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Missing Since 9-11: Women's Voices

13 December 2001

"Just when you think you've heard all the stories from 9-11, more emerge," Tom Brokaw announced on an NBC Nightly News segment saluting the heroines of Ground Zero, who have received next to zero media attention since the attacks.

On the Dec. 4 broadcast, firefighter Lieut. Brenda Bergman described racing into the flaming destruction everyone else was fleeing, risking her life to save others. So similar to hundreds of heartwrenching tales we've all heard from New York firefighters, Bergman's experience sounded unfamiliar when told in a woman's voice.

Perhaps that's because it took nearly three months for NBC to discover that women rescue workers have toiled 24-7 at Ground Zero every day since the attacks. "The fact that the faces of women haven't been in the news or ... in the media is not reflective of reality," Bergman told NBC.

Nor is reality reflected on the networks' political-debate shows, which frame and influence the public debate. According to a study released last week by the White House Project, a nonpartisan women's leadership group, women were just 11 percent of guests and 7 percent of repeat interviewees on five Sunday morning talk shows on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and FOX between January 2000, and June 2001. Roundtable participants were not counted as guests, nor were journalists connected to the network.

During those 18 months, for every one woman appearing on the shows, there were nine guests with names like Tom (Daschle), Dick (Armey) and Harry (Browne). Their post-9-11 addendum study yielded even more pitiful numbers: For six weeks after the attacks, guest appearances by American women plummeted 39 percent.

"Fox News Sunday" and ABC's "This Week," which both interviewed just one female guest in the period studied after Sept. 11, might as well be renamed "The Man Show."

The networks claim the "man show" effect exists simply because political supply does not meet diversity's demands. "You tend to want to go to a committee chairman or a leader of one of the parties, and right now they're mostly male," Marty Ryan, executive producer of "Fox News Sunday," told The Washington Post. NBC's "Meet the Press" executive producer Nancy Nathan told me that her largely female audience would be "insulted" is s he were to "try to manipulate" the news to bring on women, rather than just "delivering newsmakers."

So, there are "newsmakers," and then there are women? Who knew they were mutually exclusive?

If producers are gunning for committee chairs or party leaders, they could book guests like Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Democratic whip and ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, or Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) or Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chair Senate committees on terrorism. They're certainly qualified for the journalistic hotseat - but they're not being called. John Wayne wannabes, bombastic and blue-suited, are.

Beyond politicians, the study found that female guests were systemically underrepresented in every category - from elected, government and foreign officials to media representatives and private professionals - disproportionately to their presence in those fields. Take political activists: I've yet to hear one good reason why the Rev. Jerry Falwell got six chances to spread his anti-feminist, anti-gay gospel on these shows, and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume was able to advocate for civil rights on five occasions - yet Feminist Majority President Ellie Smeal and Human Rights Campaign President Elizabeth Birch, both fiery guests, appeared once each.

The broadcast blackout of women's views is mirrored on the op-ed pages of three of the country's leading daily newspapers. According to a survey I conducted for the media watch group FAIR, women wrote only 8 percent of bylined opeds for The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today in the month following the terrorist attacks.

Locking women out of these editorial forums gives us a skewed perception of America's political leanings. For example, an early-October Gallup poll showed that women's support of the war on terror drops up to 30 points compared with men's when they are asked conditional questions, such as whether they would support war if it would kill 1,000 American soldiers, last for an extended period of time or lead to an economic recession. A Washington Post poll showed similar results.

If women had equal access to the oped pages and the Sunday morning talk shows, it's likely we'd have heard about this significant difference between men and women's perspectives on terrorism and war. Instead, our mostly male punditocracy declared the gender gap non-existent in today's "different kind of war."

Vigorous journalistic debate is intrinsic to a healthy democracy, but our media are neglecting to reflect the voices of half the population. This invisibility of women homogenizes public debate, distorts public opinion and fails not only women, but America.

Jennifer L. Pozner.
Published in Newsday (Long Island, New York).
2001 Newsday Inc.

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