Earlier this month, the Washington Post announced the winner of its America's Next Great Pundit contest. The competition came down to three finalists: author Courtney E. Martin, social media consultant Zeba Khan and Teach for America executive Kevin Huffman. After several weeks of challenges and eliminations, Huffman, a gifted and insightful writer, was declared the winner, his prize: a 13-week stint on the paper's opinion page. Huffman joins one of the most impressive lineups of opinion writers in the country -- a lineup that is 87% male.
That women are stunningly underrepresented in op-ed journalism, be it in print or in television punditry, is hardly news. According to the White House Project, women represent only 16% of the guests on Sunday morning political shows. In the first five months of 2008 the Washington Post op-ed page ran 654 columns by op-ed contributors, and 84% of those contributors were men. And the Post certainly wasn't the worst offender - according to data collected by The Op-Ed Project, a mere 6.8% of op-ed columns contributed to the Wall Street Journal between August and October of 2009 were written by women.
Given these figures, it was not surprising to see a man become America's Next Great Pundit. Despite the Post's attempts to make the contest as new media-oriented as possible, by setting blogging challenges and by allowing readers to email in questions for the contestants, it seems that the patterns of old media were nevertheless reproduced.
And in this contest, as in much of new media. Though over 50% of bloggers are women, the opinion sections at some of America's most respected online publications continue to be dominated by men. Between August and October of this year, only 20% of the Huffington Post's front page opinion columns were written by women, a proportion that dwarfs the corresponding number at Salon, which was a mere 12%.* The primary consumers of new media are young people, a Twitter-crazed generation raised in the post-feminist era, many of us too young to remember Katie Couric as anything other than a serious prime time anchor. So why, when it comes to pundits, does new media look so much like old media?
The answer is that despite the fact that my generation of women was raised to believe that we could do or be anything we wanted, our culture remains deeply uncomfortable with women who speak their minds. Reading through the comments on the video challenge of the Washington Post contest, in which voters commented on the women contestants' appearances instead of engaging with their ideas, it is clear that many voters simply couldn't comprehend the co-existence of intelligence, youth, beauty and femaleness that both female finalists represented.
If my generation falls into the trap of failing to believe that women can be insightful and powerful commentators, we are hardly to blame. We are products of our time -- a time when women like Couric and Rachel Maddow are establishing themselves in the male-dominated field of punditry -- but we are also products of the people who raised us. Our parents' media, old media, is one in which a highly respected publication can go ten consecutive days without publishing a single op-ed contribution by a woman, as the Wall Street Journal did in August of this year.
But we -- young people, and young especially young women -- can do better. New media, despite its distinctly old-fashioned start, still represents an enormous opportunity to shape for ourselves the kind of public discourse we want to have. It is from our ranks that America's next great pundits should come, and it is our responsibility to support them when they do. Furthermore, new media represents our chance to genuinely participate in changing the face of our nation's public discourse. The men to women ratio of submissions to the Washington Post contest was eighty-twenty, a distinctly old media proportion. Young women can and must do better than eighty-twenty. It's time for us to change the conversation. It's time for us to sit down, log on and be the change we so desperately need to see in the world.
* The numbers for the Wall Street Journal, Salon and HuffPost are from a soon to be released report by The Op-Ed Project (I wrote it and did the research for it), the results of which have been tracked at their Byline Blog.
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