woman moderator. And their petition succeeded. But not entirely. Despite that journalist Candy Crowley was selected for the role, she was not given the option to actually ask the candidates any questions. She has been selected to moderate the "Town Hall" debate, where the audience will ask the questions. Some argue, her role in the debates is more akin to Vanna White than that of a moderator.

This scenario is just one example in which women's voices and their perspectives are put on the back burner. In fact, even popular liberal news shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report barely touched on the fact that women's issues were not discussed in their October 4th coverage of the event. The fact that this is an issue even in liberal media attests to how serious this problem is. But it also a problem that exists outside of the debates and the major news networks which is something that became quite clear to me from watching one episode of the online liberal news show, The Young Turks.

The Young Turks is the biggest online news network, and receives incredible views on YouTube. Unlike the major news networks, they can talk about whatever they want and feature whomever they choose. It has no allegiance to any particular party. Host Cenk Uygur largely speaks from a liberal perspective, one that includes pointing out racism within the Republican party and cursing out Republicans for their sexist comments (though in the latter case this was done by co-host Ana Kasparian). It's good that The Young Turks take the time to discuss these topics, but as you can see most instances of this relate to the GOP and other backwards groups.

Unfortunately some of the issues surrounding their September 26th programming required some more detailed observation of how the 'isms were rearing their ugly heads. There were two news stories about women in their program, and in both cases The Young Turks failed to take the women's perspectives into account. (Clearly this would have been a good episode in which to bring Ana Kasparian on board, but she was not present.)

First, was their coverage of Hong Kong billionaire Cecil Chao and his daughter Gigi Chao, presented by Uygur's correspondent, John Iadarola. To Cecil Chao's dismay, Gigi Chao eloped to France to marry her girlfriend of seven years. And, because he believes this would destroy his daughter's public image, he is offering no less than $65 million dollars to any man who will convince her to marry him. Right after presenting this information, Iadarola and Uygur started making jokes about how to seduce a lesbian. As if lesbianism is a temporal state of mind or a costume you can take on or off.

While The Young Turks did comment on how ridiculous the situation was, amongst their jokes about seducing lesbians, one thing they did that was particularly unsettling was attempt to defend Mr. Chao and his intentions. Presenting the facts and Mr. Chao's quotes to Uygur, Iadarola said, "He seems to be doing it... with some good intentions. His quotes would lead me to believe that. So he says, 'I don't mind whether he's rich or poor. The important thing is that he's generous and kind-hearted.'" "And a guy," interrupts Uygur. "

"And a guy," continues Iadarola, "But he also says that the money is just, 'an inducement to attract someone who has the talent but not the capital to start his own business.' So he does want not just some creep. He wants a successful, ambitious man." Iadarola later concludes, even after Uygur reminds him that this argument still leaves out a "critical part," that, "Yeah it's creepy, but you know, he's doing what he can."

While Uygur did continually remind Iadarola that no matter how nice Mr. Chao was, he didn't accept that Gigi Chao didn't want a penis in her life, both men failed to cover Gigi Chao's take on the situation. The entire episode was a speculation about what the proposal meant, but did not include any information about the person who would be most affected by this proposal. And that, as it turns out, is the real news story.

If you were a woman or LGBTQ person watching this episode, Ms. Chao's situation would mean a lot more to you than $65 million dollars. Rather than being some captive victim, Gigi Chao said she was "touched" by her father's proposal. Not taking the proposal itself seriously, Ms. Chao thought of it as a testament to her father's love for her. Interesting as that response sounds, The Young Turks didn't bother to talk about it. And they barely mentioned the fact that Gigi Chao was actually already married. Even though gay marriage is not acknowledged in Hong Kong, one might think that if you wanted to get married badly enough to elope to France you may have actually wanted to marry that person. Especially if you've already been dating them for seven years.

So rather than go on and on about some kooky-homophobe, might it be more interesting to spotlight his game-changer daughter? Especially considering the fact that her love life is considered so controversial that Mr. Chao would shell out $65 million to quell it? (And the more recent reports of the incident do show she's a game-changer.) Shouldn't news focus more on people who are making a difference? Or is it convenient for some Western newscasters and audiences to file the story under "stuff-backward-Chinese-people-do?" (Please note, this will not be the last time you hear of this story though, since Sacha Baron Cohen is planning on making a movie about it.)

Unfortunately, this neglect for the woman's perspective occurs a second time in the same episode. After the Chao story, The Young Turks moved on to the Internet bully story of the week (or perhaps the year), Balpreet Kaur and the picture that blew up on Reddit. Balpreet is a Sikh and does not cut any of her hair because of her religion. And she has facial hair. A Reddit user posted her photo on Reddit with the subtitle, "i'm not sure what to conclude from this." Numerous comments followed, many that were not so nice. Then Balpreet commented on the post herself.

For those of us who read other coverage of this event, we see this as one of the greatest internet bully success stories. Had one not had access to these other news sites and only seen The Young Turks rendition of the events, much would have been lost. Their coverage was entirely based on the idea that Balpreet's actions were admirable, but that they were still ultimately "ridiculous" because they were in the name of religion. But you didn't have to be religious or an atheist to be proud of Balpreet. Just take a look at what she said:

By transcending societal views of beauty, I believe that I can focus more on my actions. My attitude and thoughts and actions have more value in them than my body because I recognize that this body is just going to become ash in the end, so why fuss about it? When I die, no one is going to remember what I looked like, heck, my kids will forget my voice, and slowly, all physical memory will fade away. However, my impact and legacy will remain: and, by not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues and hopefully, focus my life on creating change and progress for this world in any way I can. So, to me, my face isn't important but the smile and the happiness that lie behind the face are. :-) So, if anyone sees me at OSU, please come up and say hello. I appreciate all of the comments here, both positive and less positive because I've gotten a better understanding of myself and others from this. Also, the yoga pants are quite comfortable and the Better Together tshirt is actually from Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that focuses on storytelling and engagement between different faiths. :) I hope this explains everything a bit more, and I apologize for causing such confusion and uttering anything that hurt anyone.

For many readers, especially women, these were some of the most important lines from Balpreet's post, not those related to her religion (which she explains earlier in her response.) Yet, The Young Turks didn't post this part of Balpreet's response and only chose to comment on the aspects of it that appealed to their anti-religious views. Which in turn, would also disregard the interesting things she said about women like her having to live up to "societal views of beauty," and how she was choosing not to do so.

Indeed this woman had something very important to say, and her words clearly resonated with readers. They even resonated with the original poster who wrote back a very genuine apology to Balpreet. They were a call for acceptance. To be accepted as you are, and to live in a culture that values a variety of different people and ways of living one's life. Of course, you might have to know what it's like to feel generally unaccepted to know why this is so important.

This first presidential debate and the coverage of the two Young Turks stories show us how much we're missing when women are invisible or censored in the conversation. And that this tendency to censor and ignore women's perspectives is evident even in alternative liberal media where no one has to answer to any sponsors or major news networks.

The problem, though, is not just that women are not getting a voice in media, it's that their success stories aren't being heard either. Perhaps it is glossing over stories of people like Gigi Chao and Balpreet Kaur, for example, that give clout to the idea that when folks are oppressed they just take it rather than rebel? And perhaps this same treatment of Candy Crowley might also give the same impression, and make us forget about the efforts of those three high school girls who fought to have her at the debate.

Fortunately some of us know that women are not simply complacent. We do have voices. But we have a responsibility to make those voices heard -- which is why more than ever we need to diversify the media and the rest of the world as we know it.